On the subject of the city’s providing incentives to build rental housing, The Poodle column recently noted, “We all desperately want rental housing until such time as someone actually offers to build any” and “The Marc demonstrates that City Hall needs to reserve the big breaks it dispenses, and the high densities it allows, for developers building genuinely affordable housing. As long as City Hall is willing to give away the store, we’ll get all the problems of high density with none of the benefits of affordability.”
This is the heart of the message Allied Neighborhoods Association has been pressing — but no one seems to want to address — since the city’s infatuation with “affordable” housing measures. We concur with the goals of the measures (shelter for the city workforce) but have been accused by some as “anti-housing “ for daring to point out potentially fatal flaws in these relatively untested approaches — approaches especially vulnerable because Santa Barbara is one of the planet’s most attractive places to live. It is very difficult — possibly impossible — to achieve affordability and a “jobs/housing balance” with free-market approaches when not just locals but people from virtually everywhere are willing to bid up the prices.
I don’t know whether “We all want rental housing,” but we are certainly willing to tolerate it if it succeeds in providing housing that is affordable and available to local workforce. Who says it will? The Marc serves as warning that it might not. Just because units are small doesn’t mean they will come cheap — not in Santa Barbara’s housing market.
We have been urging that as these programs proceed, we can pause and evaluate whether they are achieving their objectives. This is the essence of the new General Plan’s “adaptive management” admonition. (In the case of the AUD [Average Unit-Size Density] program, we understood the deal was that the pause-and-evaluate point would come after the first 250 units were built and occupied.)
What are the risks if the programs do not deliver as hoped? Certainly “all the problems of high density” — impacts upon our infrastructure and limited resources, most notably water, sewer, and roads — with “none of the benefits of affordability.” Are we willing to chance that? After all, I think we can all agree that the reason Santa Barbara has retained its identity and character and not morphed into an unrecognizable Florida-style beach city can be credited to a 40-plus year tradition of stringent growth management. If we are willing to unwind any of that in the pursuit of “affordability,” we ought to make damn sure that what we are implementing stands a very high chance of success. The AUD program literally leaves the back door open to unlimited apartment development, and it is a perfect example of “giving away the store” unless a sooner — rather than later — assessment assures that the goals of affordability and workforce housing are being achieved.
Joe Rution is copresident of the Allied Neighborhoods Association.