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Low-Income Senior Housing Project Proposal Gains Santa Barbara Planning Commission OK

89-unit complex on South Hope Avenue wins approval after debate over affordable housing vs. environment

Hopeful of alleviating Santa Barbara’s affordable housing crisis, the Housing Authority of the City of Santa Barbara has proposed an 89-unit project for low-income seniors at 251 S. Hope Ave. The project site is on the west side of the street, below La Cumbre Plaza. Click to view larger
Hopeful of alleviating Santa Barbara’s affordable housing crisis, the Housing Authority of the City of Santa Barbara has proposed an 89-unit project for low-income seniors at 251 S. Hope Ave. The project site is on the west side of the street, below La Cumbre Plaza. (RRM Design Group rendering)

An 89-unit affordable housing project for seniors, proposed for a site next to a South Hope Avenue car dealership and alongside Arroyo Burro Creek, won approval last week from the Santa Barbara Planning Commission.

But the project proposal, from the Housing Authority of the City of Santa Barbara, sparked a fierce debate over two of the community’s most prized collective values: housing and the environment.

Much of the debate during the nearly six-hour meeting centered on whether the mostly three-story project should be moved to at least 50 feet from the top of the creek bank along the 1.76-acre parcel. As proposed, the project at 251 S. Hope Ave. reaches a distance of 42 feet at its farthest.

“This is not the first affordable or migrating-out-of-foster-home or senior income housing project I have seen where it is put on a challenging site and we are literally forced to make decisions on very serious competing goals,” commissioner Michael Jordan said.

“There will be other people up here who will tell you that if it comes to people in an urban setting versus the creeks that the people will take priority, and I will contend that it is a reasonable stance. But eventually the erosion of the ... watershed protections will affect the people, too.”

The commission voted 4-1 to allow the project to move forward, with Jordan in dissent. He said he is “weary” of seeing housing projects proposed on constrained sites with the implication that the commission has no choice but to approve them to satisfy the greater need for affordable housing.

The City Council must still vote on the project.

The senior project is the latest example of a developer, in this case the municipal Housing Authority, looking to maximize density by offering to build affordable housing for a specific population.

Many seniors in the community are no longer able to live independently, but are not yet ready for full assisted living. This project is designed to help them with some of their needs, and will include a commercial kitchen and a common dining area and provide daily meals and housekeeping services.

In Santa Barbara County, 1,482 seniors are on the waiting list for Section 8 vouchers; 9 percent of the county’s homeless population are seniors; and Santa Barbara’s Garden Court on De la Vina senior housing complex has a waiting list of 452 names.

The South Hope Avenue project is designed by RRM Design Group of Santa Barbara. The maximum height of the building is 43 feet, but the elevator tower reaches 46 feet. The 89 units will average about 332 square feet.

The project will include 34 parking spaces and five bicycle spots. Plans also call for a public trail between the creek and the development site, which is just north of Bunnin Chevrolet Cadillac at 301 S. Hope Ave. and in the shadow of La Cumbre Plaza on the other side of the creek.

The proposed low-income senior housing project is designed for a vacant 1.76-acre parcel to the north of Bunnin Chevrolet Cadillac, in the distance. The Santa Barbara Planning Commission approved the project after a debate over the setback from Arroyo Burro Creek, at right. Click to view larger
The proposed low-income senior housing project is designed for a vacant 1.76-acre parcel to the north of Bunnin Chevrolet Cadillac, in the distance. The Santa Barbara Planning Commission approved the project after a debate over the setback from Arroyo Burro Creek, at right. (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

The project would sit next to a concrete portion of Arroyo Burro Creek. The city at some point would like to remove the concrete and restore the watershed.

Throughout the Planning Commission meeting, the Housing Authority said the project should be approved because of the city’s great need for affordable housing for seniors.

“It’s incumbent upon planners to think in this crisis mode,” affordable housing activist Micky Flacks said. “To understand that what’s being proposed is not just another development for someone to make a lot of money on and a few rich people to live in, but in fact a dire need for our community.”

She said 50 feet from the bank’s edge is a fine ideal, but the reality is that most projects fall short of that, and that 25 feet has become the de facto standard.

“To say that the creek is the most important factor in deciding on this project would be a a grave miscarriage of reasonableness,” she said.

Commissioner Deborah Schwartz said she was disappointed that the Housing Authority and city planners could not figure out a way to present a project that was 50 feet from the edge of the bank and still allowed for the same number of affordable housing units.

Nevertheless, she’s supportive of the project because Santa Barbara is facing an affordable housing crisis.

“At this point our city is highly built out,” Schwartz said. “There are very few parcels for development that are ideal in anyway.

“There are not that many parcels left, next to a creek or otherwise, where we can develop this number of units for some of the most vulnerable members of our community.”

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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