I want to thank Marell Brooks of the Citizens Planning Association for her recent op-ed on building heights in Santa Barbara. Should we throw out all the protections that have made us such an “Uncommonplace American Town” (as Sheila Lodge titled her excellent book on our city’s long and impressive planning history)? Will doing so really provide the housing we so desperately need? The answer is an emphatic “no,” and Ms. Brooks points out several reasons why this is so. One in particular, however, deserves far more discussion than it receives.

What drives our need for affordable housing? Most people would say the tourist industry with its need for a huge number of low-income workers, and they would not be wrong — but visitors only account for part of our need for service-sector workers. Those who can afford the market-rate housing also need services. If they have a yard, they likely need a gardener to take care of it. They have a housecleaning service; they go to restaurants and stores. They have their cars washed and their dogs groomed, and on and on.

The bottom line is that every new unit of market-rate housing actually creates a need for more service sector workers, and for more housing that they can afford to live in. Requiring a few token “affordable” units in large market-rate housing projects does nothing to solve our housing crisis; it only creates the need for even more affordable units, which always seem to come only with more market units. It becomes a self-perpetuating crisis.

We must accept the fact that the only type of housing we need is affordable housing, and the private market is not going to build it on its own. There is no such thing as “affordable by design” in Santa Barbara; market rate units are sold immediately — usually to out-of-towners. If you build it, they do come.

We have to add over 8,000 housing units to our city housing stock to meet the state’s requirements. If we keep doing what we’re doing now, our real housing crisis will only get worse as we work toward that mandate. To prevent that from happening, we do not need to block the ocean and mountain views that make Santa Barbara so special. We need to find adequate funding for the Housing Authority — an outstanding example of an efficient and effective government agency — to work with private developers to build the housing we truly need.

Yes, it will require government subsidies. But considering the alternative, it’s well worth it.


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