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Event Wrap-up: 6th Annual Virtual Coastal Housing Coalition Santa Barbara Housing Conference

Greetings from the 6th Annual Virtual Coastal Housing Coalition Santa Barbara Housing Conference, which occurred on Friday, October 2nd!

Dan Walters, an author at CalMatters presented the keynote address focusing on housing legislation, the California housing crisis, and what we need to do to address housing on a local and state level.

How did we get to the housing crisis we are seeing today?

As Dan said, in the 1980s, our population grew from 24 million to about 30 million people due to a migration to California from all over the world and a high birth rate.   More people means a need for more housing.

Population growth slowed in the 1990s and even more in the 2000s, but today we are still averaging a population growth of 300,000 per year in California.

During the Great Recession, housing production dropped to only about 30,000 units annually. Over the last decade we have averaged only about 80,000 housing units per year. If we assume three people live in every home, we would need 20,000 additional housing units to house the 300,000 new people every year. Those numbers don’t account for population increases over the previous decades resulting in a need for more housing, demolition of homes and replacement units, and loss of housing due to wildfires over the last several years. Put simply, we need to be producing a lot more housing than the units that house the 300,000 people that flock to California every year.

California has indicated that the state should be building at least 180,000 housing units per year. If we assume that an average low to moderate housing unit costs approximately $500K, that means that we need to be spending $90 billion per year for housing construction (180,000 units * $500,000 = $90 billion).

How does California come up with $90 billion annually?

As Dan mentioned throughout his talk, there is no way for local and state governments to collectively come up with $90 billion every year, given local and state budgets. Whether we can avert the housing crisis we are currently in is completely dependent on private and non-profit investment in construction.

And yet, we aren’t seeing $90 billion pumped into the local economies of California because we have made it increasingly difficult to build housing. Obstacles for housing development continue, with NIMBY-ism, zoning restrictions, increased regulation, and a substantial upfront financial investment required.

One of Dan’s points was that we need to start looking at high density low and moderate income housing projects as projects that are desperately needed here and everywhere throughout the state. We need to find ways to lower the obstacles precluding development.

There is an understandable reluctance to accept changes to the character of a community. Will high density projects alter Santa Barbara as we know it and can change be good? We aren’t all going to agree. We aren’t all likely to have open arms for our neighbor to turn into a 4-story, 100+ unit density housing project. And yet, if everyone has this resistance, the housing we desperately need may never get built.

Senate Bill 50 was defeated in the California Senate on January 31, 2020. SB 50 would have preempted local government control of land zoning near public transit stations and jobs centers. The bill would have also required, at minimum, four-plex residential zoning statewide.

While SB 50 failed, will we see another bill like it in the next legislative session where local controls would be overridden for certain types of housing? This might be one way for the state to address the Regional Housing Needs Allocation goals for each community. This might be a simple solution to help address some of the critical housing needs and get units built quickly.

And yet, as someone that works in local government, I found myself asking:

  • Can we find a balance to encourage housing while maintaining local control?
  • Can we make change at the local level to influence housing development while maintaining a streamlined permitting path for high density housing developments?
  • Are we ready and willing to tackle (likely controversial) policy shifts in how we permit housing development?

If the answer to any of the above questions is no – how do we become ready and what needs to change?  I worry that we aren’t making local policy and zoning changes as quickly as the State wants to see housing units built. And yet, if we don’t catch up, we may not have a seat at the table anymore.

To solve the housing crisis, we need to look within and re-think the built environment of our community. However, to give away local control, as Dan alluded to, may not be the only path.

So the real question is, do we want to solve the housing crisis? If so, what can we do at the local level to influence this kind of change?

By: Tess Harris, APA Santa Barbara Subsection Director

Thursday, October 22, 2020 (All day)

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