Our politicians often make campaign promises to solve the “housing crisis” or homelessness. Most of these promises are empty and politicians know it. Housing in Santa Barbara can never be “affordable”. Homelessness can be managed but not solved. There should be a Truth in Campaigning law.
Why do we keep trying to fix the unfixable?
I keep seeing the same problems discussed over and over: (un)affordable housing, drugs and alcohol addiction, and homelessness. These problems aren’t exactly new. History has shown that some things just aren’t fixable.
What galls me is that our politicians promise that they will work hard to solve these problems (especially during election season). After being hectored about the “problem” we are offered a “solution”. The fix is usually worse than the problem.
The reality is that we can’t get rid of drunks, addicts, and the homeless on State Street doing socially obnoxious things. We can call the cops, the poor guys who have to deal with society’s messy problems, and they take them away and plug them into a system, which, based on recidivism rates, doesn’t really do much to alleviate the problem.
[See my recent article: How To Not Fix Homelessness. I offer some solutions to manage-not solve–the problem. JH 10-26-2021]
Housing? Santa Barbara is expensive and because everyone wants to live here, it will remain expensive and there is nothing we can do about it. Anyone making no more than Santa Barbara’s median income (about $71,000 for a family of four) will continue to be shut out. Middle class folks will live permanently with boarders and roommates. Immigrant workers will be crowded into substandard flophouses. Years of “solutions” have fixed nothing.
These things just aren’t fixable.
Why don’t our politicians just admit the obvious? Instead they convene community meetings and with nice Power Point presentations describe the obvious and then finish with a five point “solution” that we’ve all heard before. This is not meant to be a “do nothing” diatribe faulting weak-willed homeless people, addicts, and the poor. It’s a plea to recognize that there are some things you can’t solve; at best you can only manage them. The so-called solutions are expensive, ineffective, and often make things worse.
Starting with the homeless, you have to divide the problem into two parts: the hopeless and the helpless.
The helpless such as the single mother who loses her job and ends up living in her car can be fixed. She needs a hand up as they say and there are many good organizations out there willing to do just that. Yes, her problems are probably more complicated than this, but we can help solve her problem because she wants to solve it. The number of private charities in Santa Barbara willing to help her is quite large which tells us that we Santa Barbarians are concerned about the welfare of our fellow human beings and we are willing to put our money where our hearts lie. Politicians don’t need to stick their noses in this.
Then there are the hopeless: the homeless, the drunks, and the addicts. You can’t stop people from being mentally ill or addicts or just don’t fit into our society. There are a large number of public and private resources to assist them, but let’s face it, despite our efforts and the money and resources thrown at the problem, the problem hasn’t gone away. Not to say there aren’t some good recovery stories out there, but until you solve mental illness in its various manifestations they will be with us forever. I recall Sharon Byrnes’ wonderful story in these pages about Homeless Ed whom she finally (and heroically, in my opinion) got off the street only to see him slip back into his homeless lifestyle. I will say that the organizations, public and private, that serve this segment are angels doing our dirty work. But they’ll never run out of work.
The hopeless are the ones we complain about because they are very visible on State Street and Cabrillo Park. I’m not being callous here, but you have to admit that we don’t want these folks around because they are scary and obnoxious. It upsets our “Grover’s Corners” mythology of our fair city. I recall a stroll down State Street a while back with a friend who is very liberal when a very dirty homeless man stumbled toward us, quite unsteady, quite odoriferous, his zipper down, with hand held out begging everyone who passed by. After a post encounter period of silence between us my friend said, “You know, it’s a lot easier to be sympathetic [to the homeless] in the abstract.” For once we agreed on something.
Accept the fact that all we can do is manage this problem, not solve it. And try to protect ourselves and them from the worst. But stop telling me we have to throw more money at the problem through some wonderful new program. History, I believe, has proven me correct on this.
Affordable housing is another one of those ideas that you just can’t kill. The issue keeps popping up zombie-like during each election. Unaffordability has been the City’s problem forever. We have one of the lowest vacancy rates anywhere: historically it has been 2% or less. So rentals are tight, rents are high (average $1,450), and housing costs are ridiculously high.
Accept the fact that housing in Santa Barbara isn’t affordable and never will be. The only affordable housing is housing that someone other than the occupant pays for.
The Housing Authority of the City of Santa Barbara (HASB) runs the City’s affordable housing programs. According to the HASB web site, they control about 465 housing units which are available under various programs (HUD, Section 8, Senior, Supportive). Which means there are only 465 lucky households out of 35,103 who can win this affordable housing lottery. HASB says in their web site that they have developed or secured over 3,000 affordable units since their founding in 1969.
This isn’t meant to be a critique of HASB, rather I’m pointing out the obvious: there is no way to fix Santa Barbara’s unaffordable housing problem. Yet politicians tell us that we must. I submit that their attempts are political eyewash to show that they are “doing something” about it in order to assuage their supporters.
Case in point. The City requires housing developers to build and sell a certain number of units in a project at artificially low prices to “qualified, low income” buyers. From personal experience I can tell you that the cost to build these units is not that much less that the market priced units. The cost (the loss on the sale of these units) is passed on to the buyers of the market priced units which in effect jacks up the price of all housing in the City, thus making housing even more unaffordable. Funny how things work out.
There are dozens of laws requiring certain people to tell the truth (lenders, real estate brokers, car dealers, etc.). I suggest we require politicians to “tell the truth” when they make campaign promises. A Truth in Campaigning law. Fat chance since they would have to vote on something that would put them on the street. In the meanwhile, caveat emptor.