The Santa Barbara County Planning Commission on Wednesday is set to consider and recommend approval of the Housing Element update, which needs to identify potential sites to accommodate the county’s regional housing needs allocation of 5,664 residential units.

The Housing Element is a required part of the county’s Comprehensive Plan and is required by the California Department of Housing and Community Development to be updated every eight years.

The county released the first draft of the Housing Element update for public comment at the beginning of this year, and after multiple submittals and revisions, the state Department of Housing and Community Development notified the county on Oct. 16 that the final Housing Element update “substantially complies with State Housing Element Law” and is ready for final submission after the Board of Supervisors approves it.

The county’s regional housing needs allocation for the 2023-31 cycle is 5,664 units, which the Planning Commission staff report says is nearly 10 times greater than the allocation of 661 units for 2015-23.

“Santa Barbara County is experiencing one of the nation’s most severe housing crises, including high costs, inadequate supply, and overcrowding,” the staff report said. “The state legislature has identified the availability of decent and suitable housing for every Californian as a ‘matter of vital statewide importance and a priority of the highest order.’ This objective has become increasingly urgent in recent years as communities across the state, including Santa Barbara County, struggle to meet the housing needs of all of their residents.”

The staff report also states that the county’s current land inventory would not allow enough housing units to accommodate the needs allocation for lower- and moderate-income levels.

For lower-income housing units, there is a shortfall of 1,403 units along the South Coast and 357 units in the North County. The South Coast also has a shortfall of 703 moderate-income units. Those totals exclude the 15% the county staff includes to ensure the regional housing needs allocation is met.

To increase the county’s land inventory to meet the needs allocation, several sites have been identified as those that potentially could be rezoned to allow for housing projects in the future. The Housing Element currently identifies nine county-owned sites on the South Coast that can contribute 320 units, as well as 36 potential rezone sites throughout the county — 18 sites along the South Coast and 18 in the North County.

While these rezones are part of the Housing Element, the county Planning Commission will not be considering or taking any action on the rezones during the Wednesday meeting, and the county Board of Supervisors’ approval of the Housing Element — which is set for the board’s Dec. 5 meeting — does not automatically rezone those sites.

Instead, the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors will be considering the rezones as part of a separate process taking place in early 2024.

According to the staff report, the annual average permitting of new housing in Santa Barbara County has decreased 37.5% in the past two decades, with the decline particularly severe on the South Coast. 

Additionally, that staff report states that the median home prices in the North County — $565,000 — and on the South Coast — $1,581,000 — exceed the statewide median of $547,000. In 2022, the county had the sixth-highest average cost for rental housing in the nation — leaving a majority of the workforce in services such as agriculture, health care, public safety and education cost-burdened or living long distances from their job locations.

The county Planning Commission will welcome public comment during the Wednesday meeting, either in person or through Zoom.

Public comments sent before the meeting, which can be read online here, include both support and opposition, with some neighbors concerned about high-density housing in areas that they say needs additional services to meet the needs of existing residents.

The Planning Commission meeting is scheduled for 9 a.m. Wednesday at the Betteravia Government Center, 511 E. Lakeside Pkwy. in Santa Maria. The meeting also can be viewed online through Zoom or on the county’s YouTube page. More information on the meeting, including how to watch the meeting online, is available on the agenda here.