You asked, Santa Barbara’s mayoral candidates answered

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Rental prices are through the roof. Empty storefronts line State Street. Mentally ill people are living on the street. Wannabe pot shop owners are politely banging at the city’s door.

Santa Barbara’s next mayor will have a lot on his or her plate.

Last week, KCRW’s Jonathan Bastian and the Santa Barbara Independent’s Nick Welsh sat down with the five candidates running to be the city’s next leader. In front of a live audience at Santa Barbara City College’s Garvin Theater, they led an hour-long debate and traversed some of the city’s most pressing problems.

Beforehand, we asked what questions you had for the candidates. We got some great questions, and posed several of them to the contenders. Here’s what they had to say.

What is your plan to provide more affordable housing for middle and low-income residents?

First, here’s some backstory.

The city responded to the lack of affordable housing by launching the Average Unit Density (AUD) Incentive program in 2013. It allows developers to build smaller units which are supposed to be affordable by design. But so far, the apartments that have come online are still renting at market value price. Each candidate responded to this problem, and laid out what they intend to do for middle and low-income renters.

Councilmember Cathy Murillo voted in support of the AUD program when it was before council, but admits that it hasn’t resulted in affordable housing options. However, she wants to stick it out. “I want to make sure we give it a chance to work. Over time, they’ll age and blend better into the rental housing stock.”

Councilmember Harwood “Bendy” White agreed the AUD program has been an experiment that is currently failing. “What we’re finding is we’re getting high-priced units, and this is not what we need in this city.” Instead, he wants to use the state’s new law that allows cities to require developers of new rental housing to set aside 15 percent of their units as affordable, and make developers compete for the right to develop. But, he said, “we’re not going to be able to build our way out of this problem completely,” he said. “If we do that, we’re going to lose the charm of this community and the character of Santa Barbara.”

Former Deckers CEO Angel Martinez said the city is suffering from a problem that started 30 years ago, when it stopped building entry-level housing. “We need to start looking at smaller units and unbundled parking for people who want to live downtown and don’t have a car.” For that reason, he seemed optimistic about the AUD program and the new state law allowing Accessory Dwelling Units (ADU),  small dwellings like granny flats or tiny houses that sit on the same property as main units. “[Santa Barbara] will always be expensive compared to other communities because it’s such a desirable place to live, but entry-level housing is an important approach.”

Councilmember Frank Hotchkiss criticized Martinez’s answer by calling “entry-level housing” an oxymoron. “Unfortunately, the reality is that affordable housing in Santa Barbara probably means Lompoc, Goleta, Ventura or Santa Maria. I wish I could be more hopeful to those who want to stay here, but honestly, you probably have to go elsewhere unless you can start making more money.”

Former City Councilmember Hal Conklin called the lack of affordable housing in Santa Barbara a historic problem that’s not going to change. “Nobody is going to wave a magic wand and find ways to make cheap housing here.” However, he said it starts by finding common ground between those looking for affordable housing and those who don’t want to see the city grow. “You can’t get past that battle without creating a sense of community, and the community has to answer it as a community answer.” He advocated for creating a strategically developed plan for how to build out Santa Barbara. “Right now, it’s just built wherever people decide to file it, and that doesn’t work.”

How can we revive State Street?

Angel Martinez said first off, he wants to eliminate the “red tape and ordinances that drive the cost of opening a business through the roof.” Then, he said he sees all the vacant storefronts as a “golden moment” opportunity to rethink Milpas Street, State Street and La Cumbre Plaza. He pointed to San Luis Obispo, who recently adopted a new downtown concept plan, as a model for Santa Barbara.

Frank Hotchkiss began by responding to Martinez’s plan to revitalize Milpas Street. “If you want to rethink Milpas, you’re going to have a revolution on your hands because the people on Milpas love the way it is and they don’t want government coming in and telling them what to do.” He then called out the Chamber of Commerce for not done its job attracting new businesses here, and said the city needs to step in and enhance marketing efforts.

Hal Conklin said the major problem is that rents along State Street are too high for the average business owner. He said he’ll work with developers to come to some compromise in order to bring costs down. Secondly, he wants to add more residential units to the downtown core. “It takes downtown from being a destination to a 24/7 operation. That brings a whole different level of business to meet the needs of people living there.”

Cathy Murillo agreed that the downtown would benefit from more affordable rents and stores that locals actually shop at. “The downtown would be vibrant if more local people went down there.” She said she would work with Downtown Santa Barbara and the Chamber of Commerce to make stores more appealing to locals.

Bendy White advocated for more residential development. “State Street is the target for allowing more residential and mix-use development. This is our key opportunity.”

How do you plan to address the city’s mentally-ill homeless population and its impact on State Street, city beaches and city parks?

For Cathy Murillo and Hal Conklin, the issue came down to housing. “We need housing with supportive services,” said Murillo. “That’s why people are on the street. We have a housing problem.” She also commended the work the city is already doing along State Street, where homeless intervention specialists from AmeriCorps regularly patrol. Conklin went one step further to call upon the state for more money put into the system to create housing. “There is no short-term answer,” he said. “The only way we’re going to solve this issue is to have huge pressure put on Sacramento to give the county the resources they need to deal with mental illness.”

Bendy White complained that the city of Santa Barbara is putting more than its fair share of resources into the county’s homeless problem, and wants other cities to step up. “Going forward, fair share is a key piece,” he said, meaning communities like Carpinteria and Goleta should provide their own proportion of homeless facilities.

Angel Martinez took a big picture approach. He called upon sustained political efforts in all cities as well as better coordination between nonprofits assisting the homeless and mentally ill, in order to avoid overlaps and inefficiency.

Frank Hotchkiss agreed that sometimes Santa Barbara’s homeless population causes problems, but disagreed that these people want housing or resources. “A lot of people on the street choose to be there,” he said. “Sorry, it’s true.” He went on to say they have a right to live on the street if they wish to, and additional police and uniformed officials should be stationed along State Street to discourage bad behavior.

Listen for yourself

Welsh and Bastian also questioned Frank Hotchkiss on denying climate change, Hal Conklin on his ties to a church which condemns abortion and homosexuality, Bendy White on what sets him apart from the pack, Angel Martinez on why a voter should choose someone with no political experience, and Cathy Murillo on whether or not she has what it takes to compromise. Plus, everyone had a lively answer on what to do about pot.