Poodle | $5,000 a Month for Small Studio Apartment in Santa Barbara?

Time to Junk the ‘Affordable by Design’ Program

Credit: Courtesy

PASS THE IPECAC:  Rats, I have just learned, are gastrointestinally hardwired not to throw up. Higher primates — of which we are one — managed to evolve to our advanced state of sorry-dom only because of a finely tuned hair-trigger collective vomit reflex. If one of us blows, we all blow. If a member of the pack hurls, the presumption is they must have eaten something bad; as a precautionary measure, the rest go violently Vesuvian as well.

I mention this because of the intense alimentary shudders I experienced while walking past the new three-story luxury apartment complex sprouting up at 800 Santa Barbara Street. If you thought Swedish architecture was all the rage back in the 1960s, you’ll love this. Very spacious and angular. I suddenly wanted to listen to atonal music composed by some guy with too many umlauts in his name. The red tile, the white stucco, and the granite countertops were all there. So too were the chopping-board islands in the middle of the kitchen where no one will cook. The gutters, of course, are delectably hand-wrought from the finest artisanal Chilean copper. But nowhere inside the gated complex will there be any additional storage.

This development is part of City Hall’s grand and sprawling — if failed — experiment designed to entice developers to build rental housing by allowing them high housing densities previously unheard of in Santa Barbara and major breaks when it comes to parking requirements. In this case, the developer — said to be a nice guy from Sherman Oaks who has been dating Wheel of Fortune star Vanna White for the past 10 years — was allowed to cram 23 units into less than half an acre of dirt at the corner of Santa Barbara and De la Guerra streets. The developers have taken upon themselves to re-christen this area of town “The Laguna Neighborhood.” If that weren’t obnoxious enough, in their online brochures, they say “Welcome Home.” A lot. 

Here’s the problem: Based on what Vanna White’s boyfriend is charging for rent, it will never be my home. Neither will it be most of the people reading this. Studio apartments go for $4,500 to $5,000 a month. (Sizes hover between 528 and 705 square feet.) One-bedrooms start at $5,900 and end up at $7,200.

All I can say is please pass the ipecac. 

So total is the delusion here that anyone who speaks ill of such “progress” is shunned as a NIMBY and an elitist. 

(Where is Mickey Flacks when you need her?) 

This housing experiment — known as the Average Unit-Size Density program, or AUD for short — was launched with the accompanying slogan “Affordable by Design.” This became the mantra of choice for all right-thinking architects, planners, and land-use agents attempting to look like they cared about the housing crisis. (Many, to be fair, genuinely did.) The idea was that if you built lots of small little rental units instead of a few Mondo Grande Condos for the rich and fabulous, society would be better served and young working people might get something called “workforce housing.”

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Like all theories, this one works well only on paper. To afford the $5,000 a month needed to move into these darling studio apartments, one needs to make about $180,000 a year. That’s far more bacon than most working Santa Barbarans bring home. This residential densification program has not functioned as catnip for the housing market so much as methamphetamine. With added density potentials, land values soared. As land values soared, the rents went with them, thus redefining what landlords could rightfully consider the prevailing market conditions. To “rectify” matters, City Hall adopted an ordinance requiring that a tiny fraction of new units built as a result of this experiment be made “affordable” to upper-middle-income wage earners. As a slice of the pie, this qualifies as crumbs. 

As City Hall endures the mandatory agonies of updating its Housing Element, I’d suggest they get real specific in a red-hot hurry about tapping new income streams that can be leveraged to sell the bonds necessary to build 100 percent genuine affordable housing. I’d suggest they look seriously at the vacancy tax charged by cities like Vancouver with good effect on properties — residential and commercial — allowed to lie empty for too long. Likewise, I’d suggest they explore what’s known as an elevated transfer tax on higher-end real estate transactions, as the City of Los Angeles and Santa Monica are now contemplating. This is a special tax levied on the sale of properties that have experienced a stratospheric jump in real estate value. The bigger the jump, the higher the increase. 

While we’re on the subject of my preferred brand of pie-in-the-sky, I’d strongly suggest people working on the second floor of City Hall get right and tight with their comrades toiling on the fourth floor of the County Administration Building and seize the housing options that will become miraculously available when county administrators execute their grand plan to withdraw — en masse — from their current downtown digs and retreat to the isolated economic efficiency of their Calle Real campuses. Those plans, by the way, are now quietly festering on some strategically sequestered drawing boards. 

And maybe the council could give serious thought to declaring a permanent housing emergency. This would give the city attorney’s office the authority needed to prosecute rent gougers. Gouging is a legal no-no during times of declared emergencies. No, this is not rent control. It may be much better. Certainly, it’s more surgical and could go a long way to keeping the greed heads, flippers, fractional ownership flimflammers, and institutional investors in check while sparing all the mom-and-pops out there who demonstrated more than a modicum of restraint. 

Hey, it’s an idea. Paying $5,000 a month for a studio apartment? Gag me.

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