One Answer to Santa Barbara’s Housing Shortage

The extremely high cost of housing on the south coast of Santa Barbara County has had an ongoing, negative domino effect on our economy, by forcing employees to either relocate to other, more affordable areas, or leave the region entirely. This has made it more difficult for employers to fill jobs of essential workers such as fire, police, medical and hospitality personnel, which became evident during the recent mudslide because many live out of the area.

Building sufficient workforce housing stock to alleviate the lack of moderately priced housing will make the South Coast of Santa Barbara County an area which will once again have diverse and affordable housing options.

There are three important components  for a thriving region: Jobs, transportation and housing. The South Coast has two of the three: Jobs and transportation. With regard to transportation, SBCAG is currently in the middle of a decade+ improvement project on Highway 101 that we hope will be done sometime after 2025. The road improvements are being done in large part to ease the commuter traffic congestion coming north in the morning, and south in the afternoon to accommodate thousands of daily commuters to the south coast.   In addition, commuter rail service from Ventura County is another transportation component to help reduce commuter congestion.

We have the jobs, and we are improving the transportation side; however, the housing side is bleak.  Efforts to build more moderately priced rental housing in Santa Barbara are difficult because of the cost and availability of land, and the difficulty of development. This has resulted in the high cost of both homes and rentals.

A relatively new option in the housing market are ADUs (Accessory Dwelling Units). ADUs, or Granny Flats, are a complete living unit, which is either attached or a stand-alone structure on a homeowner’s property.  The most cost effective option is an attached garage, or room attached to the house, known as a JADU (Junior ADU). Previously permitted detached garages or out buildings  are also eligible to be ADUs.

Collectively, ADUs can provide a much-needed supply of moderately priced housing, which will both help local businesses be able to attract employees, and keep a diverse workforce on the South Coast without building taller buildings, which is a win-win for everyone.

There are three markets for ADUs: (1) Seniors and other homeowners who wish to maximize the return on their property investment for additional cash flow; (2) Professionals who wish to work from home; and (3) Property owners who need to provide separate but adjacent living space for elderly parents/in-laws/adult children.

Good news! As of January 1, 2020 the ADU laws in California have changed to make it easier to build an ADU or JADU, both here and elsewhere in the state.

For context, it’s important to note that in 1969, the State of California mandated that cities and counties plan for a certain number of housing units called Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA). Recently it’s come to light that Santa Barbara has provided only 0.5 percent, yes, half of one percent of the number of housing units for those with moderate income. More recently, the state responded to the severity of the housing shortage here and elsewhere in California by creating the original ADU laws in 2017, and more recently by passing the ADU laws linked here: (, effective January 1, 2020, the state prohibited cities from charging egregious “fees” for ADU development, and ordered cities to streamline the permit process for ADUs, among other protocols to stimulate their construction.

In summary, the ADU solves a number of problems.  Having lived in Santa Barbara for many years as a general contractor, I’ve seen (and removed) many illegal housing units built in garages and back yards. Without being inspected and approved for habitation, they pose a hazard to the inhabitants, and many emergencies have resulted from substandard electrical wiring, plumbing, structure, etc.

The new ADU laws also give property owners an opportunity to have previously unpermitted living spaces brought up to code, and provide safe housing. It also gives our community to make a significant contribution to the RHNA quota and enhance the jobs/housing imbalance.  With the ADU, the state has provided a way for regions to allow homeowners to create much needed new housing stock.

Dennis Story can be reached at


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