History of AUD Priority Housing Overlay

The City Council increased the density and the area covered by the overlay zone beyond what Sheila Lodge suggested. | Credit: Courtesy

It is being said that the need for higher density in Santa Barbara was driven by the need to make apartments competitive economically with condos and commercial space. I don’t know where this narrative came from, but that had nothing to do with the AUD Priority Housing Overlay. [AUD stands for Average Unit-size Density, originally proposed at 37-63 dwelling units per acre.]

The city started work on a General Plan Update (GPU) in 2006. By 2010 the city was at an impasse between those who wanted to up densities everywhere and those who didn’t want to up densities anywhere. Since changes to the city’s general plan require five affirmative votes, it appeared as if there might not be a GPU.

In an effort to reach a compromise I proposed that an experiment be made. The development community said that increased density would result in workforce-affordable housing. In October 2010, to test if that would be the case, I suggested that in a very limited part of the city’s commercial and light industrial areas densities be increased for rental projects for the life of the building. (The rough map I prepared is above.) Presumably units would be less expensive by design. Councilmember Dale Francisco added the 250 units or eight-year time limit for the point at which the city would examine the results to see if the program was providing the kind of housing Santa Barbara needs.

In July 2011, the development community and housing advocates had a two-weekend-long design charrette to show that with increased densities market-rate, moderate-income-affordable rental and for-sale units could be built. The results showed that for-sale units would not be affordable. However, they showed that rental units could be built that would be affordable. Rents would start at $1,200/month. That is why the AUD Priority Housing Overlay is for rental units only.

That is why I was shocked when at The Marc, the first AUD high density project to become available, rents started at over twice the projected $1,200. (I recognize that The Marc was completed a few years after 2011and that the $1,200 was for studios, which The Marc doesn’t have, but that doesn’t account for rent being over twice what the charrette projected.)

At a subsequent Coastal Housing Coalition Conference, one speaker said there is no such thing as affordable by design. Another speaker said that rents will be what the market will bear. That is exactly what the city has seen with the Priority Housing Overlay projects. Our big mistake was to not tie increased density to increased affordability.

Sheila Lodge was mayor of Santa Barbara from 1981-1993 and is currently a planning commissioner.


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