Stopping the Bleeding

S.B. Council Looks for Quick Fixes to Housing

By Nick Welsh

City-Council-Halloween-Web.jpgAt Tuesday’s Santa Barbara City Council meeting, Councilmember Brian Barnwell (shown dressed up as pirate Jack Sparrow) and fellow Councilmember Das Williams — looking slightly gangster in a fedora — shared a Halloween laugh on the dais as Barnwell brandished his sword. The two were less amiable, however, when it came to how hard and fast the council should push a series of quick fixes designed to stem the loss of lower-end housing due to condo conversions and demolitions. Barnwell argued it would take considerably longer than his colleagues believed to tweak a few city ordinances to partially plug the leak. And that time and effort, he asserted, would interfere with an intensive, long-term overhaul of the city’s general plan, which is scheduled to begin sometime next spring. Barnwell was also skeptical that City Hall could devise any “tweak” that would give property owners enough of an incentive to invest in rental housing rather than condo conversions. “It’s going to be condos or nothing at all,” the grim-faced pirate predicted.

Williams expressed concern that developers were successfully “gaming” City Hall in various ways to bypass policies designed to produce affordable housing. He contended that developers get around the city’s inclusionary housing ordinance — which requires developers building 10 units or more to make 15 percent affordable to middle-income people — by building in lots of seven, eight, or nine units. Williams noted that with 800 market-rate housing units in the city’s pipeline, fewer than 50 affordable units will be built because of the ingenuity of developers in bypassing the rules. “We’d have to be blind not to see that our inclusionary housing rules need to be changed,” he argued.

Williams also took issue with a phenomenon known as “the two-step flip,” in which a developer obtains permits to build an apartment building and then quickly converts the apartments to condominiums. The problem with that, said Williams, is that City Hall — desperate to see apartments get built — gives the red carpet treatment to anyone proposing rental units and spares them the rigorous review they’d endure if they proposed condos in the first place. Williams suggested that the city enact an ordinance banning owners of newly built apartments from converting to more expensive condos for a period of five years. Longtime affordable housing advocate Mickey Flacks argued the city should make the waiting period even longer. She also advocated strengthening the inclusionary rules to require that 40 percent of all new units be affordable.

Flacks — who was not dressed in any costume — further argued that market-rate housing developers should be charged impact fees, the proceeds of which should be split among affordable housing projects, open space acquisition, and alternative transportation projects. Currently, Santa Barbara charges no such fees, though many surrounding municipalities do.

Such fees, suggested Councilmember Helene Schneider, could be based upon the square footage of the structure built. That might serve as a deterrent, she said, against some of the bigger condos now being proposed. Some councilmembers expressed a sense of urgency that if they wait too long to act, the people they’re trying to save from such conversions will have already been displaced and there will be no one left to save. Next week, the council will review an ordinance that would require owners of rental properties slated for demolition — and subsequent condo conversion — to provide relocation assistance for tenants forced to move.

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