City Council, Planning Commission discuss new housing standards
New standards for multi-unit residential housing were discussed Thursday during a special meeting between the Santa Barbara City Council and the city’s Planning Commission.
The new standards are aimed at further incentivizing affordable developments.
City staff determined the Santa Barbara area is in need of an additional 8,000 to 10,000 housing units, and staff brainstormed how to increase the number of units with the cost burden and overcrowding in mind.
While the city implemented the Average Unit-size Density Incentive Multi-unit Housing Program in 2013, some staff members feel as though there’s an additional need for affordable housing that the program isn’t accomplishing.
The city and commissioners discussed five different standards for multi-unit housing, including building size, unit size, adaptive reuse, building heights and incentivizing solar.
In regards to size, they discussed floor-to-lot area ratio, and incentivizing rental and affordable housing with different tiers. Tier one would be market-rate condominiums (ownership housing); tier two would be rental housing; and tier three would be affordable housing targeting moderate to low-income residents.
They explored micro-units, with the minimum of 220 square feet, and determined them as most appropriate downtown.
With adaptive reuse, officials discussed converting existing buildings to residential buildings, and requiring the first floor to be dedicated to commercial use.
Next, they discussed building heights. The city charter maximum is 60 feet, and the maximum in the Central Business District is 48, with 45 feet elsewhere.
Commissioners asked the council to consider buildings up to 60 feet for certain projects at certain locations, saying the height maximum has become an “unintentional deterrent” for developers. They also proposed transition areas to provide relief from buildings adjacent to smaller scale residential zones, allowing for taller buildings in the interior of blocks downtown.
Finally, they proposed incentivizing solar by removing the penalty for installing a solar structure that exceeds the height limit.
Planning Commissioner Barrett Reed said he believes the CBD is the most critical and should be prioritized.
“We need the private sector to build affordable housing,” he said. “To build true affordable housing, we will need significant subsidizing.”
He also mentioned that he wants to leave things like unit size and adaptive reuse to the market, saying “the market is intelligent.”
Regarding first floor commercial use, vice chair Lesley Wiscomb suggested incentives to open up local shops and businesses for those buildings.
Commissioner Gabe Escobedo said he supports allowing 60 feet in the CBD, and said that if a developer is willing to provide 20% of the units as inclusionary, then “they deserve 60 feet.”
Commissioner Jay Higgins supported the idea of the tier one ownership housing.
“It’s well established that homeowners take better care of their homes and do more in the community if they have equity,” he said.
Some questioned the livability of the micro-unit 220 square-foot space and its long-term possibilities.
In response to that, Mayor Cathy Murillo said there is a need for units that size.
“I’m on a call every other week with homelessness workers and advocates for creating housing,” she said. “There are people who happily live in studio apartments and they’ll live in them forever… people who are coming off the streets or retiring… especially if it’s downtown.”
Commission Chair Deborah Schwartz suggested local preference for inclusionary housing to house local workers.
Council member Mike Jordan said that, amid discussion about increasing housing in Santa Barbara, it’s important to remember that change has to happen.
“What I’m interested in is working to provide a path for increased housing development in the downtown area while protecting the look and feel of Santa Barbara, but acknowledging that that look and feel will begin to transition to a new look and feel,” he said. “If you can’t acknowledge that’s what we’re doing or you’re unwilling to support what we’re doing, I think that’s a contradiction with what we’re trying to do and the policy we’re trying to work on.
“I’m interested in protecting the cultural and historical aspect, but it has to be in a manner that begins to integrate the old with the new, not that makes the new subject to the old. That is the future,” he said.
Council member Meagan Harmon said she supports encouraging ownership opportunities, but doing so while simultaneously pursuing rental housing. She also suggested not doing one at the expense of the other.
In her comments, Mayor Murillo said she would not require first floor commercial use.
“If you’re following the economy and the trends in retail, that commercial space is influx,” she said. “Retail’s never going to come back… Office space will become more available as well.”
Lastly, she said she supported allowing 60-foot buildings in some cases, referencing the local vote in 2009.
“The people said, ‘We need a little extra height to get more affordable housing,’” the mayor said. “I get it. We don’t want towering buildings in the wrong places, so allowing 60 feet in some cases if it’s rental and if it’s providing housing or services for vulnerable populations…. It really was the vote of the people and it got overturned in a political move. So we can make that right if we want to.”
Ultimately, these changes have to go through quite a bit before potential implementation. For the rest of 2020, the city will conduct public outreach.
At the beginning of next year, staff will conduct environmental review and ordinance work. Hearings with the city’s Architectural Board of Review and Historic Landmarks Commission will follow in February and March, followed by ordinance hearings with the Planning Commission, Ordinance Committee and City Council from April through July.