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Santa Barbara Mayoral Race puts the Spotlight on longtime NIMBY stronghold
This fall’s heated mayoral race shines a light upon housing and zoning politics in Santa Barbara, a city long known for its anti-growth mentality. The mayoral incumbent Cathy Murillo has 5 challengers, including former councilman and restaurateur Randy Rowse, entrepreneur, state legislative aid, and anti-racism activist (founder of Coffee with a Black Guy) James Joyce, longtime planning commission Deborah Schwartz, publisher Mark Whitehurst, and Matt Kilrain, “Boat Rat Matt”.
Santa Barbara has similar characteristics to many other affluent towns in California, such as a high cost of living, single family zoning, and quasi liberal politics. While many Santa Barbarans are adamant about being secluded, hence the parochial slogan “Not LA not the Bay,” it is a satellite of the LA Metro that is geographically separate but under LA’s cultural, economic, and political sphere, thus impacted by LA’s housing politics. While there were positive strides in historic preservation and protecting the Gaviota Coast from sprawl, Santa Barbara’s current slow growth strain has made adequate infill development impossible.
Santa Barbara’s demographics include working class Latino areas on the Eastside and Westside, young professionals downtown, college students from UCSB and City College struggling to find housing, and more suburban wealthy and upper middle class single family home areas, that have become increasingly geriatric as only the wealthiest of young families are able to get a foothold. The census shows that the City of Santa Barbara grew by just 0.3% over the past decade and a census interactive map shows the impacts that zoning restrictions have on Santa Barbara’s demographics, where the upper middle class suburban areas are experiencing White population decline, but with no significant increase among people of color, while the Westside and Eastside had Latino decline. There are anti-gentrification concerns but these changes show that the housing shortage impacts all demographic groups.
There is growing support for building more housing, especially among younger people, including service sector workers, college students, and young professionals, while well off older home owners tend to favor limiting growth. However there are also younger “progressive” activists who oppose any market rate construction on anti-gentrification grounds. Local politicians often try to find compromises between the influential Nimby block and anti-gentrification concerns by blocking market rate housing while approving only small amounts of low income units. This mentality is encapsulated by Santa Barbara Councilwoman Kristin Sneddon opposing a mixed use development outside her own, mostly affluent single family home district, stating that "The 16 affordable units are really important, but I just don't think they offset the 66 market-rate units and the impact."
My estimate of the support for the mayoral candidates is that incumbent Cathy Murillo, as the City’s first Latina mayor, still has strong support among the Latino community, along with backing from the democratic party, labor unions and progressive activists, but has lost support among moderate voters and from the business community. While Murillo has expressed support for building affordable housing, the number of new permits issued under Murillo’s mayorship has been very small. This is not entirely her fault as she has to work with city bureaucracy and the city council and appease different constituencies including NIMBYs. Polling shows that Randy Rowse has the best shot at defeating Murillo, carving out the moderate niche, and has strong support from older homeowners and endorsements from law enforcement and firefighter unions, and the chamber of commerce. He is now leading the mayor and all other candidates in donations. Deborah Schwartz is challenging Randy Rowse for the moderate and pro-business vote and also has support from small business owners and from developers and architects. James Joyce is challenging Cathy Murillo for the social justice vote, as Murillo struggled to appease Black Lives Matter activists, but also appeals more to affluent voters than Murillo.
Of the platform positions on housing and development, Randy Rowse states that “My plan for a uniform “intake” process and definitive scoping of discretionary design review boards should achieve the desired reforms,” but is vague about whether he is for more housing or not. As Councilman, Randy Rowse was sympathetic to the anti-development stance, stating about a proposed duplex that, ”If I were in the appellants’ position, I probably wouldn’t want an AUD next to me either, but the code allows it.” Rowse was also instrumental in blocking food trucks and initially opposed closing State Street to vehicles, but he later changed his tune once the project became successful. However he has expressed openness to allowing mixed-use development downtown stating that “We need to approach the projects that are in the pipeline to enable them to come to fruition sooner than later. We need to know why certain proposed live/work projects were abandoned.”
Deborah Schwartz has the strongest platform position on housing stating that “High land prices and local government practices that do not support reasonable permitting timelines are failing renters – resulting in the increasingly high cost of housing,” calling for making “middle-income housing for individuals and families a priority for new development,” and to “Balance growth and redevelopment to meet new and existing state laws and targets for creating a livable, diverse city.” In an interview Schwartz stresses her balanced approach, including a reverence for the natural environment, creating opportunities across all constituencies, wanting younger generations to stay, have families, and have a stake in the future. Schwartz also puts an emphasis on the missing middle in housing and income. She is not calling for radically changing zoning or raising the height limit but for reforming the regulatory process to make it easier to approve new projects without excessive delays, and to work within existing plans such as adaptive reuse to create more housing.
James Joyce’s platform on housing states that “The biggest developer in the City of Santa Barbara should be us, the people of Santa Barbara. We know that publicly funded housing through the Housing Authority is the most effective tool to combat the housing problems affecting our city. All we need to figure out is how to get them the money necessary to provide the public housing we need. Relying exclusively on for-profit private developers to build housing for those in need is not a roadmap to progress.” Joyce’s platform stresses racial equity and public housing but is tepid on reforming zoning. It is noted that former State Senator Hannah Beth Jackson, who Joyce was an aid to, was hired by the Montecito Association “to help guide them as its members lobby against” sb9 and sb10, and was the crucial no vote in defeating Scott Weiner’s zoning bill sb50.
Matt Kilrain’s platform states that he wants to “Stop the Middle Class Squeeze and Resolve the Housing Crunch.” Kilrain is also calling for a rent freeze, and in a questioner about improving declining State Street he says that “I would like to see State Street with Ma and Pa businesses downstairs and Ma and Pa living upstairs. I would like Ma and Pa to rent all of the vacant storefronts and upstairs residences.”
As for where the candidates stand on SB9, that ends most single family zoning, Mayor Murillo has expressed skepticism stating “whether or not SB 9 will help increase supply remains to be seen, but it will undoubtedly remake neighborhoods and accelerate gentrification.” She emphasized that “we need to build more affordable housing, but we also need to do it in a sustainable and responsible way. SB 9 undercuts our ability to do both.” In a questioner she stated that “The city has been focusing on housing development in areas already zoned for multi-family housing, along transportation corridors and commercial areas because new housing should be walkable and sustainable, near parks and schools. Unfortunately, the bill did not come with requirements for affordable or income- restricted units and a prohibition on housing being turned into vacation rentals.” It is noted that SB9 does place restrictions on short term rentals.
James Joyce also expressed skepticism about SB9 stating that “We should be realistic about what it means for our community, but we should do everything we can to support lawsuits and new legislation that protects local controls over our zoning. Santa Barbara has limited resources, as well as growing traffic problems. We need to be realistic about how we grow our city. We know the best way to grow our city is through adaptive reuse and mixed-use in our downtown areas, close to public transit and local business.”
Mark Whitehurst also expressed skepticism stating that “Santa Barbara should continue to respond to all state laws that do not match up to our current situation. Cookie cutter laws interfere with the flow of business, when they don’t fit the city, like SB 9. Some neighborhoods will be impacted more than others, we need to fight for flexibility. There are some parameters in place that can be used to monitor.”
Deborah Schwartz has expressed skepticism but accepts that the city will have to adapt to SB9, stating that “It’s very important to let the community know that cities can still impose safety standards and regulate design, which still gives us influence over neighborhood compatibility in project approvals. According to my recent communication with city planning, “staff has not yet inventoried parcels (that) may or may not qualify, but ... will within the next few weeks (while drafting) an ordinance." Schwartz acknowledges the exemptions under SB9 such as high fire risk zones, historic districts, and certain low income units.
Boat Rat Matt expressed the most openness to SB9 stating that “If people want to build duplexes they should be allowed to but not forced to build. The city should not be worrying about growing at this point and should be figuring out ways to take care of the people we have now.”
Randy Rowse is the most staunchly opposed to SB9 stating that “I feel that SB 9 should be resisted as strongly as possible. The force-feeding of greater density will affect low and middle-income neighborhoods by gentrifying single family homes and creating market-rate (not affordable) housing. Increased density doesn’t equate to affordability. Traffic and parking will increase to the point of diminishing our quality of life. Those who labored their entire lives to obtain a single-family residence will find their dream dashed by this legislation.” The more conservative Rowse expresses the same anti-gentrification concerns as the more progressive mayor stating that “the negative effects will be felt most by low-income neighborhoods,” and that as mayor he would "work with local coalitions to oppose" SB9's destruction of local control.”
Of the candidates Rowse is the most aligned with the slow growth side, Schwartz and Boat Rat Matt are the most pro-housing, while Murillo and Joyce are somewhere in between, both emphasizing affordable housing. There are signs of change, due to the severity of the housing crisis, and the candidates are under the spotlight to address the long neglected shortage. The question is how Santa Barbara adapts to the implementation of the mandated state law, as SB9 has loopholes on historic preservation zones, lot sizes, fire risk zones, and protecting low income housing. While these loopholes are reasonable, I expect Santa Barbara to use the loopholes and permitting process to slow down the implementation.
There is consensus that Santa Barbara needs more housing but no one can agree upon where to build it. There is very strong opposition to building in single family home areas but growing support for building more housing downtown. The problem with relying exclusively on downtown growth is that there is a limited supply of developable lots with the height limit further stifling how much can be built. Most of the new units downtown or along commercial corridors are smaller units and not adequate for families. In order to build enough larger family oriented market rate units, Santa Barbara is going to have to accept duplexes and townhomes in single family home neighborhoods. This aesthetically pleasing duplex proposed in Santa Barbara shows what could be built in neighborhoods with large lot sizes. Santa Barbara needs to build a wide variety of housing, including market rate, both smaller units and larger units for families, and affordable housing for workers, students, and artists.
There needs to be a discussion about the height limit and how dense the city should be. With the nickname of “The American Riviera” it is important to point out that the towns of the Spanish and French Riviera that Santa Barbara draws inspiration from are much denser than Santa Barbara. Density does not equate to less desirable or aesthetically pleasing. Santa Barbara’s iconic Spanish colonial aesthetic is mandated by law for new construction, but strict zoning regulations and the height limit make many of Downtown Santa Barbara’s historic Spanish style structures and paseos illegal to build today. At the very least legalize the existing tallest structures downtown such as the 116ft Granada Theatre and the 114 ft Court House, which the current height limit of 45ft prohibits. Santa Barbara needs to identify which areas could be denser. For instance the area from Downtown to Milpas Street on the Eastside, and down to the waterfront could be much more urban, considering how much of the main waterfront is underutilized. Imagine a transformed dense and dynamic waterfront district that is a world renown tourist destination. There are also underutilized properties along commercial corridors beyond downtown which could accommodate mixed-use development.
There have been positive changes, such as the new master plan for downtown, but change has happened at a snail’s pace. The downtown project is ambitious, aesthetically pleasing, and envisions a future that is much more pedestrian oriented and urban, but is conceptual and could be downsized or delayed due to NIMBYism. There is a mentality that we have to build due to the housing crisis but that it is like polling a tooth rather than a vision that is exiting and optimistic about the future.
Santa Barbara is actually fairly conservative in the sense of not wanting change. Since this is a non-partisan election, citizens will vote their perceived interests. I expect to see a large segment of the populace, who vote staunchly blue on statewide and national elections, but vote for the more conservative candidate, Randy Rowse. Deborah Schwartz has many strengths such as a city planning background, backing from the architectural community, a whole city message of inclusivity, and for a city government that is accessible to all, but at this point it looks like it will be either Murillo or Rowse. Schwartz’s positive and inclusive message is, unfortunately, not enough to tap into a large niche demographic. The other candidates, Murillo, Joyce, and Rowse are playing the identity politics game by tapping into their demographics of support, which plays out in housing politics. Schwartz’s strength is being a pragmatic problem solver but that is not what always wins over voters. Regardless of who is elected mayor, Santa Barbara is going to have to adapt to these changes. The City needs leadership who can put forth a positive vision for how the City can grow, while maintaining a high quality of life, that is economically and culturally dynamic, aesthetically pleasing, and respects the natural surroundings.