Santa Barbara’s fierce debate over rental housing will take center stage again at Tuesday’s City Council meeting.
The names and addresses have changed, but the story is the same: Dozens of residents are objecting to construction of a 21-unit rental apartment building at 825 De la Vina St. downtown.
This project is proposed to be four stories on what currently is a rectangular parking lot. A portion of the building, about 380 square feet, will include an unidentified commercial use.
The apartments are a mix of studio, one- and two-bedroom units, ranging from 482 to 1,419 square feet. Two of the apartments will be for moderate-income households only; the rest will be rented at market rate.
The development also calls for 23 vehicle parking spaces and 32 bicycle parking spaces.
The city’s Architectural Board of Review approved the project’s design on uMarch 22, but it was appealed by Bath Street resident Donna Mrotek, on behalf of herself and several neighbors.
“The city has not provided a need for a four-story building of this scale to be placed onto a small lot which compromises the safety, comfort and general welfare of the surrounding properties,” she wrote in her appeal letter. “It should be scaled down to fit within the space.
“It is in a historically sensitive area where most of the buildings are single- or two-story dwellings built in the early 1900s.”
The City Council held a “site visit” on Monday afternoon, attended by Mayor Cathy Murillo and council members Meagan Harmon, Oscar Gutierrez and Kristen Sneddon, along with members of city staff.
About 30 people also showed up to protest the project.
Murillo did not allow them to talk during the meeting, even though technically public comment is allowed during a site visit, as noted on the public agenda, and because four members of the council were attendance, which made the meeting a quorum.
After denying them an opportunity to comment, Murillo quickly left, but some of the residents, including Cynthia Gumucio, spoke to Noozhawk.
“We’re upset,” Gumucio said. “This is going to change our lives. It’s going to be a year and a half to two years of noise. There’s going to be a four-story building here that is completely out of scale with the rest of the neighborhood.”
Gumucio lives in a nearby apartment building and teaches poetry to children over Zoom. She worries she might have to stop because of the loud construction noises.
“The city is not considering the human beings that live here,” she said. “We don’t want a four-story building here. This neighborhood contains houses of merit. What are they doing building four-story homes. This is outrageous.”
Nearby resident Eui Oh tried to ask one of the project’s architect’s a question and was cut off by Murillo.
“You don’t have the floor,” she remarked to him.
Oh told Noozhawk that four stories is too big. He also said the renderings are misleading, and noted that there were no story poles erected for the project, only digital renderings.
“There’s no other buildings even close to four stories around here,” Oh said. “It’s going to block all the views. It’s going to look horrible. We’re just concerned about the aesthetics of the neighborhood as well as blocking everyone’s property.
The mood of City Hall at the moment is favorable toward affordable housing projects.
With Santa Barbara rents becoming increasingly out of reach for many residents, and a persistent jobs-housing imbalance, city planners and members of the council have pushed hard in recent years to encourage developers to build rental apartments.
The council approved the average unit-sized density (AUD) incentive program in 2013, which allows developers to build high-density housing projects as long as they are rentals.
Although the units are mostly market rate, except for the 10% of the units set aside for inclusionary, or below-market rate, the idea is to make them affordable by design.
The challenge, however, is that rents in Santa Barbara are notoriously high, and critics have said that the city is building market-rate housing for people with higher incomes and not tactically appealing to middle-income workers.
The size of the housing projects also often infuriate nearby residents. Most of Santa Barbara’s housing stock is old, and prior to the AUD program, few new apartments were built.
The building is set about 10 feet from the street, and six feet from property in the back.
“It’s way to gigantic for the neighborhood, and even the city itself,” Oh said.
Gary Yencich moved to Santa Barbara from Portland because he fell in love with the community.
He said “cramming more units onto one spot” makes it cheaper for the developer.
The project is owned by JDC Construction Development Group and is being designed by architectural firm DMHA.
“Santa Barbara had a lot of visionary people in the past and thanks to them it’s why Santa Barbara looks as good as it does today,” Yencich said. “I am sure that the people who want to develop this have a vision as well, but it is a vision to make money. It is going to detract from the vision of good that previous city stewards have had for our community.”