Enos Ranch Santa Maria development apartments
About 318 apartments are constructed in the Enos Ranch development of Santa Maria, seen in July. The city constructed the most housing units of any local jurisdiction recently. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk file photo)

Santa Barbara County leaders say they recognize the need to develop more housing, but expressed skepticism at the high numbers projected for the next Regional Housing Needs Allocation.

The county receives a goal number of housing units to build every eight years, and the state RHNA process requires cities to zone enough areas for the housing to be built, not to actually build the units.

During a recent presentation to the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments board, planning director Michael Becker said the RHNA tries to address the jobs-housing imbalance by allocating more housing units meant for low-wage workers in the areas where there are more low-wage jobs.

“While there are low-wage jobs throughout the county, the South Coast has a prevalence of low-wage service- and tourism-related jobs and the region’s highest housing costs, which results in drawing commuters from outside the South Coast (northern Santa Barbara County and Ventura County),” according to Becker.

The mid-December SBCAG meeting focused on the planning process, and the allocation number won’t be finalized until later in 2021.

In response to learning that Santa Barbara most likely will be asked to permit and build more than 8,000 units in the next cycle, Mayor Cathy Murillo said the city will need some help meeting those numbers.

Santa Barbara can rezone areas and permit more accessory dwelling units, but it will take a lot more to actually get units built so that the RHNA process is not just a “paper exercise,” she said.

Santa Barbara Mayor Cathy Murillo

During the Dec. 17 SBCAG meeting, Santa Barbara Mayor Cathy Murillo says some of the Regional Housing Needs Allocation goals are unrealistic for the area. (Screenshot via SBCAG meeting video )

Murillo also said that some of the RHNA goals were unrealistic for the area, particularly the affordability calculation. The state considers housing affordable if it costs 30% or less of a household income.

“People might call it overcrowding, but that’s how we live in the city, and to say that people shouldn’t pay more than 30%, yeah, that sounds great, but that’s not the reality. I think there’s some nonreality in how we got to this formula,” she said.

The current RHNA cycle ends in 2022, and the county has permitted or built 41% of the units so far, mostly in the highest-income category. The county has never actually completed 100% of the units, Becker has said.

Santa Maria and Santa Barbara have the highest allocations (4,100 each), and completed 45% and 28% of the units, respectively.

The current RHNA cycle had the lowest allocation ever — 11,000 units — and the number for the upcoming cycle is expected to be much higher.

Units are allocated by area and income level: very low income, low income, moderate income and above moderate income. Based on the countywide median income of $71,657, low income is anyone making less than $57,325.

The majority of units will be allocated to the South Coast — the Goleta Valley, Santa Barbara, Montecito, Summerland and the Carpinteria Valley — since that is where 60% of the region’s jobs are located. It is also the area with the highest housing costs in the county.

“Differences in housing costs helps explain the large number of people who choose to reside outside their workplaces on the South Coast, increasing the lengths of their work trips,” according to a June SBCAG report.

Santa Barbara County progress permitting and building housing units in the current RHNA cycle.

Santa Barbara County progress permitting and building housing units in the current RHNA cycle. (SBCAG graphic)

The SBCAG board includes the five county supervisors and a representative from each city.

While they all said they recognized the need for more housing, there was a lot of pushback on the high numbers during the mid-December meeting.

Santa Maria Mayor Alice Patino also said the COVID-19 pandemic has shown how many people can work from home, which could change commuting patterns and the jobs-housing balance in the future.

“I know this isn’t any great revelation that there isn’t such a thing as affordable housing on the Central Coast,” Patino said, and called the RHNA directives a government overreach.

Santa Maria Mayor Alice Patino

Santa Maria Mayor Alice Patino says about 73% of city workers cannot work from home, but wonders how much teleworking will increase following the COVID-19 pandemic. (Screenshot via SBCAG meeting video )

“I really don’t like people telling the Santa Maria council how Santa Maria should be built and how we should be built out. I think we have a right to have the kind of community we want with the kind of housing — and we know we need housing, there’s no question about that, we know that we need hosing for our workers in Santa Maria. So it’s not a question of fighting that. It’s just that, be respectful that in each one of our communities we’d really like to do it our way.”

Carpinteria Councilman Al Clark said overcrowding on the South Coast is caused by high housing prices in addition to high demand for units, and the RHNA process won’t address those issues.

The county needs more housing that is affordable to low-income workers, and the private market is not going to provide it, Clark said during the meeting.

“At least 20% of residential units are second homes or short-term rentals,” he added. “A lot of wealthy people are also buying single-family homes and mansion-ing them.”

Thousands of commuters pass through Carpinteria on their way to Santa Barbara and Goleta every day, and county Supervisor Das Williams said the Highway 101 widening project is “one big clear example of something that’s needed precisely because of a jobs-housing imbalance” on the South Coast.

Noozhawk managing editor Giana Magnoli can be reached at gmagnoli@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.