It unfortunately seems to be the perennial struggle in the City of Santa Barbara: a desire to preserve our cherished community character, quality of life, and the general beauty of our town while agonizing over the relative expense of housing.
In 2011, the drumbeat of “Housing, Housing, Housing” became so loud that the City of Santa Barbara adopted a General Plan that instituted something called AUD (Average Unit-size Density) with the goal of incentivizing workforce housing. The plan in some instances allowed developers to build projects with significantly increased density, reduced off-street parking requirements, exemptions from planning review, and other inducements.
The AUD plan — beyond the hype of “denser” and therefore presumably “affordable by design” housing — basically allowed developers to develop, and they did. The city received applications for over 1,200 units, which are now either completed, in the planning review process, or under construction. Despite the original AUD selling point that the program would be evaluated once 250 units were completed and occupied, the way development entitlement rights work in California, it is assured that these 1,200 units could be constructed no matter what — the only question is how quickly developers can build them.
We have some completed and nearly completed AUD projects that are telling examples of their impact to the city’s housing market. A development located by La Cumbre Road and State Street, known as The Marc (apparently because it is oriented toward San Marcos Pass), recently opened to great fanfare. Of its 89 new units, zero have any actual affordability requirements, meaning rents are market-based. A recent story in The Santa Barbara Independent reports that rents for a one-bedroom apartment of 646 square feet start at around $2,900 and go up from there. I ask housing advocates, whose housing needs are being met with a one-bedroom apartment that rents for $2,900?
Another AUD project currently under construction at the corner of Chapala Street and Sola Street by the owner/operator of the Arlington Theatre applied to the city to convert 13 of their new apartments into hotel rooms/vacation rentals. When this project was under appeal to the Santa Barbara City Council in 2013, the developer and housing proponents exclaimed that the proposed apartments were essential to address our local housing needs. Now, even before the red tile roofs are installed, apparently that argument no longer holds. I ask rhetorically, do converting apartments to hotel rooms help reduce the cost of housing in Santa Barbara?
These projects are not meeting the goals of affordability that were used to sell AUD to the city. To the contrary, it is making housing more expensive, subsidizing what are becoming luxury, amenity-filled developments, and, in at least some cases, just adding to the number of hotel rooms Santa Barbara offers out-of-town guests.
If AUD continues as-is, we may see many more unintended consequences, such as further removal of below-market housing stock. For example, small, older homes and apartments are being demolished to make room for larger projects as developers capitalize on the essential subsidy AUD projects offer. These impacts are disproportionately falling on neighborhoods in the “flats” such as the Eastside and downtown that I represent, but also the Westside.
The AUD program is not doing what the city intended. It is not helping workforce households, which are defined as those earning between 60-120 percent of the area median income. Public agencies offer services to households below that threshold. Households above the threshold are traditionally envisaged to participate in the housing market without direct assistance. Yet the AUD is realizing housing for the wealthiest 25 percent of rental households. The city needs to stop the program temporarily and retool it before we subsidize even more unaffordable luxury units. Irreparable harm in this context includes the loss of land for workforce housing, a decrease in air quality, increased traffic, and a less robust local economy.
The City Council decided to take the bull by the horns and voted unanimously to create a Housing Task Force, comprised of three councilmembers, three Planning Commissioners, and a member of the City’s Housing Authority Commission, to review and recommend policy amendments over the next six months. We need to give this Task Force a chance to carry out its mandate. Putting a pause on AUD projects temporary would provide staff and policy-makers time to correct the direction.
In the perennial struggle to balance community character and the high cost of housing, we have an opportunity now to correct course by taking a brief pause on new AUD applications. I encourage you to participate and make your voice heard at this week’s City Council meeting when this issue will be decided.
Jason Dominguez is mayor pro tempore of the Santa Barbara City Council and councilmember for District One.