Santa Barbara County has a highly diverse population that is growing, attracting highly educated young people, as well as a healthy environment and falling violent crime rate.
But 10 percent of the population earns less than $15,000 a year, housing is generally considered unaffordable, and while the number of homeless appears to be shrinking, the statistics could be inaccurate.
The county also has a cultural and political divide between the northern and southern areas that stands as a barrier to solving some of the problems, particularly for nonprofit organizations working to help low-income residents.
These were some of the conclusions in the 2017 Santa Barbara County Community Indicators report prepared by the UCSB Economic Forecast Project and presented Thursday night to a gathering at the Alisal Guest Ranch in Solvang.
The Community Indicators Project, designed to measure the social, environmental and economic factors that make up the quality of life in the county, made up about half of the presentation.
The other half was a panel discussion of nonprofit organizations and the issues they face, featuring Dean Palius, chief executive officer of Santa Ynez Valley People Helping People; Eddie Taylor, president and CEO of United Way of Northern Santa Barbara County; and Kathy Simas, director of the Santa Barbara Foundation in the North County Office.
Peter Rupert, executive director of the UCSB Economic Forecast Project, hit some of the highlights of the Community Indicators Report and explained what the data — in the form of graphs and charts — really mean for the county’s citizens.
“Community is not about a place or an organization,” he said. “It’s about people.”
Some of the data he presented referred to the nation as a whole, although part of it correlated to the county.
“We’ve gotten richer every year — but not everyone,” he said. “Equality is less than it was in the 1920s.”
Much of that inequality in this county is defined by the north-south divide.
“There are very stark differences,” Rupert said.
For example, the South Coast tends to be wealthier than North County, with a higher percentage of its residents falling at the upper end of the income distribution range.
The percentage is about the same for those earning less than $15,000, but then the percentage of North County people at each income level outstrips that of the South Coast. The difference is not great, however, until the $125,000-to-$150,000 income range.
At that point, the South Coast percentage takes a sizeable lead over the North County and holds it all the way to $500,000 and more.
The study found most households with incomes below the Federal Poverty Level are families with children. While the percentage is relatively high in both the north and south parts of the county, the total numbers are far different.
In the North County, 6,714 households are living in poverty, and 83 percent of them are families with children. Along the South Coast, just 2,081 households are living in poverty, with 77 percent of them families with children.
As for housing affordability, Rupert said nationwide, an average of 58 percent of American households can afford the cost of a median-price house.
The median is the statistical middle of the price range, meaning half the homes are selling for less and half the homes are selling for more.
In California as a whole, 31 percent of households can afford a median-price home. But in Santa Barbara County, only 20 percent can afford a median-price home.
Overall, the cost of living in this county is high, while personal income is low, the report finds.
Affording the five basic needs — food, housing and utilities, clothing, health care and basic education — in Santa Barbara County requires an annual income of about $56,000.
The median income in the county is $52,000 a year.
Leveling the field
Nonprofit organizations try to bridge the gap between income and expenses for those at the lowest income levels, and Rupert noted the county’s nonprofit groups generated more than $1 billion from grants and contributions in 2014.
But most of the nonprofit organizations are concentrated in the South County.
“What is changing dramatically is the need, and the need is in the North County,” said Tom Parker, president of Hutton Parker Foundation, who moderated the panel discussion. “How do we bridge the gap?”
Taylor said all the nonprofit groups as well as businesses and government agencies need to work better together.
“It’s not Dignity (Health) Hospital; it’s not Cottage Hospital; it’s the ‘hospital system,’” he said as an example.
Simas agreed, noting she has “always hated the north-south conversation,” but she said “each community is very, very different.”
“We need to stop talking about north-south and start talking about the many diverse communities (and how we) can pull together and address all needs,” she said.
Speaking from the audience, Rona Barrett, who conceived the Golden Inn & Village affordable housing complex for seniors in Santa Ynez, said there is a prejudice among the various areas that has made it difficult for her to raise the money she needs for her project.
“There is some bias,” Palius agreed. “You can’t ignore that. Not that long ago they wanted to split the county in two.”
But he pointed out that if 15 percent of the population is making $15,000 a year, with a population of 400,000 in the county, “that’s a lot of people.”
“It’s in our economic self-interest to improve that,” he said.