The Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors laid the groundwork for prioritizing affordable housing projects and rezoning considerations under the 2023-31 Housing Element at its Jan. 9 biweekly board meeting.
The sixth cycle of the Housing Element — Santa Barbara planning requirements spanning eight years — began in 2023. One of its new amendments requires that the county accommodate 5,664 new housing units in the unincorporated areas of Santa Barbara County, including Isla Vista, by 2031.
County Director of Planning & Development Lisa Plowman led a conversation with Fifth District County Supervisor and Board of Supervisors Chair Steve Lavagnino to discuss approaches toward affordable housing and rezoning.
“We are rezoning land to meet our lower and moderate income in the south and our lower income in the north,” Plowman said during the meeting.
The rezoning efforts, however, require a 15% buffer in lot area for existing multi-unit zones to ensure that there is enough land to meet its allocation for the planning category — a new addition to existing housing element requirements.
“If we fall short of the land needed at any point during that eight-year planning cycle, it’s actually 180 days that we have to identify adequate sites and rezone them,” Plowman said. “That’s not a lot of time, so that’s why the 15% buffer is important.”
In addition to income disparities, Plowman identified another potential barrier for the housing projects: deficiency in childcare. She said there is an estimated deficiency of over 9,000 spaces in childcare services for children between the ages of zero and five.
“We have a thousand parents on waiting lists for infants and toddlers, and another 1,100 on waiting lists for children between three and four,” Plowman said. “So any kind of inclusion of some kind of childcare facilities in these projects would help us fill that gap.”
Multiple district supervisors voiced support for the involvement of the League of Women Voters, the South Coast Chamber and the Santa Barbara Foundation in creating the criteria for the housing projects. Third District County Supervisor Joan Hartmann emphasized transparency and accountability of developers throughout this planning process.
The board discussed a criteria proposal for prioritizing public-private partnerships in the housing projects. The criteria might include a pre-existing collaboration between a developer and a nonprofit organization or a donation from the state bonus density plan, which rewards developers who donate land to nonprofits. The topic also focused on affordability in these projects, with the board suggesting updating the inclusionary housing ordinance to include rentals.
Third District County Supervisor Joan Hartmann then suggested to outline the criteria in creating such a partnership to ensure that “we don’t need to rezone full market rate projects.” Plowman responded that affordable housing is “very hard to do” because the current inclusionary housing ordinance doesn’t apply to apartments, which — to become a full market rate project — would require an update to include rentals.
“That’s something we will talk about with our work program as well as which programs we want to move on more quickly,” Plowman said in response.
Hartmann then inquired whether rezoning action should be made conditional to how many of the proposed housing units are “affordable.” Plowman emphasized that creating such a standard may make the endeavor of rezoning “financially unfeasible” and subsequently create new barriers to housing development.
“We’ve identified sites that we could rezone, but making them conditional on a certain percentage of affordability is not one of the programs we put into our housing element,” Plowman said. “If we were to create a standard, that [could] result in no housing being built because it made it financially infeasible.”
Plowman discussed another hole in the affordable housing initiative — 20% of builder’s remedy projects are low-priced while none are moderately priced. In response, she proposed a project in the works of Program 13, as outlined in the housing element, that would modify the county’s density bonus program to mirror the state density bonus program. This would ensure competition with the state to gain developers who could build moderate units.
The density bonus program, under California’s Density Bonus Law, allows a developer to increase density on a property above the maximum set.
“I’ve already had conversations with some of the nonprofits out there that are interested in trying to move this concept along,” Plowman said.
The discussion shifted to developing initiatives on building affordable housing for the workforce in Santa Barbara County. Plowman proposed an approach of working with local businesses to sell units to their employees.
“The development community … are trying to secure a relationship with an existing employer in town to make sure that a certain percentage of those units go to that business owner and they put their employees in those units,” she said.
Hartmann emphasized a general need to assess the “underutilized property” in the county.
“It’s even part of our housing element that we have to turn in or categorize completely unused property, so I am interested in a criteria that is also supported by the [League of Women Voters] to assess all county property for housing and potentially rezoning,” she said.
The board discussion concluded with the action to develop a program that can leverage county sites toward housing its workforce at the next board meeting and a general need to focus on moderately priced housing on county-owned sites. Plowman also mentioned the need to create “objective standards” to guide the housing project’s design, as well as incentivizing public participation and input into this initiative.
“There’s a disadvantage for us, the county, to not have its own design residential because we can only subject them to objective standards, and the design residential zone district has objective standards that help us guide the design of the project,” Plowman said. “If we don’t rezone them and they go away, they don’t get built.”
The County Planning Commission is set to begin hearing considerations and recommendations for potential rezone sites early this year. The board is projected to make final rezoning decisions in the spring.
A version of this article appeared on p. 1 of the Jan. 18, 2023, print edition of the Daily Nexus.