The City of Santa Barbara was forced to reckon with its own reality with the upcoming Housing Element, where it would have to prove it could meet the state’s Regional Needs Housing Allocation (RHNA) number of 8,001 units by 2031. Part of its plan to fulfill that quota, as revealed in the first draft of the Housing Element presented to the City Council on Tuesday, is a reenvisioned version of La Cumbre Plaza as a 1,900-unit housing juggernaut.
While Santa Barbara has done an adequate job of building “above-moderate-income” housing in the previous eight-year cycle (2015-2022), it has failed to come close to providing enough affordable housing for residents, and city leadership used this upcoming cycle as an opportunity to address what it had missed the last time.
The city’s Planning Commission had the chance to review and comment on the draft Housing Element two weeks ago, and on Tuesday, City Planner Rosie Dyste presented the first draft — which is due to undergo a 90-day review with the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) from August to November — to the City Council for comments. But as the draft Housing Element takes shape, it has become clear that city staff, residents, and leadership at every level agree that Santa Barbara needs a specific plan to tackle a severe lack of affordable housing.
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“In this document, you have the potential to set us up and set the foundation for decades of affordable housing development,” said Gabe Escobedo, chair of the city’s Planning Commission, who spoke during a lengthy public comment session.
City residents who spoke at the meeting and councilmembers seemed to agree that the best methods to provide that affordable housing would be by prioritizing the goals that would ensure a “permanent and sustainable” affordable housing fund, and by looking at specific locations where future housing can be built. And while long-term goals are vital, city leaders and tenant advocates say this work needs to start as soon as possible.
“The majority of tenants can’t wait until more housing is built; they can’t wait until we get more funding,” said Wendy Santamaria, community organizer with Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE). “We’re seeing people getting rent increases right now. People are getting displaced right now, and there is no waiting for them.”
Councilmember Eric Friedman said that the city could take a more earnest look at the La Cumbre Plaza housing plan, which would redevelop the 31-acre shopping center to create as many as 1,900 units, but requires working with a “very complex” ownership structure. “If we’re not cooperative, we could miss out on this opportunity,” he said.
Councilmember Kristen Sneddon, who sits on the city’s Housing Crisis Task Force, suggested that the city take a deeper look at the previous Housing Element cycle to see what worked, what went wrong, and how it could better live up to its stated goals. For La Cumbre Plaza, she said she would be willing to allow for more height and higher density if that meant the city could ask for up to 15 percent affordable housing from any proposed development.
The draft Housing Element will undergo revisions after HCD provides comments, and final draft hearings will be held early next year. The city is asking for public input until August 3. Printed copies of the first draft are available at the Eastside Library and City Hall. More information is available at SantaBarbaraCA.gov/HEU.