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Santa Barbara City Council Calls for More Affordable Housing

Ordinance Committee’s Tweaks Bring High-Density Rental Housing Program Near Breaking Point

Santa Barbara City Councilmember Randy Rowse (May 14, 2019) | Credit: Paul Wellman

As mixed metaphors went, it stole the show. “’Til we strangle the golden goose to death, let’s make sure we have our ducks in row,” said Santa Barbara City Councilmember Randy Rowse. Increasingly long of tooth but short on patience, Rowse was expressing frustration at efforts by the council’s Ordinance Committee ​— ​on which he sits ​— ​to tweak City Hall’s experimental high-density rental housing program, known as the Average Unit-Size Density (AUD) program, such that it actually produced housing that was affordable to moderate-income earners. 

To date, the program has been best known for producing high-end gems like The Marc on upper State Street, where two-bedroom units go for $3,200 a month. That’s far beyond the financial reach of Santa Barbara’s moderate-income households ​— ​those making $64,000-$76,000 a year, or the so-called missing middle. 

The Ordinance Committee ultimately voted to require developers taking advantage of City Hall’s high-octane incentives to rent at least 10 percent of the units at below-market rents affordable to moderate earners. This is what’s known in the planning lingo as an “inclusionary requirement,” which has been under consideration at City Hall the past two years. 

This was the third time the Ordinance Committee took a bite of the apple, and it took an agonizing 95 minutes for the committee members to figure out how to craft a vote policy capable of garnering two of the three possible votes. Ultimately, city planner Renee Brooke had to rescue them from what appeared to be a terminal impasse. Councilmember Oscar Gutierrez wanted 15 percent of the units bound by the inclusionary requirement even though the economic consultant hired by City Hall concluded that 15 percent was too financially onerous and would chase developers away. 

Although highly controversial, the city’s AUD program has succeeded in sparking developer interest in building rental housing, something not built in any numbers in the decades prior to its adoption. A developer from Long Beach who testified he wanted to move to Santa Barbara said an inclusionary requirement would sink his current proposal to build 17 units of rental housing where an office now stands. The AUD program rewards developers with the highest densities City Hall currently allows ​— ​63 units per acre ​— ​and the least number of parking spaces if they agree to build rental housing. Because the units typically built tend to be small ​— ​500-800 square feet ​— ​they’re said to be “affordable by design.” 

Before this latest tweak can become final, it must first go to the City Council as a whole, then the Planning Commission, and then back to the City Council. By that time, however, the time limit initially set for this experimental ​— ​and much-disparaged ​— ​program could well run out. City planners estimate the program will expire late in 2020 or early 2021.

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