Would rent control work in Santa Barbara?

It’s a topic that ignites passions every time it comes before the Santa Barbara City Council: rent control. And this Tuesday was no exception.

In just his third meeting in the big seat, Randy Rowse flexed his muscles as mayor on a City Hall proposal to spend $200,000 on economic analysis to determine if and how a rent control ordinance might work in Santa Barbara. Specifically, cap annual increases at 2%, plus an annual consumer price index (CPI) adjustment. So far, staff have viewed the Beverly Hills system as a potential model.

The groundwork for such an order was laid last year by Rowse’s predecessor, Cathy Murillo, in an effort to address chronic crisis-level housing shortages. But Rowse took a very different stance on the issue, describing the proposed cap as government overreach and insisting that landlord-tenant lease agreements are where all the necessary regulations are contained. “It’s a private relationship,” Rowse said. “I think it’s a beautiful thing. A written contract between two private parties is exactly where [the rules] should be. All the control should be there. If the rules are broken, Rowse said, the city’s tenancy mediation task force can and will intervene.

Rowse said he fears a rent cap would further “demonize” landlords and property developers, who are already apparently maligned by City Hall. “We basically have a mindset that says, ‘You’re a profiteer and you have a public good that needs to be controlled,'” he said. Rowse agreed that Santa Barbara suffered from an acute lack of affordable housing. “We need a sustainable community. But, he says, we can’t control everything. The market is a cruel tyrant, and like water, it will always find its level.

It’s a topic worthy of vigorous debate, he continued, but not another expensive study that Santa Barbara pays for but then fails to act on. “It would be spending money we don’t have, and it would be another in a litany of unsuccessful consultant reports that we would end up with,” he said. Council members Eric Friedman and Michael Jordan also balked at the $200,000 price tag — plus the substantial future costs of running a rent control program — and voted with Rowse against the analysis.

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However, the majority of the board – board members Kristen Sneddon, Meagan Harmon, Alejandra Gutierrez and Oscar Gutierrez – voted to go ahead. Sneddon touted the value of outdoor studies, citing two — one on the city’s beleaguered Community Development Department and another on State Street — that have led to tangible improvements. She said a rent cap would not be a silver bullet to the city’s housing shortage, but another tool in her toolbox to solve the decades-old problem. And stabilizing rates would not just benefit renters, she explained. This would help businesses retain their workforce and keep families in their communities. “It’s not a handout,” she said. “It’s for all of us.”

Compared to other similar cities, Sneddon continued, Santa Barbara has a lower median income, higher poverty and unemployment rates, and more vulnerable residents, including homeless people and noncitizens. The housing incentive programs that the city already has in place – medium unit density, inclusion agreements, residences in commercial areas, etc. – are long-term strategies, she argued, but rent control is needed in the meantime to stabilize the market for current residents. . “We’re talking tens of thousands of people,” she said.

Recent data for the south coast showed that from 2012 to 2021 the average price for a two-bedroom apartment rose from $2,000 per month to $2,800. One-bedroom units went from $1,470 to $2,000.

Harmon agreed action was needed. “If we hope to solve the housing crisis in a meaningful way for today’s residents, we cannot ignore regulatory reform,” she said. More than 60% of Santa Barbara residents are renters, she reminded the council. The figure is closer to 80% in the downtown neighborhood where she lives, Harmon said.

But the mayor could not be swayed. “The term ‘housing crisis’ existed when I came here 50 years ago,” Rowse said. “It’s not something brand new. This is what we have always suffered in this city.

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