Santa Barbara’s Housing Element: A Delicate Balance
As State’s February 15 Deadline Passes, Planners Scramble to Complete Plans for Thousands of Units
February 15 marks the deadline given by the state for local agencies to certify a Housing Element for the next eight years, but both the city and county of Santa Barbara are running behind schedule as the actual work of planning for more than 24,000 units to be built before 2031 has proved much more difficult than anticipated.
At this point, the Housing Element should be adopted and sent to the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) for final review, but so far only the City of Goleta is on track to meet the state’s deadline.
While Goleta adopted its 2023-2031 Housing Element in January, the City of Santa Barbara is still addressing changes requested from the state following a three-month review on its first draft, and the county is still at least a month away from sending its first draft to the state for review. At this rate, both are expected to be without a certified Housing Element at least until late summer or early fall.
South County Conundrum
The county recently released its plan to provide for a state-mandated 5,664 housing units in unincorporated areas of the county over the next eight years, opening a 30-day public review period to receive feedback from the community before submitting the plan to the state for its own 90-day review.
On Tuesday, County Planning & Development Director Lisa Plowman presented the draft to the Board of Supervisors, where it became evident that pressure from the state to meet these production quotas in such a short time span is putting a strain on planners, local leaders, and county residents who are stuck in a conflict over where exactly to put these thousands of units and how to ensure that this housing is made available for those who need it most.
On one hand, the planning department is facing the daunting task of proving to HCD not only that the county could account for those units on paper with one big chunk of housing in North County, as it had done in the five previous housing element cycles, but that those sites were actually viable and located in the areas where the county’s workforce was concentrated.
After years of local governments listing “paper sites” with no intention of actually redeveloping the sites included, the state upped its level of scrutiny, forcing Santa Barbara to account for 4,142 of those units in South County.
That led to the county’s plan including the rezoning of a number of agricultural and commercial sites — such as San Marcos Growers, Magnolia Shopping Center, and Glen Annie Golf Club — to account for thousands of future units on the South Coast.
During a lengthy public comment session at Tuesday’s meeting, regional housing advocates, first responders, educators, and local leaders from Santa Barbara and Goleta chimed in about the county’s plan. Several employees of the school district echoed arguments made in an open letter released earlier this week, pleading that the board tackle the housing climate that is pushing out some of the area’s most important workers.
Others encouraged more protections and assurances for the county’s lower-income renters, who are being displaced with rising housing costs. Nadia Lee Abushanab of the Santa Barbara County Action Network spoke about the need for a dedicated funding stream similar to the ones included in the city’s plan and asked that if agricultural lands were to be rezoned, those units should be guaranteed for those “that actually live and work in the county.”
“It won’t do the community any good if this land is converted and turned into luxury units, second homes, or vacation rentals,” she said.
Several members of the Goleta city government also spoke, questioning the county’s switch from its previous stance of preserving agricultural land at all costs. Goleta Councilmember Stuart Kasdin said it appeared the county was “much more cautious in thinking of what the state will think and not what their priorities are,” adding that it should “set aside its strategy that relies on agricultural” rezones for a “more balanced” approach.
Later, the board would shoot down Supervisor Laura Capps’s suggestion that the document include language that the county explicitly rezone agricultural sites as a last resort, with planning staff suggesting that the inclusion of that language would make it appear to HCD that the county did not intend on actually following through with rezones at all.
Supervisor Joan Hartmann said during the meeting that the state’s strict requirements on this year’s Housing Element do not adequately take into account all the specific factors that each county is facing in its housing needs.
“I think some of these issues need to be understood better by the state and called out,” Hartmann said. “We want housing; we want housing for our workforce; we want to address the jobs-housing balance and what that does to people. But we’ve got some obstacles that even if we do everything they tell us to do, we’re not gonna accomplish that goal.”
She also addressed the number of comments that suggested the county disregard the state’s requirements, sue the state as some other jurisdictions have explored, or ask for a deadline extension from the state to have more time to work with the community.
But when she consulted with lobbyists about the idea, she was told that the governor has no authority to extend the deadline by executive order and that the state legislature has “absolutely no appetite” for extending the deadline as the state had done in previous years.
Supervisor Capps urged planners to focus on the jobs-housing balance, saying the “main focus” for her was “people to be able to live where they work.” She said at least a third of county employees don’t live in the county, 20 percent of Santa Barbara Unified School District employees live outside the district, and half of the city’s employees live outside of city limits.
One way, she suggested, would be to include more county properties in the county’s plan.
“I believe we should set an example,” she said. “Be a little more aggressive about our own properties.”
She also brought up the concern echoed during public comment over the bulk of the county’s planned rezones — more than 4,200 potential units — being located in the Goleta Valley, while other areas were “inexplicably” left out. “It’s not clear to me that everywhere’s giving a little.”
Supervisor Das Williams addressed criticism that areas of his district in Montecito were among the wealthy regions without any planned rezones, saying that he went to the point of “calling every property owner” he could get hold of in the area, but that many property owners were not willing to build multi-unit housing.
The supervisors agreed on several additions to the plan, including directions to include a study for long-term revenue streams to support affordable housing through second-home, vacancy, and “mansion”-transfer taxes on luxury homes. Other directions included incentives for developers building rental housing, a focus on creating housing for the county’s workers, and planning for a biannual report to check in on the county’s progress with meeting its housing production goals.
City Told to ‘Show Your Work’
For the city’s Housing Element, which requires 8,001 units to be built in Santa Barbara over the next eight years, the Community Development Department is facing the same pressure to meet the state’s one-size-fits-all guidelines but an entirely different beast when it comes to available properties.
Where the county’s plan has a number of big projects with hundreds of units, the city is already “built up with a lot of developments,” said Community Development Director Eli Isaacson, so its plan is pieced together with a patchwork of more than 400 sites within city limits, with no rezones needed to meet the state’s quota.
“At the city level, it’s not always easy,” he said.
The department is also facing similar staff shortages as the county, and for the most part, Isaacson said, the heavy lifting has fallen on planners Dan Gullett and Rosemary Dyste.
The city turned in its first draft in August 2022, and the state took every bit of its three-month review period before returning with more than 12 pages of comments and changes requested in the document in November.
Now, Dyste and Gullett are tackling the task of addressing each one of the comments, which require much more detail and proof of site viability than in previous cycles.
“They basically asked to ‘show your work,’ over and over again,” Dyste said.
In the last cycle, the city planned for more than 4,000 units. To this date, only about half have been built, and more concerning, the majority of the units that were built were above moderate or market rate. This time around, the state is requiring 8,001 units, of which 3,527 must be affordable for “very low-income” and “low-income” residents.
After revising its draft, the city will return to the city’s Planning Commission and the City Council for comments and will likely adopt its Housing Element plan in late summer. The county is expected to turn in its first draft in March and will likely be without an adopted housing element until the fall.
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