It was a concerted effort at cooperation and compromise. And this Tuesday afternoon, it worked. After an uncommonly brief and harmonious discussion, Santa Barbara’s City Council voted unanimously in favor of a rental housing affordability requirement that had bedeviled this council and the one before it for nearly two years. Almost shocked by the outcome, Mayor Cathy Murillo asked herself and the room immediately afterward, “Was that seven?” It was.
As a result, 10 percent of all new rental housing built by developers taking advantage of City Hall’s package of high-density incentives now must be set aside for middle-income workers with the rents set at rates they can afford. Currently, these developers can charge what the market will bear. Too many of the units built under this program — known as Average Unit-size Density housing, or AUDs — have commanded top dollar. This contradicted the purpose of the program, originally proposed seven years ago: Smaller units command smaller rents and are “affordable by design.” By allowing developers to build lots of small units with fewer parking spaces, affordable rental housing would be produced. While lots of rentals ensued, very little of it was remotely affordable.
The first project out the gate, the Marc on outer State Street — charged $3,500 to $4,200 a month for two-bedroom units. Community members in affected neighborhoods protested that the increased densities, fewer parking spaces, and relaxed setback requirements produced no affordable housing. Supporters of AUDs countered that the program — for all its flaws — had succeeded in generating a steady stream of rental housing after a 50-year drought. At the outset of council deliberations, a clear majority favored a 15 percent inclusionary requirement, but councilmembers Meagan Harmon, Kristen Sneddon, Jason Dominguez, and Oscar Gutierrez all compromised and agreed to a 10 percent requirement. Mayor Murillo and the other councilmembers took pains to acknowledge each others’ concerns while standing up for the interests of their district or their own beliefs. The degree of decorum was striking, and the meeting proceeded with the determined civility bred of family feuds and bruised feelings.