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Thursday, March 21 , 2019, 1:37 am | Fair 49º

 
 
 
 

Commentary: Making the Hard Housing Choices

Board of Supervisors gets a second chance to ensure a housing element balance. SB CAN urges it to take it.

Every five years state law requires that each county update its Housing Element to ensure that enough land is zoned for housing for all income levels. This law, while imperfect, reflects California’s critical need for housing that is affordable for lower income and critical workforce residents, such as firefighters, police and nurses.

Like every public policy document, the state’s Housing Element Update contains some questionable items. But as a whole, it reflects the overall goals of social justice and environmental and agricultural protections that SB CAN and the majority of local residents strongly believe in. The document contains many progressive, enlightened recommendations that:

» Encourage the construction or conversion of existing facilities to emergency shelters, transitional housing and single-room occupancy units to meet the needs of the homeless population

» Facilitate development of farm employee housing on agricultural land

» Work to expand opportunities for mobile-home living, and establish incentives to encourage production of manufactured housing

» Seek funding for special-needs housing

» Implement quality and energy-efficient design and development standards, including historical preservation; front/side/rear setbacks; neighborhood compatibility; solar access and views; neighborhood bulk and scale compatibility

» Prioritize urban ag preservation, and encourage preservation of rural land

» Provide protections for tenants displaced by condo conversions

Santa Barbara County is one of the least affordable counties in California for housing its workforce. Among the lowest-income families, 5,000 families are currently waiting for low-income housing. Every five years the Housing Element Update provides an opportunity for us to correct this by rezoning enough sites to house our workforce. Unfortunately, the county largely mismanaged its obligation during the 2003-2008 process.

At first the county tried putting all of the rezones needed for 1,200 units of high-density housing in the semi-rural Orcutt area. There was a huge outcry from community members. Orcutt was willing to take its fair share, but not all 1,200 units. We argued that affordable housing should be distributed across the county, near jobs and transportation centers.

Then the county decided to put all the rezones in Isla Vista, a tiny densely populated community that serves a large university — hardly what you’d call “fair-share” housing that would meet the real needs of low-income families. The state ended up certifying most of these rezones, but required the county to rezone elsewhere for an additional 370 units.

Once again the county began considering sites in Orcutt. After months of study, public hearings and postponements, on Jan. 23 the Board of Supervisors seemed ready to make the hard choices in determining which of the three sites under consideration would be rezoned.

Then, in a stunning turn of events, citing its opposition to the state mandate, the board, on a 3-2 vote, refused to approve any further rezones, insisting that the Isla Vista rezones should satisfy the state.

While SB CAN sympathizes with the board’s principled stand, and agrees there are serious flaws with the state law that need to be addressed, we do not believe this action will accomplish that goal. Failure to meet the state’s requirement could result in huge penalties for the county, including hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees. And the state would have the authority to assign a “special master” to oversee county planning and development and rezone sites without public input.

Fortunately, the matter is being brought back to the board Tuesday for further consideration. At that time the hard decision about which sites to rezone to satisfy the state’s requirement must be made. Then we need to join with others in a concerted effort to correct the flaws in the state mandate, while preserving the requirement to provide for critical workforce housing.

— Deborah Brasket is executive director of the Santa Barbara County Action Network (SB CAN). She can be reached at 805.722.5094 or at [email protected] This commentary originally appeared in the Santa Maria Times.

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