With laws 'basically designed to strip local control,' city planners are working to create objective design standards for development projects
By Giana Magnoli, Noozhawk Managing Editor | @magnoli | February 16, 2019 | 7:15 p.m.
Santa Barbara city planners will spend the next year creating objective design standards for development projects in response to the package of state housing legislation that then-Gov. Jerry Brown approved for California in 2017.
Assistant City Attorney Tava Ostrenger presented a breakdown of the legislation’s local impact to the Planning Commission on Thursday and said it was “basically designed to strip local control.”
The intent of the legislation is to boost housing development and affordability, streamline development, and increase accountability and enforcement of cities’ and counties’ housing goals.
The state’s Regional Housing Needs Assessment allocates units to each county, which then breaks it down by cities and income levels. The Santa Barbara County Association of Government’s report for the 2014-2022 period outlines a goal of building 11,030 new units countywide — with 4,099 of them in Santa Barbara.
As of the end of 2017, the City of Santa Barbara had issued permits for 667 units, or 16 percent of that goal, Ostrenger said.
Planning Commission chairwoman Lesley Wiscomb pointed out that the laws are forcing cities to move away from more subjective guidelines, and that Santa Barbara decision-makers will need to find ways to meet the RHNA numbers while keeping Santa Barbara special.
Some zoning and design standards are subjective now, and city staff and planning commissioners will develop objective standards for multifamily housing projects.
“We want to get this done in a year,” Ostrenger said.
The code states: “If a project complies with ‘objective’ general plan, zoning and subdivision standards and criteria, including design review standards, the city cannot reduce its density.”
The “objective” standards are defined in part as involving no personal or subjective judgment by a public official.
State Housing Legislation Changes
The Housing Accountability Act amendments passed in 2017 declare that “California has a housing supply and affordability crisis of historic proportions. The consequences of failing to effectively and aggressively confront this crisis are hurting millions of Californians, robbing future generations of the chance to call California home, stifling economic opportunities for workers and businesses, worsening poverty and homelessness, and undermining the state’s environmental and climate objectives.”
California has an unmet housing backlog of nearly 2 million units, and must build at least 180,000 new units a year to keep up with growth through 2025, according to the text of the legislation, which was introduced by state Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley.
Its goal is to curb the ability of local governments to deny housing development, reduce its density (the footprint, number of units or bedrooms, etc.) or otherwise render it infeasible, Ostrenger said. The changes also give courts more authority to order project approvals and make cities pay fines if the project applicant succeeds in challenging a denial.
The Santa Barbara Planning Commission will develop “objective” design standards in response to housing-related state legislative changes. (Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk photo)
Statewide, 337 cities have not met their RHNA numbers, including seven in Santa Barbara County (all but Carpinteria). They’ll be affected by SB 35’s streamlined review process for qualifying residential projects: multifamily infill rental and for-sale housing; and mixed use with two-thirds residential space.
Design review for SB 35 projects must be completed within 90 days for projects with fewer than 150 units. They have affordability requirements, have to be built with prevailing wages and require less parking than usual (a maximum of one space per unit).
SB 35 has a lot of exclusions, however, including in the Coastal Zone and mobile home or RV parks. Notably, the projects cannot require demolishing any rent-restricted units or housing that has had tenants within the past 10 years.
Senate Bill 72, introduced by state Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, describes state enforcement options, including civil actions if jurisdictions are inconsistent with their housing elements, such as the state’s lawsuit against the City of Huntington Beach.
It gives teeth to the new legislation, Ostrenger said: “I call it the watchdog provision.”
Planning Commission Response
Commissioner Sheila Lodge asked what communities are expected to do if the local Housing Authority has no funding, or no developers come forward with project proposals for the required units.
“What’s a city supposed to do?” she asked.
“Build houses,” Ostrenger said.
Lodge added that the state would probably not penalize the city if it was moving in the right direction, with objective standards that allow projects and don’t reduce density.
Commissioner Jay Higgins commented after the presentation that Santa Barbara and California are in this position because of a “collective inability to keep up with the times” and a culture of opposing projects or putting up obstacles to them.
“It’s simply based on, we call it compatibility, other people call it — it’s just NIMBYism,” he said. “It takes different forms, even up here, with commissioners some more than others. Frankly, it’s hard not to tinker with projects but there’s also just not wanting to approve projects, period.
“And so that’s a huge cultural phenomenon that’s not going to be corrected in 180 days, or 30 to 60 days; and now there’s a gun pointed to our head to approve these projects.”
He said the city needs to talk about improving the culture of the application review process, starting with City Hall.
Commissioner Mike Jordan said that with the current process, different people can have different interpretations of the same part of a project. The city needs a system of customer service and processes that comply with state requirements and “get us where we want to go as a city,” he said.
Lodge, who served as mayor from 1981 to 1993, wrapped up comments by saying that California has “bemoaned” the housing crisis and water shortages since the 1930s, and that housing needs will continue as long as Santa Barbara remains a desirable place to live.
The city is “hemmed in between the mountains and the sea,” and these changes won’t be the answer to all housing issues, she said.
As an effort to encourage developers to build smaller, more affordable rental housing units, Santa Barbara in 2013 implemented the Average Unit-Sized Density Incentive Program. It will last eight years or, more likely, until 250 new units are built in the high-density residential or priority housing overlay areas — whichever happens first.
There are 151 completed units for high-density/priority housing overlay areas and 35 finished for medium-high density areas.
As of January, there were 640 net new units in the pipeline for high-density and priority housing areas, 201 net new units for medium-high density areas, and 240 net new units for “affordable” projects, according to the city. That includes projects that are pending, approved, have building permits issued, or have been issued certificates of occupancy (completed).
Any application for new units that has been deemed complete before the program expires can keep being processed under the incentive program.