New Bills Could Reshape Santa Barbara Housing

Senate Bills 9 and 10 Eliminate Single-Family Housing

From left to right: Hannah-Beth Jackson, Kristen Sneddon, and Sharon Byrne. | Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

At a time when the state is putting increasing pressure on Santa Barbara to build housing, two new state bills are currently in committee that have the potential to dismantle Santa Barbara’s single-family homes and replace them with multi-unit housing.

Senate Bill 9 allows homeowners to put a duplex on single-family lots or split them without requiring a hearing or approval from the local government. Where a single-family home stood, eight units of housing can be built. Senate Bill 10 would allow cities to adopt an ordinance to zone any parcel of land, including single-family homes, for up to 10 units of housing if it is located in a “transit-rich or jobs-rich area” or is an urban infill site. Both bills will not require environmental analysis. Like SB 9, SB 10 also only requires ministerial approval.

“The biggest challenge with both of them is that they take away local control,” said former state senator Hannah-Beth Jackson. “So a lot of buildings that would take place would be done without the public input, without the community being able to approve or fashion the development so that it meets the values of the community.”

Jackson was hired by the Montecito Association to help guide them as its members lobby against the bills and educate the community. Jackson herself is not lobbying on their behalf because she is still in the probationary period after coming out of office. 

One huge issue, Jackson said, was that the bills, particularly SB 9, don’t take into consideration that Santa Barbara is a high fire zone and cramming multiple units onto a small single-family home lot can be dangerous. 

Sharon Byrne, executive director of the Montecito Association, shared the same viewpoint as Jackson. She also is concerned about infrastructure issues. Normally when a developer builds housing, they are responsible for upgrading water, sewage, and other infrastructure. Neither SB 9 nor 10 deals with this. 

“It will allow rampant gentrification where the locals cannot do anything about it — and that’s the intent of these two bills — and it doesn’t provide any parking or any infrastructure upgrades,” Byrne said. “We need better solutions. And these aren’t very well thought out.”

And what are the better solutions? Well, for one, both Byrne and Jackson agreed that SB 9 and 10 are geared toward a 2019 world when the pandemic has changed the housing needs. For example, SB 10 requires that the proposed project is located in a “transit-rich or jobs-rich area.” Nowadays, many people are working from home, meaning they don’t necessarily need to live near a bus station or in an area rich with jobs. 

Byrne said she hoped to see a bill that would address this new reality, or one more geared toward housing millennials and generation Z, who have different living habits and needs. She also said she sees building housing on top of State Street as an option and was disappointed none of the bills allow that. In addition to being against SB 9 and 10, Byrne and her association are also lobbying in favor of several bills. Those include SB 621, which would allow converting hotels into housing, and SB 15, which would allow the city to rezone the vacant Sears building for housing. 

Santa Barbara City Councilmember Kristen Sneddon takes issue with many of the same points Byrne and Jackson do. One of her major concerns focused on potential gentrification that could result from either of the bills passing.

“As we’ve seen, there’s no limit to what people will pay for rent here,” Sneddon said. “This would be a dream for developers to be able to knock one thing down and put up 10 units instead and rent each of those out for exorbitantly high rent. 

“We would get more housing, but it wouldn’t be the housing that we need,” she continued. “And it would attract more people from out of the area instead of housing the people that we have here. I think it would be terrible for neighborhoods like the Westside and Eastside.”

These bills come at a time when Santa Barbara is mandated by the state to build more housing. According to the most recent Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA) allotment, Santa Barbara had only permitted 1,897 of its 4,102 total. The next RHNA mandate calls for 8,000 between 2023 and 2027. Sneddon believes that the city’s efforts are already helping achieve this goal, though she is a proponent of converting the empty Nordstrom, Sears, and Macy’s buildings into housing.

The city has made several changes to build more housing. Colloquially known as granny flats, accessory dwelling units (ADU) allow a single-family home to build one extra apartment on its lot, as well as a second apartment if it’s less than 500 square feet and connected to the main house. In 2016 the state decided that as long as a lot meets the requirements, developers can build ADUs with no a hearing or approval from the local government. Sneddon said she felt these have been largely successful in creating new housing.

But local developer Frank Thompson disagrees. 

“This is what you cannot do under ADU right now,” Thompson said. “You can’t divide the ownership of the property and sell off the ADU separately. So there always has to be a landlord. SB 9 Is trying to change that. So they’re trying to let you have two separate owners, like a two-unit condo.

“And frankly, I don’t think in Santa Barbara that the ADUs have proven to be affordable,” he said. “It’s the same problem. We expanded the housing supply and we kind of hoped that the rents would come in lower, but golly, gee whiz, the rents came in high.”

Thompson called State Sen. Scott Wiener, who introduced the bills, a “thought leader.” He said that Wiener’s SB 9 is aimed at creating homeownership opportunities rather than more renters. He said that it really isn’t much of an issue in areas where lots are larger, but because the bill would be market-driven, he doesn’t think anyone will attempt to split their smaller lot when it would be too cramped.

He also said that he doesn’t believe SB 10 will have much of an impact on Santa Barbara if it passes, either. Even though it allows up to 10 units on a single lot, he said most lots wouldn’t allow for that many and developers wouldn’t try to.

As for the city itself, city planner Renee Brooke said that they stand with Byrne, Jackson, and Sneddon for many of the same reasons. She said that while the city generally supports streamlining housing production, it has to be the housing it truly needs, and SB 9 does not have any affordability requirements. The city would also prefer to retain some local control and be able to identify areas where that type of housing is best suited, like outside of hazard zones. She isn’t worried about SB 10 because it is an “opt-in” bill, meaning that cities do not have to implement it if they choose not to.

Both bills are currently in committee.

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