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Santa Barbara Apartments Should Be Affordable

Did 'Affordable by Design' Sound Too Good to Be True? It Probably Is

Credit: Pat Bagley, The Salt Lake Tribune, UT

My good friend at the Independent Nick Welsh is accusing me of being against affordable housing. The subheadline of his most recent Angry Poodle Barbecue is “Councilmember Jason Dominguez Gives the Kiss of Death to Inclusionary Housing.”

It is no secret that in recent years the mayor and council have been leading the effort to change the face of Santa Barbara and character of our community by approving high-density buildings — commonly known as AUD (Average Unit-size Density). Most of these developments have been foisted upon predominantly poorer residential neighborhoods suffering from overcrowding, lack of street parking, and environmental challenges.

Nick Welsh seems to be upset that I have proposed a policy change that finally has the support of the majority of the City Council. This policy change will greatly improve the AUD program by adding a modest affordability requirement of 15 percent to new development projects. This is set to be finalized on Tuesday, June 25, and I ask the Santa Barbara community to support at least one more member of the council in joining us in this important change.

Here is my housing philosophy: If Santa Barbara is building apartments, they should be affordable. Affordable as in economically feasible for people making between 80 percent and 120 percent of area median income, which is $79,300 for a family of four.

Density advocates on the City Council along with most of the developer community argue that we should not require new developments to include 15 percent affordable units, if any at all. They contend that building market-rate apartments will “free up housing stock” at the lower end of the rental rate spectrum. To me, this is tantamount to arguing for trickle-down economics and bank deregulation. I believe Nick Welsh even agrees with me on this because on September 20, 2018, he wrote, “Some councilmembers, I am told, believe by adding a few units of higher-end housing, rents will somehow come down. Such magical thinking might make sense on another planet, but here on Earth … ”

Nick’s September 2018 story is right on, but it is not just delusion, as he suggests, that motivates some local politicians who advocate for more and more new development projects without affordable units. If any Santa Barbara politician tells you they want to build market rate housing to “free up housing stock” perhaps what they are really saying is: I want to help my developer friends out. Nick continues, “ … the City Council has repeatedly delayed adopting new rules that would allow City Hall … to charge less-than-premium rents to a handful of tenants in the middle-income category.”

Here is another inconvenient fact: Sites for new developments are often created by demolishing older, slightly “scruffy” housing units. Recent examples of this phenomenon are at 1220 San Andres Street and 226 East Anapamu Street. The sad truth is that in our community, old housing units are the most “affordable” units available. Many new AUD projects are replacing “affordable” older housing with rentals that command top-tier rents. In all, we are slated to lose 60 units of housing to make way for new rentals. These are out of reach to the residents who are dislocated when their homes are demolished and replaced with high-end AUD units. The sad fact is our current policies are stripping the city of affordable housing.

A useful credo for government could be borrowed from medicine: Do no harm. As the Indy announced last year, “Santa Barbara Rental Prices Have Skyrocketed Over the Last Five Years.” Of course, not all of the blame can be placed on the AUD, as rental prices have gone up along the coast. However, when a policy increases demand for workforce housing — wealthy residents generate low income service jobs — while simultaneously decreasing the supply of “affordable” housing stock (“scruffy” units), rents will soar.

Another great credo: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. The AUD was premised on the argument “Affordable by Design.” By letting developers get away with less parking, reduced setbacks, higher density, and less design review, their costs will decrease and they will pass that profit on to the tenants in the form of reduced rents. Too good to be true? You be the judge.

My good friend Nick claims that my modest 15 percent “affordable“ housing requirement is a kiss of death. Never mind that a majority of councilmembers, Kristen Sneddon, Meagan Harmon, Oscar Gutierrez (who supported 25 percent), and me, and housing advocates also support 15 percent. Many California cities require more than 15 percent. Since 2016, right after I was first elected, I have been working to increase the affordability requirement of new AUD projects. When I met with staff during my onboarding it became clear that the AUD was not working the way it was expected. I conducted research and spoke with urban planners and university economists. Once I presented my findings, I had the support of former Mayor Helene Schneider and former councilmember Bendy White to make changes. Unfortunately a minority of the council was able to block reforms because change requires a supermajority. Cathy Murillo and Gregg Hart were staunchly opposed to the reforms.

Of note, now only the Independent’s past endorsed officials, including Rowse, Friedman, and Murillo, oppose requiring the maximum affordable housing be included in new developments. I’m not sure why Nick singled me out when I’m square in the center of the pro vote and councilmembers exist who currently or formerly oppose inclusionary housing.

Many small towns like ours, in California, are under siege from legislation from Sacramento. Legislators are trying to solve statewide housing issues with one-size-fits-all solutions, with devastating impacts on small towns. What works in Los Angeles and San Francisco, almost by definition, won’t work here. I am part of a working group of city council members from coastal cities such as Pismo Beach and Huntington Beach who are working to provide solutions that will work.

The Santa Barbara City Council is poised next Tuesday, after years of stonewalling by special interests, to make at least some small positive changes. The Santa Barbara community needs to speak out and encourage at least one of the three members of the council minority to vote to adopt a 15 percent affordable requirement for new projects when they vote on it Tuesday, June 25 — this change won’t fix all the problems, but it is an important start.

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