A tree in the 2500 block of Castillo Street in Santa Barbara has been spared by the City Council.
A tree in the 2500 block of Castillo Street in Santa Barbara has been spared by the City Council. (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

Santa Barbara will consider a 15 percent inclusionary housing ordinance for everywhere in the city except the central business district, where it will remain 10 percent. 

The City Council voted 7-0 on Tuesday to direct staff to examine the policy, which must go before the city Planning Commission and back to the council for review. 

Some of the council members pushed for the inclusionary component to be 15 percent citywide, but they agreed to 10 percent downtown as a compromise.

“I believe that it should be 15 percent citywide,” Councilman Oscar Gutierrez said, “but if we are not going to find enough support for that today, then I will compromise for the 15 percent outside the downtown.”

The city’s inclusionary housing policy currently states that developers who build 10 or more units should set aside 10 percent of the units for moderate-income residents, people who make between 80 percent and 120 percent of the average median income, which at the top is about $105,000 annually for a family of four.

The city in 2013 created a bonus density program for developers called the average unit-sized density incentive program. The program led the building of several hundred rental apartments in the city — the first time in more than 50 years that developers built apartments in Santa Barbara. Initially, however, the council did not require any of the units to be rented at below-market rates, so most of the units were out of reach to the people that Santa Barbara was trying to house.

The city then in 2018 passed an inclusionary housing component of 10 percent for new units. At the same time, the city is trying to encourage housing in the downtown area and relaxed development standards to allow developers to build as high as 48 feet, put open space on the roof and limit parking to one space per unit.

Much of Tuesday’s debate centered on whether to move to 15 percent citywide. Mayor Cathy Murillo opposed the move, prompting an economics lesson from Gutierrez.

“To me, going to 15 percent is a disincentive to building downtown,” said Murillo, adding that the COVID-19 pandemic has hurt the economy.

Gutierrez responded that the pandemic has not hurt land values: “I understand your points, madam mayor, but if you just look at the history of property values in Santa Barbara, if a pandemic can’t make a huge dent in it, then I doubt 15 percent will do that.”

Councilman Mike Jordan also noted that Santa Barbara’s downtown land values are in a bubble and that without effort by the city to force inclusionary policies, housing will continue “to look like the top floor of the Granada. It will continue to accelerate in value over time, rather than blend in with the rest of the city.”

Councilwoman Meagan Harmon said she was not at all comfortable with excluding the downtown.

“Our neighbors are working folks who live downtown,” Harmon said. “Our community is downtown. We want to be able to afford to live in our neighborhoods. And I don’t love what it says to folks that if you don’t have a high enough income that you are going to be relegated, quite literally, to the outside of our downtown.”

Harmon said she wants to see more housing downtown that people can afford. She supported a compromise, but later, when the council tackles other amendments to the AUD program, she said she will push for 15 percent.

“As we move forward, to discuss the other amendments, particularly floor-to-area ratios, I will be looking and advocating strongly to increase the inclusionary in the central business district when we get to that point,” Harmon said. 

Tree Survives

The Santa Barbara City Council on Tuesday spared the life of a healthy tree near Oak Park in Santa Barbara.

The vote was 5-2, with Councilman Oscar Gutierrez and Councilwoman Alejandra Gutierrez voting to remove the tree.

Blanca Benedict, a resident in the 2500 block of Castillo Street, asked the city to take down the parkway tree because its trunk is so thick that it obstructs the view of people backing out of the driveway. She also said the tree caused damage to the public sidewalk, and that its limbs could fall.

However, the city’s urban forest superintendent, Nathan Slack, said there’s no reason to take down the Nichol’s Willowleafed Peppermint Gum tree.

“It’s in good health,” Slack said. “It’s well-maintained.”

He also said that he consulted with city traffic engineers and that the size of the tree does present some issues, but nothing substantial. The street also doesn’t have a lot of traffic, according to traffic engineers.

Benedict disputed the contention that the street doesn’t have a lot of traffic. She said it is a thoroughfare for drivers who come from Las Positas Road to Cottage Hospital.

“It is a main thoroughfare to all surrounding doctors and patients,” Benedict said.

She said she appreciates the tree, but it is in the wrong place. The trunk, she said, is four times thicker than any other tree on the street. 

“It is a dangerous tree,” she said. “You can’t see when you exit the driveway. It is dangerous when you pull out. My neighbor almost got hit the other day.”

She said large service trucks also visit the property.

Benedict received some support from the council.

“I did find it very troubling that the line of sight, there’s a lot of cars parked on that side of the street. I, standing there, wasn’t able to see down the street,” Gutierrez said. “That would be very frightening to me and for my family if I was living there.”

He noted that a city tree recently fell in public, too. 

“It appeared to be healthy as well,” he said. “We just might never know. A tree that size could cause a lot of damage.”

The majority of the council members simply said they could not make the appropriate findings to cut down the tree. 

“That tree, visually, seems to be a very integral part of that block,” Jordan said. “There are a lot of big trees on that block.”

Councilwoman Alejandra Gutierrez Speaks Out

Toward the end of Tuesday’s meeting, Gutierrez said that Thursday’s fatal stabbing in her district on the Eastside “really hit home for me.”

Authorities have arrested a 32-year-old man on suspicion of stabbing to death a 38-year-old man.

“The incident was just such a wake-up call to me as a leader,” she said, adding that one of the reasons she ran for office was to bridge communities. “Unfortunately, this nation is going through a lot, and we have a lot of healing to do, but I don’t have control of what goes on nationwide or statewide. I do have some control with what happens in the city and how we can fix things because I am a vote here on the City Council.”

She praised the Santa Barbara Police Department.

“I want to give thanks to our local law enforcement,” Gutierrez said. “I personally know a lot of local law enforcement, and I think they have been a target. I think I can understand why, but there’s been a lot of improvements that we need to do as a city. I think the PD understands that.”

Gutierrez, who has relatives in law enforcement, said she does not tolerate racial profiling or police brutality. 

“I really do believe that in this city we have good officers who went into this career to be able to bridge community,” Gutierrez said. “For all the new officers, for the community, I don’t think they understand that we have a lot of new officers. You guys are coming into a profession that is in very difficult times, so I commend you for taking on this profession. It’s not easy. I just want to open up space for my colleagues and for leaders in this community that it is time that we start putting our differences aside and start healing.”

Gutierrez said it’s time to focus on the children and the youth.

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at jmolina@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

Joshua Molina

Joshua Molina, Noozhawk Staff Writer

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at jmolina@noozhawk.com.