Before the Santa Barbara City Council could discuss the creation of a $3 million fund specifically aimed at addressing the growing housing crisis on Tuesday, Mayor Randy Rowse suggested that, “because of the variety of opinions” and “how completely complex” the issue was, that it was not ready for the council to fully deliberate and should be sent to the Ordinance Committee for a deeper dive.
Rather than wade into the murky discussions over housing — which has become issue number one in Santa Barbara — Rowse suggested that the council hear the staff’s report on the Housing Opportunities, Preservation, and Equity (HOPE) Fund, listen to the public comments, and skip on giving their own comments to allow the “more nimble” committee to do the heavy lifting.
“Otherwise, our fear is that we would have a very long, very circular discussion and end up going to ordinance anyway,” he said, “because there are just way too many options to consider at one time.”
The staff’s plan to distribute the funds was too complicated, according to some councilmembers and several members of the public — including representatives from the city’s Housing Authority, Santa Barbara Tenants Union, Santa Barbara County Action Network, and the League of Women Voters Santa Barbara — and it may not efficiently address the city’s housing needs right now.
When council established the fund in 2022, the idea was to have a dedicated funding source with $2.88 million allocated toward affordable housing and housing-related programs, and another $250,000 toward a “right to counsel” program to assist tenants fighting evictions in court. The version presented on Tuesday had both of these but differed in the way funds were distributed and allocated.
According to the staff report, the fund would provide households with assistance “to obtain or retain housing through approved providers” for residents making up to 200 percent of the area median income, which is considered “upper-middle income.”
For many of the advocates who spoke, the funds should be used specifically to build affordable, deed-restricted housing for the city’s lowest-income populations, instead of toward projects that would turn into housing for the city’s middle and upper-middle classes.
“We don’t think that the funds should be available to for-profit developers, unless they agree to keep the units deed-restricted affordable for 90 years,” said Stanley Tzankov, cofounder of the Santa Barbara Tenants Union.
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Tzankov said that he believes that the fund promises to be a “landmark program to create a stable source of funding to finance affordable housing,” but that it needs to go to “low-, very-low-, and moderate-income” residents.
Skip Szymanski, deputy director of the Housing Authority, doubled down on a letter from the organization disagreeing with the staff recommendation.
“Our position is very clear,” he said. “This is an opportunity to actually build and purchase affordable housing.”
He suggested that instead of a convoluted separate housing fund, with its own administrative and staff costs, that the city lean on its existing programs and use the funds to allow them to build and fund projects as soon as possible.
“If the city had this money available today, I could do a deal,” Szymanski said, “and I could be bringing that project to you.”
Despite Rowse’s suggestion, a few councilmembers felt it was necessary to speak on the subject and gave brief comments before moving the issue to the Ordinance Committee.
Councilmembers Kristen Sneddon and Meagan Harmon both supported the fund going toward production of “capital-A” affordable housing projects with a deed-restricted 90-year guaranteed affordability period.
“This fund is really about the production of housing; it always has been,” Harmon said.
Councilmember Eric Friedman suggested that staff work with the Housing Authority to explore a one-time allocation so that the city doesn’t lose out on a project before the fund is officially created, but agreed that the issue deserved a deeper discussion.
“This is the critical issue that we’re facing, and this is a tool we need to get right,” Friedman said. “And if we had gone forward tonight, there’s a chance that we might not have got it right.”
The council unanimously agreed to take the issue to the Ordinance Committee at a later date.