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

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


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