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Santa Barbara Feeling the Squeeze from Affordable Housing Challenges, Mandates

California’s mandates regarding affordable housing have backed Santa Barbara officials into a corner and no one is quite sure how the city will find its way out. “We’re certainly getting dumped on by Sacramento,” Councilman Randy Rowse said. “Unfortunately, from Sacramento it’s kind of a cookie-cutter, one size fits all. “We like to think of Santa Barbara as just a little more special than that.”

The City Council and Planning Commission met Friday to talk about Santa Barbara’s planning priorities for the next several years, but driving the discussion was the city’s ability to provide its usual planning services, while keeping up with the influx of permits and housing demands. “I am actually struck as we talk about state mandates because they seem to come at a greater pace,” Rowse said. “In my mind, they are kind of aggressive and capricious so it’s hard to sit there and make these long-term land use and housing plans when Lord knows what is going to happen next January.” The city is trying to meet a state mandate that requires near instant approval of accessory dwelling units, known as “granny flats,” as well as measures by state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco: Senate Bill 35, which was enacted last year and requires a streamlined approval process for affordable housing, and SB 827 that, if passed by the Legislature and enacted, would allow developers to build affordable housing up to eight stories tall along transit corridors.

Santa Barbara also is on its heels trying to refine and salvage its controversial high-density apartment program, known as AUD, which has yet to produce the kind of workforce housing that many housing activists envisioned. “We’re not getting workforce housing units,” Councilman Jason Dominguez said. “We’re actually losing workforce housing units.” The council tentatively agreed with a staff planning recommendation to add an additional 1.5 full-time equivalent position at the project planner level, at an annual cost of $181,500. With that kind of funding, it would take up to two fiscal years to implement SB 35, make amendments to the AUD program, complete Historic Resource Design Guidelines, complete a land development team fee study and other “top priority” projects.

It would take two years to begin work on the city’s Climate Action Plan update, the tenant displacement assistance ordinance amendment, sign ordinance amendments, density bonus ordinance amendment and create multiunit and mixed-use design guidelines. “I think there’s going to be some hard decisions during the budget process,” Councilman Gregg Hart said. Anna Marie Gott, a neighborhood activist, called on the city to do even more. She said the city’s housing policies are upside down. “We do not have an independent economic study to re-envision Santa Barbara on this list,” she pointed out. Gott said the people who work in the retail and tourism industries aren’t going to be able to afford the apartments being proposed for the downtown area. “We don’t have a plan for downtown,” she said. “We have an old model for the city, and we are far behind other cities in redeveloping how they see themselves and where the workforce actually is and isn’t living and working.”

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