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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

The Gold Coast of California

With the state's priciest housing, the Santa Barbara area may be losing its middle class. Planners fear the same in other seaside areas.

June 14, 2003|William Overend | Times Staff Writer

SANTA BARBARA — The most expensive housing region in the state is the scenic south coast of Santa Barbara County, where the median price of a home is $825,000 and is forecast to close in on $1 million in two years.

This isn't some small enclave of the rich like Malibu or San Marino. It's a region of 200,000 people, stretching 25 miles along the coast from Carpinteria to Goleta. Once a home to rich and poor, it remains a patchwork of mansions, tract homes and farms. But now its home prices rival those in even the smallest pockets of privilege -- and many see that as a crisis.

Longtime homeowners, of course, are delighted. But regional planners contend that the middle class is being driven out of an entire region. And that's a danger not just for Santa Barbara, but also eventually for the entire California coast, they say.

For now, no other region comes even close to the skyrocketing prices of Santa Barbara. The San Francisco Bay Area, the state's second-most-expensive housing market, had a median price of $554,560. The figure for the Los Angeles area, ranked 13th in 20 regions tracked by the California Assn. of Realtors, was $320,720, below the statewide median of $363,930.

Numbers don't easily capture the social changes taking place in Santa Barbara, where prices have almost tripled in 10 years. What could be starter homes in many cities -- 1,800 square feet, three bedrooms, small yard -- can now cost up to $1 million.

And if your pocketbook is larger, there's almost no limit. At the moment, you could pick up a two-acre oceanfront Montecito home for $25 million, dozens of smallish estates in the $10-million range and virtual palaces advertised locally with "price upon request" notations.

"This is a crisis that affects almost everyone's life," said Naomi Schwartz, chairwoman of the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors.

The situation is demonstrated in myriad ways: young families moving out. Half the city's teachers, firemen and police forced to commute long distances. An ever-aging population. Businesses leaving and potential arrivals looking elsewhere. An uncertain future for minorities and the poor.

Ninety miles northwest of Los Angeles, the south coast of Santa Barbara County begins at the old farming and oil town of Carpinteria, where typical prices are now in the $700,000 range.

Summerland and Montecito mark the beginning of the really big-money coastal communities. Montecito, where Oprah Winfrey recently bought a $50-million estate, had a median housing price last year of $1.7 million. Goleta offers the areas lowest prices at $650,000 or so. In Hope Ranch, the number jumps to nearly $2 million.

And in the middle of it all is the city of Santa Barbara, where a median-priced house goes for about $750,000.

"There was no question in the early 1970s that the coast was going to be there for people of means," said Peter Douglas, executive director of the California Coastal Commission. "That's why a key decision was made then that protecting the coast would focus on coastal access.

"We could have slowed it with greater emphasis on affordable housing, but that didn't happen. The reality now is that the rich will live in places like Santa Barbara, and the people who serve them will commute."

Douglas recalled that the Coastal Commission initially had powers to impose affordable housing on coastal areas, but that was taken away by the Legislature in the early 1980s. The commission has tried since to have those powers restored, but repeatedly failed.

Mark Schneipp, director of the California Economic Forecast in Santa Barbara, said the result of all the past decisions is that the community is now experiencing a cultural drain, losing some of its brightest people. "You don't have these people participating in the social structure," he said. "They serve on the PTAs and in the Little Leagues where they live, not [in Santa Barbara] where they work."

One measure of the outflow is declining school enrollment in Santa Barbara. In April, officials reported that elementary school attendance had dropped from 6,431 in 1998 to 6,066. The projection for 2008 is 5,996.

"This is a decline of 435 students," equivalent to the enrollment of one elementary school, "in just 10 years," said schools Supt. Deborah Flores in an April budget report.

Amal Bendimerad, an economist with the UC Santa Barbara Economic Forecast Project, said one reason for the decline is the housing issue. "One teacher friend of mine, who teaches deaf children, says the largest problem now is finding enough parent aides," Bendimerad said. "I've also heard of some sports activities turning more to student coaches because it's harder to find adults."

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