Opinion: Santa Barbara didn’t help property owners
By Jim Knell
At some point—and no one really knows when—the restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic will end and life will go back to normal. We’ll walk the streets again without masks. Shops and dine without restriction. And go back to work in offices.
What will remain is the memory of how our government treated us during our most difficult public crisis.
I’ll leave it to the politicians to discuss the handling of the pandemic in schools, in transportation and in other areas of life. I am going to speak for commercial property owners and say that in Santa Barbara (and likely some other communities) our enduring memory will be of a local government that acted as if it did not care whether we survived or not. And this cavalier attitude will affect Santa Barbara and its retail and office decisions for years to come.
Only a few commercial property owners are going to want to make more investments in a community where the local government offered no assistance. In fact, local government made it harder for us to survive.
I specifically refer to the Santa Barbara City Council’s numerous votes and extensions of decisions to prohibit property owners from collecting even partial rent from those tenants who had signed legally binding leases. Government is often quick to stay out of the affairs of private businesses, but not in this case. They stepped right in and stepped right on the property owners.
When the pandemic started in March, the City Council passed an ordinance that said residential and commercial tenants could not be evicted if they were unable to pay the rent due to economic hardships caused by COVID-19. One could argue that step was necessary at the time. However, the federal government quickly stepped in to offer grants and loans at low interest to assist. In the case of commercial operators, some of the largest retailers in the nation applied for Paycheck Protection Program loans (which likely will not have to be paid back).
Even after these measures were enacted to help those tenants, the council refused to assist the landlords. In fact, the council extended the moratorium on tenant evictions for non-payment of the rent. By the way, the council did not offer the same rent forgiveness to the tenants at the city’s airport.
So to summarize, the council acted to protect renters, but offered nothing to the land owners and lease holders. We were told to figure it out on our own.
And to be frank, most of us have. We are property owners who have wisely invested in real estate over the years and we will be fine. But down the road a few years from now when investors in commercial property are looking at where to place their investments, their memory is likely to be long. Few will want to invest in a community where the council says it welcomes business, but acts as if it does not care. Very few cities treated their commercial property owners this way. Santa Barbara stands out like a sore thumb.
While we hope and pray for an end to the pandemic and a return to normal, our memory of how we were abandoned by our council will last a long time.
• Jim Knell is the founder of SIMA Corporation.