The American Institute of Architects Santa Barbara Chapter and partners from the Downtown Organization of Santa Barbara, Coastal Housing Coalition and American Planning Association Central Coast Section held a City of Santa Barbara mayoral candidate forum Monday attended by all candidates.
Brian Johnson, President of the Santa Barbara Association of Realtors, moderated the discussion.
Questions primarily focused on the six candidates’ housing policies.
Candidates were asked what obstacles the city faces to creating workforce housing and what their plans are to address the problem.
Randy Rowse was up first.
“We have a lot of housing that’s out there on the block ready to be built and yet these projects aren’t coming up out of the ground, almost 1,000 units,” he said. “Why are we talking about other things when these things are not coming out of the ground? It might be something systemic; it might be something financial.
“We should find that out before we go and try to make some new set of ordinances that is going to somehow magically make housing appear.”
Candidates were instructed not to disparage competitors, though many comments targeted current leadership.
“Last summer, the mayor and council received a report from a publicly funded consultant that identified 31 recommended changes in our Community Development Department,” Deborah Schwartz said, in response to the same question. “To date, unfortunately, very few of those 31 have been implemented, so we have a ways to go in terms of improving our internal process — which is within our control.”
She is referencing a $86,000 report from Novak Consulting Group. Members of the City Council expressed frustration with the Community Development Department when they received the report and suggested there were even more inefficiencies than the report highlighted.
“Public-private partnerships are the way to go, with the private sector making the significant investment, owning the land, paying the taxes and bringing the Housing Authority along. But that requires vision and political will that we have not seen to date,” Ms. Schwartz continued.
Mayor Cathy Murillo addressed the Novak report in her answer.
“We’re refining our multifamily housing guidelines and our objective design standards, so we are working on making housing more doable. I’ll be working with the new planning director to streamline the application and design review process,” she said. “Yes, we do need to implement more of the Novak report recommendations, but I need help from everyone who’s tuned in today.”
She asked for support when the City Council is approving housing developments with good ideas in the right locations.
Another question addressed the long and sometimes costly process developers endure in the Average Unit Density program.
“I do feel as if the AUD is kind of a failed experiment,” James Joyce III said. “It hasn’t led to cheaper housing; costs have gone up. I can attest to that.
“I do think that there’s some permitting things that need to be made cleaner. Some things that need to be easier to navigate for folks, but I think we should first focus on the homeowners and the commercial spaces.”
Mark Whitehurst focused on committee members in the Community Development Department’s process.
“I believe that we need to take a very close look at committee members that abuse their discretion. And I think that’s what’s causing these repeat meetings is abuse of discretion,” he said. “These committee members either need to be retrained or relieved.”
The contentious subject of height limits was addressed as Mr. Johnson asked the candidates’ position on a 60 foot building height by right and without special findings.
Mr. Rowse said Santa Barbara has an “aesthetic that needs to be preserved.”
“If we build all these things, what we see with every project we’ve built, we still have not discovered affordability,” he said. “So would we trash Santa Barbara and then still not have it be affordable?”
Mr. Joyce prefers the city seek other solutions to affordability, such as adaptive reuse, before compromising on height.
“I think that we have so many opportunities to do that (adaptive reuse) and I’d prefer to explore all of those opportunities first, but generally I’m supportive of providing the surrounding community an appropriate opportunity to raise grievances with a project,” he said.
Matt Kilrain, or “Boat Rat Matt,” gave a short answer: no.
He is opposed to the growth of housing in Santa Barbara. His solution was to not bring in more people, and he boasted a talent of kicking out tyrants.
“We don’t need that much new housing to house people; they’re already housed,” he said in a different answer, though he echoed the same sentiments throughout the forum. “We’ve got less than 1,000 people that are not housed, and I can get rid of 1,000 tyrants and criminals and predators.”
He accused others of only building in pursuit of money.
One question asked how candidates would address residents fearful of new construction and greater density in Santa Barbara.
Ms. Schwartz said she’d focus on community outreach. As chair of the Planning Commission, she has community office hours in neighborhoods instead of City Hall.
“Community members throughout the six districts have told me that they all appreciate the scale and charm of Santa Barbara. But Santa Barbara has to work for everyone, and that requires communication and compromise and consensus,” she said. “I believe that the mayor has the unique responsibility of being a convener of that outreach and feedback to City Hall.”
Mr. Whitehurst responded in support of Santa Barbara’s ethos and growth.
“I’m going to work tirelessly to support the Santa Barbara lifestyle and at the same time embrace new growth and innovative change in the city,” he said. “I would be sensitive to our heritage and the atmosphere and the architecture in Santa Barbara.”
Mayor Murillo argued that downtown housing is healthy for the environment.
“To people who were nervous about overdevelopment or buildings that are too tall, I would tell them to take a look. Take a look around at buildings that are three storeys high, look at the beautiful design, the fact that a lot of those complexes are downtown where they should be — close to public transit, walkable to jobs,” she said.
AIA will host a City Council election forum Wednesday from 5-6:30 p.m. To register, go to eventbrite.com/e/santa-barbara-candidates-forum-for-city-council-election-tickets-168648366805.
The City of Santa Barbara election is Nov. 2, and registered voters should have received ballots in the mail.