Credit: Nick Welsh

City Housing Authority director Rob Fredericks was displaying an unusual degree of swagger this Wednesday morning at a ceremonial ground-breaking ceremony featuring 15 high-ranking public officials — including Santa Barbara Mayor Cathy Murillo — all of whom were wearing white hard hats and wielding golden shovels. 

The occasion was a grip-n-grin event to kick off the construction of a new affordable housing project next door to Vera Cruz Park, right across the street from the Cota Street parking lot where Saturday’s farmers’ market takes place. The property had initially been slated — Fredericks pointedly pointed out to a small crowd of City Hall insiders, assorted news media, and affordable housing players — to be developed into 15 units of high-end housing. But when that project failed, the Housing Authority managed to snag the property before any other developers could. As a result, the Housing Authority will be building 28 units of capital “A” affordable studio apartments for people so poor that many of them would otherwise find themselves either homeless or close to it.  

A rendering of Vera Cruz Village | Credit: Courtesy

Fredericks then gave a crash course in the history of affordable housing in urban America. Back in 1921, the Supreme Court issued a ruling finding that housing constituted a necessity of life, he said. In 1937, Congress passed a landmark housing bill to provide affordable housing. In the intervening years, he concluded, “We have fallen short of this goal.”

In such gatherings, subtext is everything. Playing out not so subliminally at this one was a wonky but profound clash over housing strategies. For the past eight years, City Hall has sought to incentivize the development of new rental apartments by allowing developers to jam many more units onto the available parcel and by requiring far fewer parking spaces. 

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This strategy — dubbed the “average unit density” or AUD approach — promised to generate new units that would be “affordable by design.” While the new strategy has succeeded in producing far more new rental housing units than the city has seen in decades, the affordability aspect has not materialized. In response, the council has sought to impose “affordability requirements” stipulating that some small percentage of units built would be affordable but only to middle-income earners. This AUD strategy acted as a real estate aphrodisiac, driving up the price of land at rocket speed. 

Fredericks, who builds affordable housing for poor people, confronted land values that made it impossible to build housing that fell within the bounds of affordable. That he could grab the Vera Cruz land that had previously been earmarked for an AUD project was akin to a hamster eating the boa constrictor. 

Perhaps that explained the pointed tone. 

For Mayor Murillo, the event afforded an opportunity to address an issue near to her heart — housing — in the waning moments of her mayoral term. Her last council meeting took place just this Tuesday. Murillo did not waste the moment. “Housing is everything,” she proclaimed. She recalled the handful of years she served as council liaison to the Housing Authority board. Speaking of the boardmembers she served with, she said, “When I stood in their company, I felt like I was standing next to a source of light,” she said. “A source of heat.”  

Making this deal possible was what Fredericks called “a layer cake” of public and private financing partnerships. The total cost is projected in the neighborhood of $17 million, with support from City Hall, and $10 million in state-approved tax credits. The project would also provide a myriad of services to help people succeed in getting off the streets. Fredericks estimated construction will take 18 months to complete.

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