[Hpn] Tarnish on the Gold Coast (vehicularly housed in Santa Barbara,
Sat, 23 Dec 2000 16:49:13 -0700
Tarnish on the Gold Coast
By Rene Sanchez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 23, 2000 ; Page A03
SANTA BARBARA, Calif.
In an empty, windswept parking lot near the Pacific Ocean, James Willyard
leans against the cluttered old camper he calls home and describes his
He has given up looking for an apartment or a house in this ever more
affluent coastal city because finding either for a price he could afford
seems futile. Even the few ramshackle downtown hotels that once offered the
needy cheap places to live for months have been retailored for wealthy
And he keeps getting more neighbors. In numbers startling local officials,
the streets of Santa Barbara are filling with permanently parked campers
that are becoming last-resort housing for the working poor, disabled
veterans or elderly on fixed incomes, all victims of California's latest
"This is the only choice we have left," said Willyard, 41, who receives $750
a month in government subsidies for a disability. "It's as if there's just
no room for anybody but the rich around here anymore."
That lament is resounding up and down California's coast. Like few other
regions in the country, it is in the strange position these days of
suffering in some ways from too much economic prosperity. For this city and
others, the wave of wealth is bringing as many headaches as benefits.
So many coastal residents with moderate salaries or less are being displaced
that the state is in the early throes of a reverse exodus, this time away
from the sea and to more affordable areas far inland.
The last trailer parks of Silicon Valley are closing. Modest seaside cottage
communities south of Los Angeles are being razed and replaced by resorts. In
Santa Cruz, the mayor nearly had to quit and leave town because he was
having so much trouble keeping up with rental costs. In San Carlos, the
mayor just did. And all along the California coast, local officials are
struggling to secure public access to beaches lined with new estates, some
with owners going to court to make the sand and surf nearby private.
Even the venerable Volkswagen bus, so plentiful on coastal highways, a
mellow symbol of freedom a generation ago, is becoming just another roadside
sign of desperation the only roof that some residents can afford over
"This is the biggest issue for every city on the coast," said Tim
Fitzmaurice, Santa Cruz's mayor. "It's painful for a variety of people who
have been here for a long time. There's no way to keep up with how fast it's
all changing, and there doesn't seem to be a magic bullet to fix the
Rising rents in the poorest part of Santa Cruz have prompted the city to
help some residents pay the new costs, but that aid will not last long.
Earlier this year, the city began allowing people to live in recreational
vehicles if they parked in an industrial area, but community complaints
scuttled that plan.
Some coastal cities also are worried that their middle-class residents are
beginning to flee. So many firefighters, paramedics and other public safety
employees on the coast are moving so far away because of housing prices that
there is new concern they might not be able to get back to town in an
emergency such as an earthquake, when they would be needed most.
Whenever it approves development, California's coastal commission is
obligating builders to help pay for campgrounds or other free public
facilities along the beach. But by law, the commission cannot stitch
affordable housing requirements into any deal. Some citizen groups upset
with the scope of coastal development are trying to take matters into their
own hands. In Malibu last month, residents approved a ballot initiative
making any coastal project greater than 25,000 square feet subject to voter
So far, hardly any of the moves are stopping, or even slowing, the change
coming to the coast.
"A lot of these old beach communities are going through a metamorphosis,"
said Peter Douglas, executive director of the California Coastal Commission.
"Property owners are getting offers they can't refuse and cities can't tell
people, 'You can't sell.' This new wealth is having a tremendous impact."
Here in Santa Barbara, which is about 90 miles north of Los Angeles, the
predicament is getting dire.
The city has long shimmered with affluence. Its hills overlooking the ocean
are lined with beautiful homes owned by the rich and famous. But like most
other communities along the California coast, it has always had a rumpled
and rustic side, too. That is disappearing, fast.
One-bedroom apartments now rent on average for more than $1,100. Median home
prices hover around a half-million dollars. Waiting lists for local
subsidized housing programs are long. And a few hundred rooms in discount
hotels that had allowed open-ended stays are no longer available. Many
lower-income residents here have but two options: Buy a used camper. Or
Dozens of weather-beaten RVs are parked bumper-to-bumper on streets in
industrial parts of Santa Barbara or in parking lots on the edge of town.
"People see those campers and think they're on a recreational trip, but they
aren't," said Marty Blum, a City Council member. "We have a real problem on
And the city is not sure how to deal with it. There are a few RV parks
around the area, but they limit stays and also can be costly. For many years
it also has been illegal here to camp overnight in a RV on a city street. In
recent months, police have issued nearly 200 anti-camping citations and have
rousted many others from their parking spaces. At one recent court hearing
on such a case, one official even suggested that the campers pack up and
move 100 miles inland to more affordable cities such as Bakersfield.
Dismayed by the crackdown, a Santa Barbara lawyer has begun waging a one-man
crusade to shame the city into easing up on the anti-camping citations and
to find new solutions to the housing crisis. He has persuaded city
prosecutors to drop their cases against about two dozen people living full
time in campers.
Glen Mowrer, who retired last year as the director of the city's public
defender's office, is urging local officials to recognize RVs as low-income
housing and to create sites where the homeless or poor can park their
makeshift mobile homes for lengthy periods of time. He said most people
living in campers on the street are not transients but longtime residents on
fixed incomes or with low-wage jobs. Buying an old camper can be cheaper
than two months' rent.
"I guess it's tempting to tell them to get off the street and move somewhere
else if they can't afford it here anymore," Mowrer said. "But there's
something outrageous about that, too."
One proposal being reviewed by the city would allow churches to designate
spots in their parking lots for campers, with private groups donating
portable toilets or paying for security. Santa Barbara County, meanwhile, is
considering reserving a parking lot somewhere in the area for indigent
But even officials who are eager to help wonder if those ideas are good ways
to do it. "There are a lot of questions," Blum said. "We know that somehow
we have to maintain a better balance between the rich and poor here, but we
also don't want to wind up just creating bad housing for them."
For now, the poor here sound resigned to their fate, parking in areas where
they hope the police will pass them by night after night, or accepting
tickets as just one more burden in their rough new way of life.
"I could try to pay what they want for rent here, but then I would never be
at home anyway," said Kim Kraft, 28, a clerk who has been living in a camper
near Highway 101 for nearly two years. "I'd always be working to get enough
Her neighbor in the parking lot is James Willyard. He says he would prefer
to live in a house, or a tenant hotel, but has lost hope of finding one. He
does not want to live in a shelter, either.
"If you put all the people living in RVs into shelters, there wouldn't be
any room for the homeless," he said. "Most of us don't want to bother
anyone. We just don't have a regular home. If I could find one for me and my
dog, I'd give you my camper today. No one can, though. It's as if they just
want the poor people out. But it's nice here. We don't want to leave."
© 2000 The Washington Post
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