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Tenant protections could be decent start for needy renters

The Channels Opinion Pages | STAFF COLUMN

Austin P. Ambrose, Channels Staff

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Anyone who’s lucky enough to find a place to rent in Santa Barbara probably pays an arm and a leg for it too.

The Santa Barbara City Council did the right thing for renters and tenants at its March 21 meeting by acknowledging that capping rents is not the answer to the city’s housing crisis.

There’s still a lot of work to do though. Rent control was only one of five proposed solutions. The rest, which included mandating leases to last at least one year and requiring just-cause evictions, are still up in the air. The council decided to discuss those issues in detail at a later date.

It’s ridiculous that out-of-towners who find a job in Santa Barbara struggle to find small apartments for rent. Everyone who can find a job or enrollment here should be able to find a reasonable place to stay for a reasonable price.

Should is the key word though. It assumes that Santa Barbara is just another city. Anyone who’s been here more than a day knows it isn’t. The views, the places and the people make it a virtual paradise.

And the price for paradise isn’t cheap. The average home in Santa Barbara goes for around $952,600, and rental rates settle in around $1,700 a month for single-bedroom apartments.

The sub-one-percent rental vacancy rate doesn’t help potential tenants either. The rate is the number of available houses out of the total rental stock in Santa Barbara.

Accepting the lease length and just-cause eviction requirements would be a step in the right direction, but they wouldn’t solve the underlying problem. They’re the ethical choice to address baseless evictions and promote housing stability, but they would eventually drive the vacancy rate even closer to zero.

They best way to raise the rate to an acceptable level and send prices back down is to increase the supply of homes in Santa Barbara. The city has already created several programs to accomplish this goal. The Average Unit-Size Density Incentive Program, which encourages developers to build affordable housing, and an implicit ban on some short-term vacation rentals are among them.

Only four units have been completed under the density incentive program since it launched in 2013, but more than 296 units have been approved. Another 490 are still waiting for approval. The program seems promising and well-intentioned but, for future employees and students looking to move to the city in the next few years, its progress is just a bit too slow.

Removing illegal vacation rentals could be a temporary answer. However, the city hasn’t done enough to enforce its zoning codes. A quick look at Air BnB Santa Barbara reveals more than 300 such rentals, most of which fall outside of the city’s designated vacation rental zones.

Although they’re technically illegal, the city forces renters to pay the Transient Occupancy Tax when the rentals should be converted back to long-term rentals.

The city would be much better off if the council decides to crack down on vacation rentals, further accelerate housing stock growth and provide tenants with basic protections.

For everyone’s sake, I hope it makes the right decision.

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Tenant protections could be decent start for needy renters