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Santa Barbara Cries Foul Over Housing Allocation

Officials say other cities "ganged up" to force more state-mandated houses to be accommodated in city limits.

Santa Barbara city leaders lambasted Santa Barbara County’s seven other cities Thursday, saying they had ganged up on Santa Barbara when divvying up the number of houses the state says the county must make room for to accommodate population growth.

The venting occurred at a joint meeting between the Santa Barbara Planning Commission and the City Council.

“This action is the death of regionalism in Santa Barbara County,” said Planning Commissioner John Jostes.

The state of California mandates that every county make plans to absorb what it assumes to be inevitable growth over the next six years.

As a result, the state tells each county how many more housing units it must accommodate, although the jurisdictions are not required to actually build the housing unless the market demands it. This year, the number assigned to Santa Barbara County was 11,600, but each county is left to sort out the specifics. In Santa Barbara County, the game tends to be like golf — the lower the number, the better.

Here, the task of slicing up the unwanted pie is undertaken by the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments, or SBCAG, which includes a city council member or mayor from each of the eight cities in the county, as well as all five county supervisors. On March 20, SBCAG voted 9-3 to assign 4,400 of the 11,600 units to the city of Santa Barbara.

SBCAG assigned Santa Maria about 3,200 homes; Goleta, 1,641; and Carpinteria, 305. Meanwhile, the unincorporated parts of the South Coast were assigned about 290.

In Santa Barbara, the 4,400 figure is a big deal because of a widely held belief that the city is nearly built out. By the reckoning of the city’s General Plan, Santa Barbara is little more than 1,000 units away from “build-out.”

On March 20, the only members of SBCAG to vote against the chosen proposal were Santa Barbara Mayor Marty Blum and Supervisors Salud Carbajal and Janet Wolf, both of whom represent the South Coast.

“I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but everything sort of leads to that,” Blum said late last week. “We were just ganged up on, I think.”

On Thursday, most Planning Commissioners and City Council members expressed some measure of frustration about the number Santa Barbara was assigned.

image
Dale Francisco
Sacramento shouldn’t be telling us how many houses we need, said City Councilman Dale Francisco. They shouldn’t be telling anybody outside of Sacramento how many houses they need.”

Particularly irksome to many city officials Thursday was a study, put together by SBCAG staff members, projecting that the city of Santa Barbara will create 9,850 new jobs in the coming decades, while unincorporated parts of the county — such as the large swath of land between Santa Barbara and Goleta — will generate just 380.

City Councilman Das William called it a “crazy claim,” in light of how unincorporated parts of the county harbor major employers such as UCSB and Westmont College, which are both expanding.

“I don’t know where it came from,” he said. “It’s just not true.”

But on Thursday, SBCAG executive director Jim Kemp said the ultimate decision was based less on the forecast and more on the here and now.

Santa Barbara, he said, currently has too few houses for the amount of jobs it creates in the city. (The official statistic is 1.76 jobs for every unit of housing — more than any other city except for Goleta, which has a 2.07 number.)

“One of the goals here is to try to bring that more into balance,” Kemp said.

Reached at home Thursday, Santa Maria Mayor Larry Lavagnino stood by the decision.

“What we’re trying to do is correct the jobs and housing imbalance,” he said. “The imbalance is in south Santa Barbara County, not in the north. … We should be trying to start constructing housing for the people that work in Santa Barbara, instead of having them come to the North County to live, and then work in the south.”

Lavagnino noted that the last time around, he volunteered to assign most of the burden to his burgeoning city, whose population recently surpassed that of Santa Barbara.

Still, at Santa Barbara City Hall on Thursday, anger over the method used to divide up the burden seemed to galvanize people who normally advocate opposite sides of the philosophical debate on growth.

For instance, among those who decried the SBCAG decision were Kellam de Forest — one of the city’s staunchest advocates of slow-growth and preservation — and Mickey Flacks, one of Santa Barbara’s most vocal affordable housing activists.

“If the population in Santa Barbara County — especially in the South Coast — realized what they are forcing us to do, and how stupid and silly the figures are, they would rise up and march to Sacramento,” de Forest said.

Flacks all but agreed.

“In my opinion and any rational person’s opinion, it’s totally a political game,” she said of the method SBCAG and Sacramento used to divide the share.

However, the shared resentment toward SBCAG on Thursday still didn’t completely overshadow the local divide separating slow-growthers from those in favor of higher densities in the downtown area.

Planning Commissioner Bruce Bartlett said Santa Barbara needs to face the fact that it has a housing shortage — not for lower-income or higher-income people, but for its middle class.

“We have both ends covered, but our middle is wide open right now,” he said, although he was careful to add that he, too, is unhappy with the way the message was delivered from SBCAG.

“We don’t need the density in the suburbs, we need it downtown, where we can minimize the impact.”

And while there was talk Thursday of a potential appeal to the state or even a lawsuit, the general consensus seemed to favor a more measured approach for the near future.

“It seems to me we need to make a counter-proposal,” City Councilman Grant House said. “We could just say, ‘Over my dead body,’ but then we might just end up dead.”

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