Panel Mulls Housing, Wage Issues

A public panel discussion about housing and wages in Santa Barbara drew about 100 residents July 26 who heard the familiar refrain: not enough workers, especially in hospitality, and not enough workforce housing.

Santa Barbara Region Chamber of Commerce chief Ken Oplinger told the crowd at the Central Library that the city’s housing cost is six times the nation’s median. And, he added, “Downtown businesses just can’t afford the costs,” to keep their employees in town.

Attorney Trevor Large, head of Hospitality Santa Barbara, said the South Coast industry needs more employees for the restaurants and lodging places, but with a severe lack housing there may never be enough. He said city leadership needs to decide what to do about that problem.

The panel discussion was titled “The High Cost of Living in Santa Barbara: A Focus on Jobs and Housing” and featured Nelson Lichtenstein, director UCSB’s Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy. He said hotel workers’ wages in Santa Barbara are slightly lower than those in Los Angeles.

Lichtenstein said retail workers’ hourly wages in Santa Barbara are $1 less than those in Los Angeles. Even in the face of the state’s minimum wage increase to $15 an hour in the next few years, he said “a $30 or $40 an hour” minimum wage is needed.

Lichtenstein said the minimum wage situation has made more employees work even when they are ill for fear of losing their jobs, especially those who are undocumented.

In the wake of so many restaurants closing on State Street, Oplinger said perhaps the owners should have not gone into that type of business. To date, there are about a dozen empty restaurant spaces on and around State Street.

Large said restaurants are hit harder than other businesses because of high overhead and employee costs. He said many restaurant workers rely on tips to get by, which they want even though they are taxed. “People are so used to tipping,” Oplinger said.

A panel discussion July 26 mulled over the city’s problems with housing and wages.

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