Priced out in Santa Barbara

Who can afford to live in Santa Barbara? Ahead of KCRW's live on-stage broadcast, we speak with four people trying not to get priced out.

Ask people in Santa Barbara what their biggest struggle is and there’s a good chance they’ll say it’s finding an affordable place to live. The median home price is around $1 million, and the rental market is 99.5 percent full.

Meet four people wrestling with those daunting statistics in different ways.

A struggling millennial

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Tyler Hayden has moved six times in the past five years. He’s currently being forced out of his apartment on the Mesa. Now he’s questioning whether or not he can afford to put down roots in Santa Barbara.

When 31-year-old Tyler Hayden graduated from UCSB in 2009, he and a group of friends wanted to stay in Santa Barbara. He’s the only one still here.

“We were trying to find jobs that would allow us to stay here, and it became apparent within a couple years that most of us weren’t going to be able to do that,” he said.

Although Hayden loves Santa Barbara and his job, he questions whether he can stay here himself.  In the past five years, he’s been forced to move six times, either because the rent increased or the owner decided to sell the unit.

The rent at his current two-bedroom apartment on Santa Barbara’s Mesa, which he shares with his girlfriend, just got raised from $1,900 to $2,400. Then he got word the owner was selling it. Now, it’s back to searching on Craigslist.

“It’s discouraging, because you feel like you can never invest yourself in a place,” said Hayden. “To be constantly batted around starts to eat at you. My girlfriend and I are looking at these next couple years as the deciding point in our lives whether we’ll be able to stay here or not.”

A small business owner

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James O’Mahoney stands on the roof of his two free museums in the Funk Zone. He’s occupied the space for 33 years, but encroaching development and rising rents may push him out. (Jonathan Bastian/KCRW)

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Surf museum owner James O’Mahoney used to have one of the best views in town.  But now the building he’s occupied for 33 years in Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone is surrounded by cement pumps and construction trucks. His spot may be next in line for redevelopment.

O’Mahoney has been leasing the Helena Avenue property and subleasing to various businesses in order to subsidize his free museums. But, this July, real estate investor Ray Mahboob bought the building for $5.6 million in cash.

“Now that he owns the building, he’s got my renters and I’ve got to pay a big rent,” said O’Mahoney. “It’s just a matter of time till we get steamrolled out of here.”

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He’s not sure where he’ll put the artifacts he’s collected over the years, many of which highlight special moments in Santa Barbara’s history.

“Everything changes,” he said. “You’re ready for it but not. I’m chasing my tail right now.”

An evicted tenant

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This resident was evicted from her apartment on Santa Barbara’s Westside without being given a reason. She and her three kids had to live in their car for several nights until they could find another home. (Kathryn Barnes/KCRW)


One resident who wished to remain anonymous to protect her kids and avoid retaliation said she had a long history of living in Santa Barbara’s Westside before she was forced to leave.

She knew her neighbors; her sons went to the local school and had friends at the apartment complex. But two years ago, after six years of renting the same apartment, her husband was deported. Then, the following year, she got an eviction notice. She had 60 days to move out.

“It was all in English. I didn’t understand it and had to go to a translator,” she said. “He told me there was no reason given on the eviction notice about why I had to leave.”

She rented a storage unit. They stayed with family for one night, then a hotel. The next few nights, she and her kids slept in their car.

“It was a very traumatic situation,” she said. “I felt I had no control, cause I had nowhere to go.”

They eventually found a new apartment at Oak Park, which is more expensive and has fewer Latinos. She knows at least two neighbors within her complex who were also evicted without a reason.

“I think [the owners] believed I wasn’t going to be able to pay rent, but we were,” she said. To make money, she cleans houses and her two older sons have jobs. “I think there’s a lot of judgement,” she said.

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Local rights organization CAUSE has led meetings at their office to draft a tenants’ rights ordinance. (Jonathan Bastian/KCRW)

Despite the high costs, they don’t want to leave Santa Barbara. Her youngest son is 12 years old and she doesn’t want him to have to change schools.

“I came very far to get here,” she said. “This is our home now, so this is where I want to raise him. That’s the reason I want to stay here. I want to build a life here and make sure he has a better job than I have now.”

Local rights organization CAUSE wants the city to pass a tenants’ rights ordinance, which would add legal protection for Santa Barbara renters. You can learn more about the work being done at santabarbararenters.com.

A homeowner

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Heidi Albert, a nurse at Cottage Hospital, says she never would have been able to buy property in Santa Barbara if not for Cottage’s workforce housing program. (Kathryn Barnes/KCRW)

Heidi Albert has spent most of her working life at Cottage Hospital. She’s a nurse in the birthing center. For much of her career, all Albert could afford to rent was a studio apartment.

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Cottage’s workforce housing development, Bella Riviera, sits at the end of Arellaga Street on Santa Barbara’s Eastside. (Kathryn Barnes/KCRW)

Now she owns a two bedroom condo at Bella Riviera, a housing development built by Cottage specifically to house its employees.

“They did it right,” she said, showing off her wood floors and marble countertops.

The impetus to build workforce housing was the 2005 landslide in La Conchita, according to Patrice Ryan, director of human resources for Cottage. The hospital struggled to get staff to work, since many commuted from more affordable areas like Ventura.

Cottage built 115 housing units at the end of Arellaga Street on Santa Barbara’s Eastside. Thirty-four of them were sold for market value, which helped to subsidize the 81 other units reserved specifically for employees.

Not everyone working at Cottage is eligible to live at Bella Riviera. Households must be in an annual income bracket of between $64,00 and $166,000, which means highly paid doctors make too much to qualify. In a market where these units could go for a million dollars, a typical two-bedroom sells for $329,000.

There are currently 48 people on the wait list. Ryan said two to three units turn over each year.

“One housing situation isn’t going to solve all the problems,” said Albert. “But, for the people who are here and it works for them, it is a nice solution.”

Learn more about KCRW’s live broadcast on the housing shortage in Santa Barbara at KCRW.COM/pricedout.