A local affordable housing developer is hoping to use a state Senate bill to bypass the typical approval process for residential buildings and get a 24-unit studio project built in unincorporated Goleta Valley.
SB 35 allows local entities to streamline the usual procedure by providing a process solely based on objective, regulatory standards.
If the project meets those requirements, the local government must meet a 90-day deadline to identify any standards not met. If there are none, the project is deemed “complete.”
In 2019, Patterson Avenue Holdings LLC proposed developing an office building at the 0.54 acre parcel at 80 N. Patterson Ave., outside the Goleta city limits. However, the project was denied by the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors, citing traffic concerns.
Earlier this year, an agent for Patterson Avenue Holdings, Thompson Housing LLC, proposed putting a new multi-family residential project of 24 studio units on the same parcel, using SB 35 to expedite the process.
The developer brought the project to the South County Board of Architectural Review for an objective, voluntary design review on Jan. 8. While the board commented positively about the housing units, neighbors spoke up in opposition during the board’s webinar.
Christine Reynolds-Mohammed has lived directly behind the project site for 48 years.
She said she supported the proposed office building for that parcel because no windows would face her property and the site would have only been in use during office hours.
She feels differently about the residential project.
“I don’t agree with this project at all. This is actually the first I’ve heard of this project,” Ms. Reynolds-Mohammed said. “I hear traffic accidents at least once or twice a week on this corner, and even with foot traffic, it is a very dangerous corner … I have four children, and I do not want anybody looking into my yard.”
Ms. Reynolds-Mohammed and a few neighbors were not aware of the project change, and they expressed concern at the thought of individuals living on the parcel.
“I’m all for low-cost housing, but I’ve been in areas before with this, and it has created more crime and more problems with the community because you can’t structure on who gets approved to live there,” she said. “My son has extreme asthma, and if there’s any smoking in the outside common area that would directly filter into my yard and my open windows, that would create a health problem for him.”
The resident added she plans to oppose the project any way she can.
Renate Quebec, another neighbor, said in a News-Press letter to the editor that she was also concerned about putting a housing development on that parcel.
“We feel that we and other neighbors were blindsided with this change of plans. This proposed overcrowded building is not fit for this small parcel right at the off-ramp of the north 101 freeway into very busy Patterson Avenue, where traffic is already a nightmare,” Ms. Quebec wrote. “I understand that low income-earning housing is needed. However, this proposed small dangerous corner is wrong for this high-density parcel.”
She wrote letters to city and county leaders asking for help and re-evaluation after the webinar, but was informed the developer is using the SB 35 pathway to build.
Ms. Quebec complained in a second News-Press letter to the editor about neighbors’ time being wasted during a webinar “when this project was already a done deal.”
Alex Pujo, a member of the South County Architectural Board of Review, said in the webinar that the project was “very well done,” but added that it’s hard to provide “objective” comments on design because “design is not really that objective.”
“It’s a difficult intersection. It’s right next to the freeway off-ramp,” he told the News-Press. “I understand some don’t like the process, but this is where we’re at. We have a housing crisis. I don’t think anybody can deny that, and you have to look at yourself in the mirror and recognize we have created this crisis in one way or another.”
In October 2020, the Santa Barbara City Council and Planning Commission had a special meeting to discuss incentivizing affordable housing developments. City staff determined the Santa Barbara area is in need of as many as 10,000 housing units.
“Somehow, we have not been able to accommodate growth in a sustainable manner or in a positive manner, and then the state had to step in,” Mr. Pujo said. “In a way, locals have invited the state to come in with a hammer and hit it over their head and force them to do things, and they complain and complain. And then they realize this is where we are.”
SB 35 was passed in September 2017 as an effort to address local entities ignoring the state’s Regional Housing Needs Assessments or making inadequate efforts to comply with them.
Santa Barbara’s RHNA determination, projected for June 2022 through February 2031, was that the city needs an additional 24,856 housing units.
The Goleta Valley project’s developer is Frank Thompson, the principal of Frank Thompson Housing Consultants. Since 1976, he has produced more than 3,500 affordable housing units in Santa Barbara County and throughout Southern California.
To qualify for SB 35, Mr. Thompson said he had to restrict at least half his units to low-income rents and low-income occupants for 55 years. He said each studio unit’s rent cannot exceed $990 per month.
“We think these state incentives will save us at least two years in the approval process and eliminate the risk of approval,” he told the News-Press. “That’s a big deal, particularly given the history of the site.
“This neighborhood has fought any development on this parcel for more than 14 years. You’re not just dealing with a level playing field here — you’re dealing with a highly practiced neighborhood that has been organized for a long time to prevent any development on this site.”
Mr. Thompson and his staff held three sequential Zoom meetings with the neighborhood, resulting in four hours of testimony. Mr. Thompson said they changed many aspects of the project according to residents’ concerns — eliminating windows from the north side of the building, making the building a nonsmoking environment and studying the traffic impacts and deeming them “insignificant.”
“The numbers do not bear out their testimony,” Mr. Thompson said, referencing the study overseen by the county and Caltrans. “The added traffic from these 24 units over the course of a day is 71 car movements, and 71 car movements even divided by 12 hours a day is insignificant. You can’t measure it. This is not going to make their problem worse in a way that they can feel it.”
Regarding the other complaints, the developer said he and his staff cannot control some of the problems the neighbors anticipate.
“We have a nonsmoking environment, but people need to smoke somewhere. They’re going to go out in the public right of way. We just cannot control people’s behavior,” Mr. Thompson said. “They’re asking for things that would be outrageous. Smoke is not going to make it 120 feet across the road.
“The plans were changed based on their comments about design, but a lot of people just made the comment, ‘We don’t want anything there.’ Well, how do you respond to that as a developer? We’re not in the business of producing nothing.”
The proposed development is the first project to use the SB 35 process in the county, according to 2nd District Supervisor Gregg Hart.
“I voted against a commercial office development project at this site in 2019 because I was concerned about peak hour traffic and safety impacts to the neighborhood. A majority of my colleagues on the Board of Supervisors agreed with me,” Supervisor Hart told the News-Press. “Fortunately, the new proposed affordable housing project generates fewer peak hour traffic trips than the previously denied commercial project.”
Mr. Hart said he was shocked to hear residents didn’t feel their input was heard, referring to the neighborhood as “highly engaged.” He said that at his request, the developer had many meetings to garner community input.
“This project will provide much-needed affordable housing to its residents. I do understand some of the concerns that have been raised about the design of the project and have been urging the developer to do everything he can to address these issues,” Supervisor Hart said.
He said he prefers the traditional approval process because it allows residents in a neighborhood to have a say on a project’s pros and cons.
“It’s my hope that this will be the predominant way in which housing projects are considered.”
Supervisor Hart added he thinks it’s too soon to predict often SB 35 will be used.
No construction is expected at the parcel for the next few years, as it remains under its current ownership. Thompson Housing has the option to purchase it, but staff are still gathering designs and information to submit in order to be deemed “complete” by the county.