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Housing Project for Low-Income Workers, Homeless Faces Funding Deadline

Housing Authority of the City of Santa Barbara says it needs the Planning Commission to sign off on the project Thursday to get $10 million in tax credits

A previously approved housing project for low-income workers and the chronically homeless will go before the City of Santa Barbara Planning Commission on Thursday, after a commissioner asked to bring the project back for review. If it isn’t approved Thursday, the project could end up stalled, as it needs to move forward by Aug. 7 in order to receive tax credits that would make construction possible.

The project, at 512 Bath St. and owned by the Housing Authority of the City of Santa Barbara, includes 53 studios ranging in size from 320 square feet to 445 square feet. Half of the units would house downtown workers, and the other half would house people transitioning out of homelessness. Laundry rooms, a recreation room and a community center are included in the plans, along with 30 parking spaces and 35 bicycle spaces.

Though several modifications were required for the project, the biggest seems to be how far the buildings should be setback from Mission Creek, which borders the western edge of the project.

The plans were approved by the city staff hearing officer Susan Reardon in June, meeting the Housing Authority’s July 7 deadline for submitting its application to the state. Reardon signed off on the plans, which included a 25-foot minimum setback from the creek. No members of the public or the city’s Architectural Board of Review expressed concern over the setbacks, according to city reports.

The setbacks along Lower Mission Creek are discretionary and vary from 25 feet to 50 feet, but the city doesn’t define a number for creek setback standards. After the project had been approved, the Urban Creeks Council raised questions about the setbacks. Subsequently, Planning Commissioner Stella Larson recommended that the item be suspended and come back before the commission for further review.

Reardon said suspensions of staff hearing officer decisions don’t occur often, and have happened only twice before. Larson told Noozhawk on Wednesday that she was unable to discuss her reasons for bringing the item back because of the Brown Act.

“We were told 25 feet was what we need to adhere to,” HACSB Executive Director Rob Pearson said. “We would hope community goals will win favor over what we think are some technical interpretations about creek setbacks.”

The Housing Authority has until Aug. 7 to resolve the issue, but if it misses that date, it won’t qualify for the $10 million in federal funding to cover 90 percent of the project’s construction costs. When low-income units are built, the tax credit program allows the Housing Authority — which remains the owner and developer — to win tax credits that are sold back to investors for cash to build the project.

Each year, the state announces its priorities for the funds, and the Bath Street units “have a competitive chance,” Pearson said. Low-income and transitional housing for the homeless were top priorities this year, but because they change annually, Pearson said he’s worried the project wouldn’t qualifying next year.

The commission meets again before the deadline, but with a 10-day appeal period, Pearson said it would be unlikely to go through if the commission doesn’t approve it Thursday.

“Otherwise, the 12-inch application binder we’ve accumulated will have to be done over again,” he said. “The housing is needed today.”

Mike Foley, executive director of the Casa Esperanza homeless shelter, echoed Pearson’s comments. Foley said the organization’s greatest difficulty is finding housing for homeless people who are ready to live a life off the streets, because so little exists.

“If we fail to complete this project, millions will be lost in housing revenue,” he said. “I trust and know that the Planning Commission has the same priority, and that we will see a positive result.”

Pearson said HACSB has had “great success” with some of its other housing complexes, such as the El Carrillo Apartments, 61 studios on Carrillo Street. Cycling residents from El Carrillo’s smaller units into the Bath Street transitional studios are the goal.

The Housing Authority also has offered $200,000 to the Mission Creek Flood Control Project, and Pearson said the complex is a project that’s important to the economy as well. In addition to the jobs created, he said the bids are favorable now, too. Pearson said the Artisan Court Housing Project, which broke ground earlier this year, came in $1.5 million under budget.

“It’s nice to get a good deal on projects like this,” he said. “The homeless need a home. People would like them to magically disappear. ... That’s not going to happen. We have to work on solutions.”

The commission will meet at 1 p.m. Thursday in the Council Chambers at Santa Barbara City Hall, 735 Anacapa St.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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