Op-Ed: In Open Letter, Sheila Lodge Schools Das on Planning, Rents and Building Costs for Housing
(Editor's note: Inflaming the conflict over construction of new housing, Supervisor Das Williams on Dec. 15 biliously attacked Santa Barbara's planning process, as he led an effort to deny the city a grant to develop a comprehensive plan for building new units at La Cumbre Plaza. Last month, former Mayor Sheila Lodge sent him a letter, deconstructing his critique, but did not receive the courtesy of a response. After receiving permission from Lodge to publish the letter, we reached out to Williams; a few minutes after Newsmakers posted, he sent a text, asking for equal space to reply. We'll publish his piece when it comes in).
By Sheila Lodge
You may remember that I was very much involved in the city’s General Plan Update (GPU) process as a member of the Planning Commission GPU sub-committee. While it is true that it was long and arduous, I beg to differ with you that the planning process “went nowhere.”
In an effort to reach a compromise between those who wanted to upzone Santa Barbara and increase density everywhere, and those who didn’t want to increase density anywhere, I suggested that an experiment be made.
In a very limited part of the city’s commercial and light industrial areas, I suggested that densities be increased for rental projects for the life of the building. Presumably, units would be affordable by design. You thought it was an excellent idea.
In October of 2010, I drew the first map of where this high density overlay zone should be. It included La Cumbre Plaza. The development community said that, given this higher density, rents would be middle-income affordable. The program was adopted in 2013.
However, the city learned with the first AUD high density project to be completed that there is no such thing as affordable by design. At top density of 63 dwelling units per acre (du/acre) the rents were almost double what the development community said they would be.
Rents will be and are what the market will bear.
How economics works. The AUD high density program has been very successful in that it did stimulate the construction of apartments.
Almost none had been built for decades prior to its adoption. As of August 1, 2022, 314 high density overlay units had been completed. Another 560 have building permits issued, have been approved or are pending.
To further stimulate construction of apartments, the city allowed for zero parking for projects in the Central Business District.
Presumably, the lowering of construction costs would result in lower rents; I asked the developer of one such project if rents would be lower because of the lack of parking.
His reply? “Rents will be what the market will bear."
Because no middle-income affordable units were created, the city council adopted an inclusionary ordinance, requiring 10 percent of the units in a project to be priced at that range. Before such an ordinance could be adopted, state law required that a nexus study be done, an analysis to show the impact of the new units in creating demand for even more affordable units.
The study showed that an almost 20 percent inclusionary requirement would be needed, simply to keep up with the additional demand created by additional residents in the city. (More people living in the city generate an increased need for a range of services from janitors to doctors.)
It sounds counter-intuitive, but the more units are built the worse the jobs/housing imbalance becomes. The city is faced with an insolvable conundrum.
How planning works. When you said the city’s design review boards were “horrifying”and that they had "run amok” I assume you were referring to high density projects which come in for preliminary applications, asking for feedback regarding size, bulk and scale and which come back with a reduced number of units in response to the boards’ comments.
If the number of units is reduced, it is because the applicant is voluntarily trying out different proposals. They are exploring their options. The boards know that they cannot reduce the number, and they do not.
Some projects have come back with fewer units. Even so the density is often still two to three times the density allowed in your jurisdiction, the County of Santa Barbara at 30 dwelling units per acre, and the city you live in, Carpinteria at 20 du/acre. (Santa Maria’s maximum density is 22 du/acre; Goleta’s is 30 du/acre).
Bottom line. The city has gone out of its way to encourage development of rentals. Hundreds have been built at densities unheard of in our neighbors. They have not reduced the affordable housing problem.
Beyond locating financing for public housing authorities, and other non-profit housing providers, I do not know what will.
Sheila Lodge, a longtime city Planning Commissioner, is former Mayor of Santa Barbara.
Images: Political debate is stewing over whether to develop housing on the site where Macy's is currently located separately, or as part of a comprehensive "Specific Plan" for La Cumbre Plaza (foursquare.com); Sheila Lodge (screen capture from Newsmakers TV).