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Santa Barbara Council Ponders Housing Policy Decisions

City leaders are working to find consensus on the key element of General Plan updates

What kind of housing units should be built in Santa Barbara during the next 20 years?

Members of the City Council are grappling with Planning Commission recommendations, staff presentations and their own opinions to forge some kind of consensus for the General Plan update’s housing element — the only portion required due by law, but upon which other elements are dependent.

The biggest housing need is for the moderate- to middle-income work force, such as teachers and nurses — the “worker bees” of society, city planner John Ledbetter said.

By targeting the commercial and multifamily zoned areas, especially in the west downtown area where the allowed density is the highest, an increase in rental and employer housing could help balance the jobs-to-housing ratio, he said.

City planner Bettie Weiss said the middle-income residents pay a fair amount of taxes and are a critical component in what makes the community work.

The Planning Commission’s proposed “hybrid” plan would establish 27 to 45 units per acre (43,560 square feet) as a base, mostly with two-or three-story buildings and a 1½ parking space maximum per unit.

Emphasizing smaller units in smaller buildings would help provide much-needed midpriced housing for the city’s work force, staff said. In the past 15 years, the big action has been in for-sale mixed-use buildings, which have yielded some unpopular projects because of their bulk (such as Chapala One) and large unit size.

Goals with the housing element are to maintain neighborhood character, protect existing housing and provide a range of housing types.

There are no planned changes to single-family housing areas, Ledbetter said. He cited Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital and Westmont College as noteworthy examples of employer housing and several affordable Housing Authority projects as practical — but pretty — unit and project sizes.

Transportation planner Robert Dayton spoke of the practicality of having more downtown housing so workers could walk to work and cut down on traffic congestion and commuters.

Some council members questioned the impact of downtown housing on traffic congestion and allowing various densities, but a full discussion was continued until Tuesday.

Councilman Frank Hotchkiss said he was particularly concerned with the notion of putting affordable units on the most expensive land in town — in the downtown core — and the likelihood of commuters choosing to live in smaller units vs. larger units elsewhere for a similar cost.

On that point, Dayton said commuters most likely wouldn’t move back into town, but more housing would cut down on future commuters.

The problem of expensive land is usually reconciled by a mixed-use building, in which the commercial units help cover the residential portions, Ledbetter said.

Planning Commissioners Bruce Bartlett and John Jostes spoke of the “hybrid” plan and the council’s need to move forward.

Five votes are needed to move onto the next step of the five-years-and-counting process, which need to be reached by consensus instead of members deciding to “sit here with preconceptions and sabotage the process,” Bartlett said of a request for additional data.

Having low-density homes in the downtown core is a waste of land, he said, adding that rather than look at numbers, people should look at the building and then what goes inside.

Jostes said the “hybrid” was a point of compromise the commission thought the council could agree with. However, Thursday’s conversation made him believe that members weren’t confident enough in their staff or boards and commissions. Rather than building a city from scratch, he said, the General Plan update fine-tunes planning and looks at big-picture policy decisions.

Commissioner Sheila Lodge said there should be efforts to reduce job creation potential in order to restore the jobs-housing balance. She said that because of online shopping, “real shops on the ground aren’t as necessary.”

Members of the public spoke in support of both smaller units and a more walkable town vs. a slow-growth model.

Santa Barbara’s median area income is $60,000 for a family of four, and the median South Coast housing price has increased more than twofold in the past 20 years, according to Debbie Cox Bultan of the Coastal Housing Coalition.

Single-family homes make up 53 percent of the city’s 35,461 total households, as counted in 2008. Forty percent of the household incomes were less than $50,000, 20 percent were in the median range of $50,000 to $75,000, and about 39 percent brought in more than $100,000 per year.

“Affordable housing” is usually defined as spending no more than 30 percent of one’s income on rent and utilities, or no more than 35 percent on house payments, insurance and property taxes.

For a median-income household of $60,000, that’s $18,000 in rent and utilities a year, or $1,500 monthly.

The council’s next General Plan meeting will be from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 3, at City Hall, at 735 Anacapa St. The council is expected to give more direction to staff members, who will then return with final documents for amendments and eventually a vote.

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

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