Where We Live

The South Coast’s housing prices have taken a toll on the community’s critical workforce. Leslie Dinaberg reports on the cost of spreading ourselves too thin.

We all know the South Coast’s cost of housing is skyrocketing, but what about the other “costs” that are incurred when our critical workforce can’t afford to live here?

The South Coast Beacon’s new enterprise series, Where We Live, will examine where our law enforcement, firefighters, teachers and medical professionals are living and driving from. We’ll look at what impact this has on our community in terms of employee recruitment, retention and commitment, and the type of service we’re getting. We’ll also explore the ripple effects of commuting, such as the loss of community volunteers and the financial effect of dollars paid out here being spent elsewhere.

It’s an issue that affects all of us, whether we realize it or not.

Commutes can take toll on community

The lengths we’ll go to work here can be a blessing and a curse.

There’s a connection between our freeways growing crowded and our public servants growing grayer. Young people simply can’t afford to buy homes on the South Coast, and the traditional Ventura County and Santa Maria safety nets for affordable housing are quickly disappearing

“A larger and larger number of our employees live outside of Santa Barbara County; they live in Ventura, San Luis and even Kern County,” said Carol Patrick, human resources manager for the county Fire Department. “We know that people know that it is expensive to live here when they apply for a job. Accepting that reality is an entirely different matter.”

The cost of living can be so daunting that sometimes people don’t even come for interviews.

“We have some people who won’t even come for an interview when they find out how much housing is,” said Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital spokeswoman Janet O’Neill.

Santa Barbara City College President John Romo echoed that experience.

“Just the past two weeks, four applicants for faculty positions that had been scheduled for interviews withdrew their applications, with the high cost of housing here in Santa Barbara as the reason for their withdrawal,” he said.

We had situations this year in which faculty members who were hired recently had decided to leave because they were unable to find affordable housing,” he added.

You hear the same kind of horror stories all over town.

“I’ve experienced sort of a revolving door of my peers,” said Gail Moran, a nurse at Cottage Hospital since 1990.

Debbie Roth, another longtime local R.N., said our hospitals are constantly losing nursing staff because they cannot afford to live here.

“Every year I get my annual pay increase and every year it goes directly to rent,” she said.

“Where I find that we lose the people, they get married and decide to have a family. They can’t afford to buy a home here,” said Jolene Reed, coordinator for certificated personnel at the Santa Barbara Elementary and Secondary School Districts.

About 8 percent of teachers in the Goleta Union School District commute from outside the South Coast, but officials expect the number to grow as older teachers, who got in the market when it was more affordable, begin to retire.

“As the teaching population ages — in Santa Barbara the average age is now 47 –we foresee that as teachers retire it will become nearly impossible to recruit and retain top quality young teachers for this community, “said attorney Craig Price, who serves as general counsel for the district.

“At one time to be a police officer you were required to live within the city limits,” said Santa Barbara police Lt. Paul McCaffrey. Special permission was even needed to live in Carpinteria, he laughed.

Of course, these days a requirement like would be recruiting suicide. The majority of police personnel live outside of the South Coast, McCaffrey said. While he maintains that the service level remains high, he said there is a negative effect on the individual.

“Time on the road is time not spent resting and relaxing between shifts and not with family and loved ones,” he noted.

And things like coming into court to testify can be very disruptive for an officer’s day off, he added.

Recruitment is not an issue for the Fire Department, which receives about 800 applications for any one opening, said city Fire Department public education coordinator Gracie Huerta.

But long drives still take a toll.

“I can tell you the younger guys are traveling the furthest, for obvious reasons,” said city fire Battalion Chief John Ahlman. “The younger folks coming on, they either already live in the area, or when they come on here they are looking to buy somewhere else outside of the city.”

Engineer Dave Ward is one of those firefighters with a lengthy drive ahead of him and behind him.

“I hate the drive, I always think about stuff I could be doing if I wasn’t sitting in my car. Basically a day a month I’m sitting in my car,” said Ward, who lives in Santa Maria and has been commuting for 17 years.

“It gets old, but I like the department, so I wouldn’t go anywhere else.”

Originally published in South Coast Beacon on May 27, 2004.

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