All politics, we have long been told, are local. In recent months, that equation has been reformulated as “All politics are loco.” With President Donald Trump’s proposal to cut every penny out of Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funding, clearly both are true. In the context of Trump’s $4.1 trillion budget, the $3.3 billion saved by gutting CDBG doesn’t qualify as even dead skin flakes harvested from the president’s sock drawer. But the pain inflicted by its evisceration will be massively disproportionate to the dollars and cents involved. For those Santa Barbarans who believe State Street has been occupied by zombie hordes of brain-eating homeless, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
The CDBG program is the federal straw from which local governments fashion the bricks that make up various housing and social service programs designed to help the poor. In the City of Santa Barbara, the numbers are not dramatic. This year, City Hall gets about $800,000 in CDBG dollars. Next year — when the cuts would go into effect, assuming Congress doesn’t get its head out of Trump’s gas oven — it will be more like $625,000. Of that, the lion’s share is slated for infrastructure projects, with about $150,000 going to programs for the poor in the form of small but essential grants. Those limited dollars are used to leverage matching funds many times over. Without them, a big hole will be ripped in the safety net — letting many of our neighbors fall onto the cement of State Street sidewalks. Trump’s latest budget relies heavily on massively bad math and the rhetoric of restoring greatness again. In reality, it’s a multitrillion-dollar attack on programs helping the bottom half in order to subsidize a couple trillion in tax cuts for those who have already won the lottery.
With a mayoral and city council election just about 150 shopping days away, the issue of homelessness will burn front and center. Downtown merchants — reeling from high rents, greedy and indifferent landlords, burdensome city regulations, a seismic shift to online shopping, a mass migration of flesh-n-blood shoppers out of the retail core and into the so-called Fun(k) Zone, and the onslaught of empty storefronts caused by all of the above — are hollering for relief. Specifically, they want more city cops to do more stuff to roust the bums on State Street. They want the State Street benches — on which the aforementioned bums perch — removed. State Street, it turns out, is dramatically over-benched and under-copped compared to similar cities. Hence we are over-bummed. And that’s why, we are told, downtown is significantly more empty-storefronted than the national average.
Last week, more than 100 tired and frustrated downtown business owners squeezed into the Louise Lowry Davis Center for an early-morning confab hosted by Mayor Helene Schneider in hopes of venting some spleen on all of the above. But in fact, those hopes were thwarted. The meeting was designed so various city officials could explain why the solution was not so simple and how much more was already being done to solve it than met the bare-nekked eye.
Being such an egregiously lapsed Catholic, I can’t remember if it’s the teaching of St. Francis or Pope Francis, but I’ve always gravitated toward another way when it comes to the shopping cart brigade and people hanging on by their cuticles. But it was the remarks of Daniel Burnham at last week’s gathering of merchants that really got my attention. Burnham happens to be the former CEO of Raytheon. He also happens to live on the top floor of the Granada Building and has for many years. And instead of focusing on rousting the bums and the disoriented, he had some suggestions that actually seemed effective ways of curing the downtown blues. In other cities, he noted, empty storefronts are not allowed to fester like empty maws. Landlords are required to maintain shop window appearances. Big “For Lease” signs send subliminal messages of economic decrepitude; they must be taken down. Landlords who let their properties remain vacant for months on end — insisting on rental rates at odds with all common sense — should be called out and penalized. Owners need to work with City Hall and merchants. Murals should be painted. All of this can be done by order of the City Council.
State Street’s woes are serious, and they go beyond street benches. My sources tell me that the recent Downtown Organization’s study suggests that beyond the very real threat of Amazon.com über alles, State Street might be an unsustainably long retail corridor. That same study shows that State Street rents are too damn high. It also indicates the State Street retail mix tilts excessively toward the tourist dollar. I got no beef with selling trinkets to the cruise ships. But where are the goods and services that a person living here actually needs and wants? The bums don’t keep me from shopping downtown. The fact that there’s nothing being sold downtown that I either need or want is the reason I don’t shop there.
Do we want apartments where Macy’s used to be? That’s a big change. Should cars be banished from downtown State Street? Should it become a big pedestrian promenade? What about pulling out the red carpet for some of the software companies incubating out at UCSB? Downtown workers making more than the minimum wage might be good for business. Hopefully, CDBG funds will survive the Trump budget. Maybe they won’t. Maybe street benches will be removed. Maybe they won’t. Either way, there will still be bums. So let’s talk about something else.