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Saturday, February 16 , 2019, 6:04 pm | A Few Clouds 57º


Councilmen’s Attempt To Curb Santa Barbara Rental-Housing Development Program Fails

Santa Barbara City Council members reaffirmed their support for the city's effort to have developers build more rental apartments despite an effort by two councilmen to interrupt the program. 

Councilmen Dale Francisco and Frank Hotchkiss contend that the Average Unit-Size Density Incentive Program is moving too quickly and potentially creating problems in established neighborhoods.

The duo did not have enough support to open up a wholesale re-examination of the program, however.

It would take five votes to change an ordinance, and although the council took no formal vote, it was clear that Francisco and Hotchkiss were on an island.

"Is it possible that we have too many projects in the pipeline?" Francisco asked at the council meeting.

The AUD program encourages developers to create rental apartments by allowing them to build high-density projects in some areas around town.

Without the program, developers are unlikely to build rental housing because the projects cannot turn a profit, according to the city. 

In the AUD program areas, developers are allowed to build more, smaller units per acre than they could if they were planning other types of housing. The developers also only have to include one parking space per unit.

Some members of the City Council and the planning staff assert that affordable rental housing is needed for "young professionals" who in their minds don't drive cars or have children.

Instead, they say, these young professionals walk and bicycle to work, walk downtown to enjoy the nightlife, and hop on the bus to buy their groceries.

Critics counter that such thinking is fantasy. Everyone drives a car, they say, and there are no formal programs in place that determine who will be able to rent these units.

Building only one parking space per unit could instead cause more people to park on the streets, further congesting neighborhoods, critics argue. 

The AUD was approved in 2013, and the council had put a sunset on the program for eight years or until 250 units were built — but the program has taken off faster than anyone thought.

So far, 118 units from two separate projects have been approved. In addition, 203 units from seven other projects are in some stage of design or staff review.

"If we put all these projects through, we could have 3,000 more people in Santa Barbara," Hotchkiss said.

The program has touched a nerve in the community because it hits at the heart of so many of the issues that Santa Barbara residents care deeply about: affordable housing, traffic, parking and neighborhood compatibility.

It also raises philosophical questions about whether the city should be messing with market forces to create incentives for developers to build rental apartments. 

Councilwoman Cathy Murillo was noticeably tense and anxious during the meeting, upset that Francisco and Hotchkiss even brought the proposal forward.

"This is not coming from the staff," Murillo said. "This is a political statement. This is coming from two council members, not the seven of us."

Councilman Gregg Hart also said he didn't see the point of talking about the proposal when no units have been built.

"Just because an applicant makes an application doesn't necessarily mean the project will be approved," he said. "We need to give this effort the time, and have the projects built."

Hart said Santa Barbara needs to provide housing for a range of people.

"There are lots and lots of people in this community who need desperate help and they deserve options," he said.

"The people who don't own homes are in very different situations that those who do own homes. This pressing housing crisis deserves our full attention."

Hotchkiss said additional housing could bring unintended consequences

"We don't want to improve housing and wreck a neighborhood in the mean time," Hotchkiss said. 

Councilman Randy Rowse agreed that the council needs to pay close attention to what happens in the neighborhoods.

"There is a community here and there are neighborhoods," Rowse said. "We have to respect the integrity of our neighborhoods that are out there. Parking, traffic and circulation are real issues."

Councilman Harwood "Bendy" White said this rental program is good for the city. 

"This program is more successful than we thought it would be," White said. "We have discovered something with this AUD program. It is working better than we thought."

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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