Santa Barbara Mayor Cathy Murillo pushed back on a question during a candidate forum Monday night about the financial challenges of serving as mayor.
Murillo said she earns $65,000 annually and criticized moderator Brian Johnson‘s premise that the position of mayor “is more than a full-time job without a full-time salary.”
“Mr. Johnson, no offense, I just have to question whoever formulated this question, if you don’t think that $65,000 a year is a living wage, it is, right. and then I would say there are a lot of people in the city of Santa Barbara who don’t make that much,” Murillo said.
“So let’s focus on again on housing production and affordable housing production because there are so many people who are raising their families in two-bedroom apartments, in one-bedroom apartments, our immigrant population, single moms, so let’s recalibrate how we think about wages and housing in the Santa Barbara.
“There are people who make a lot less money than I do and we need to take care of them in the city of Santa Barbara,” Murillo said.
It was one of the few moments of spark at Monday night’s American Institute of Architects Santa Barbara Chapter online forum featuring the six candidates for mayor: Murillo, James Joyce, Matt Kilrain, Randy Rowse, Deborah Schwartz and Mark Whitehurst.
The forum was moderated by Johnson, a commercial real estate broker with Radius Group and the president of the Santa Barbara Association of Realtors. The AIA provided the candidates the questions a couple days prior to Monday night’s forum.
When asked to name three barriers to creating low-income and moderate-income housing in the city, Rowse said issues are the scarcity of vacant land in a built-out city, “repeated failed attempts to create new housing from the dais as opposed to out in the field,” and onerous, uncertain permitting systems.
“I would go to the private sector and the groups that actually build the products in the first place,” said Rowse, adding that he wouldn’t want to create the housing in the city’s ordinance committee.
“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,” Rowse said.
Joyce only named one.
“For Santa Barbara specifically, the top three issues are one, two and three, funding for the Housing Authority,” Joyce said. “They do a great job. And we’re not going to fully build our way out of this problem.”
Schwartz poked at Joyce’s answer, saying, “90% of all the rental housing in the city of Santa Barbara has been constructed by the private sector. That means the Housing Authority has a small percentage of that role. The private sector has the financing to acquire and develop and pay property tax much needed into our general fund.”
Murillo said the top three barriers to developing these types of housing were high land values, lack of financial subsidies for middle-income housing, and resistance from the community.
“Either people who stereotype low-income families, that creates opposition, or property owners nearby, they just don’t want more people or traffic in their neighborhoods,” Murillo said. “When you have housing, you have to improve transportation too so you don’t jam up the neighborhood with more cars.”
Murillo has served on the City Council since 2011 and was elected as mayor in 2017.
Early in the year, Schwartz was looking like the biggest threat to Murillo’s re-election campaign, but her efforts to win the seat were dealt a significant blow when Rowse, a former councilman, entered the race.
Rowse has emerged as a popular candidate for the “anyone-but-Cathy” crowd. He has locked up endorsements from police and fire unions and raised more than $250,000 so far in his bid to win the seat.
Murillo, who is endorsed by the Santa Barbara County Democratic Party, is competing for votes with Schwartz and Joyce, both Democrats who unsuccessfully sought the endorsement of the Democratic Party. Rowse is a no party preference candidate and has his own base of moderates and people on political right that like his “take the party out of politics” attitude toward local government.
At Monday’s forum, Johnson, the moderator, also asked candidates about their thoughts on allowing commercial building heights of 60 feet downtown.
Murillo said, “yes, I would support it. It has to look right and be in the right location.”
Rowse said, “Santa Barbara has an aesthetic that needs to be preserved.”
He said it would be “a tragedy” if Milpas Street extended to 60 feet because it would damage views of the Riviera neighborhood.
“We have a quality of life that needs to be preserved,” Rowse said. “We would become Santa Monica really quickly and I don’t think we want to live in Santa Monica.”
Joyce said he would prefer to explore “adaptive re-use” opportunities before building to 60 feet tall.
Schwartz noted that she grew up in Santa Barbara and that it was her hometown. She didn’t specifically answer the question and instead criticized the city in a lecturing tone.
“The question is, ‘how do we bring the diverse opinions together in a community forum that allows for the differing views so that we can forge consensus on our zoning, on our development standards,” Schwartz said.
“We’ve not done that. We haven’t had that kind of leadership and convening coming out of City Hall in awhile and I would make that as a priority for myself.”
The Santa Barbara city election is Nov. 2 and ballots have been mailed to registered voters.
Another virtual AIA forum is scheduled for Wednesday night with City Council candidates.
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