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Affordable housing -- for affluent

Calif. council asks: Are six-figure salaries a cry for assistance?

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. -- The scruffy lot with the golden weeds and palms wouldn't rate a second glance if it were in Los Angeles or Bakersfield.

But this is Santa Barbara, a built-out city hemmed in by the Santa Ynez Mountains to the north, the Pacific Ocean to the south, and politics in every possible direction. And this is believed to be Santa Barbara's last vacant lot big enough to hold a housing development.

Though not just any housing development: The City Council is considering whether to use the property to build affordable housing, a condominium complex called Los Portales for families earning up to $160,000 a year.

Now, ``it's hard to get sympathy for people making $160,000 a year if you're down in Texas or something," said Bill Watkins, head of the Economic Forecast Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Any household with that kind of money is in the nosebleed section of American earners, and ``most of the country would think, `You're going to subsidize that person's house? You're kidding me.' "

But in this city -- where the median home price is about $1.2 million -- that person needs help. And the Housing Authority of the City of Santa Barbara is about to become the rare public housing agency to assist the well-heeled along with the poor, to build shelter for those whose business cards come in designer leather cases and include such words as ``doctor," ``lawyer," ``director."

``It's getting into a market that we shouldn't be spending much time on but, stunningly, needs it," said Robert G. Pearson, the agency's executive director. ``It's rare for housing authorities to get involved in a project like this. We have our plate full dealing with the poor."

So, what does it mean when a city is down to its last vacant lot and must help build housing for some of the most financially comfortable people in America?

Santa Maria Mayor Larry Lavagnino can't decide which part surprises him more, the last lot or the helping hand. His working-class city is home to a chunk of its ritzy neighbor's displaced workforce, men and women who have been priced out of the rarefied market 75 miles south.

``I can hear the water swirling" down the drain, he said of Santa Barbara's situation. ``How do you retain or recruit policemen or firemen when the median home price is $1.2 million?"

Actually, Santa Barbara officials view Los Portales as one answer to the conundrum of keeping middle-class families in a rich person's city.

Prospective buyers would probably be ``a cop married to a teacher, a nurse married to a guy who owns a plumbing store," Councilwoman Iya Falcone said during a recent City Council meeting. ``Some of the people who are going to buy the higher-priced units are doctors and lawyers. But lawyers are people, too. . . . I love this project."

Santa Barbara fancies itself America's Riviera, with its wide, white beaches and perfect weather, its rugged mountain backdrop and clear-day views of the Channel Islands, its building codes tended as meticulously as its lawns.

The city is zoned for 40,005 housing units. About 38,000 have been built, and the only housing construction these days is in-fill: a few units here, a few there. Unlike other land-poor cities, Santa Barbara has been loath to tear down large swaths of outdated structures and rebuild, said Paul Shigley, editor of the California Planning & Development Report.

``They think they've got paradise," Shigley said. ``They don't want it to change."

The tallest building here is the eight-story Granada Theatre, built in 1924. It could never be replicated today, in part because the City Charter strictly limits buildings to 60 feet, about four stories. And even four stories is a hard sell.

In fact, residents and the council balked at early plans for the Los Portales complex: 90 condos, four stories, with the first floor containing 8,000 square feet of commercial space and a parking garage smaller than municipal requirements.

The project has been in the works for nearly three years, since the Housing Authority bought the vacant lot. The land originally was a bracero camp, or quarters for migrant workers; then it was used as a lemon processing plant. After a while, a research and development operation moved in and then out. It is zoned for industrial use.

``If you're looking at completely vacant, developable urban land, this is our last big lot," said Paul Casey, the city's community development director. But the council ``would not have rezoned this land for market-rate housing. They were willing to rezone this property for the benefit of affordable housing only."

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