Santa Barbara County has produced far more total housing units in the unincorporated area over the past seven years than the number required by the state through its Regional Housing Needs Assessment, but it’s falling short of the goal in the very-low-income category, according to a report delivered to the Planning Commission on Feb. 24

The county has met only 36% of the number required for very-low-income housing after approving zero permits at that level for the past two years, according to the annual progress report on implementing the County Comprehensive Plan.

That means the county will have to meet the new RHNA’s higher housing requirements at that income level as well as make up the number it falls short just to stay even, County Planning and Development Department staff told commissioners.

The Regional Housing Needs Assessment set a target of 661 new housing units for the combined very-low-, low- and moderate-income levels for 2014 to 2022, and the county produced 1,401 as of 2020, according to the report presented by planner Corina Venegas.

But the county’s goal was 159 very-low-income units and 106 low-income units for a total of 265, and as of 2020 has produced 58 very-low-income and 119 low-income units for a total of 177.

Venegas said the county will need to provide 100 permanent very-low-income housing units by the end of 2022 to stay even.

Santa Barbara County progress on RHNA targets

A chart presented in a report on Santa Barbara County's progress implementing its Comprehensive Plan shows the Regional Housing Needs Assessment target numbers for new housing units in orange and the actual units produced in blue from 2014 to 2020.

When 1st District Commissioner Michael Cooney asked what penalties the county would face for failing to meet its goal, Dan Klemann, deputy director of the Long Range Planning Division, said it will be falling under the provisions of Senate Bill 35.

SB 35 essentially requires streamlined, ministerial approval of all qualifying housing projects and prevents the county from requiring a conditional use permit or development plan.

Qualified projects would be infill developments on land zoned residential or mixed use with 50% of their units designated “affordable.”

Klemann noted that “for the unincorporated area of the county, there are not too many sites that qualify.”

But he said the Regional Housing Needs Assessment for the next cycle is expected to require 5,664 units, or more than eight times the total required in the last cycle, a number that shocked commissioners.

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Even worse, Klemann said, the countywide target — which includes the cities — is expected to be 24,856 units.

“Where are we going to put 25,000 houses?” asked Chairman and 4th District Commissioner Larry Ferini. “Are we going to look like Los Angeles?”

Second District Commissioner Laura Bridley questioned how the state could justify such an escalating need for housing when recent reports have shown more people are leaving California than are moving in.

“All the communities we represent are going to suffer because of these state mandates,” she said.

Planning and Development Department Director Lisa Plowman said to meet the state targets, the county has to develop a program to allow higher-density housing in the unincorporated area.

“The shortage [of housing] really comes down to … our existing population and the level of overcrowding that we see,” Plowman said. “It’s quite high — and the cost of housing is quite high.”

Bridley predicted the county will see four units being built on one 8,000-square-foot lot.

“It’s really scary because John Q. Public doesn’t really understand the tidal wave that’s coming down on it,” Bridley said.

Ferini was more pragmatic about it as the commission voted 4-0-1, with 5th District Commissioner Dan Blough absent, to accept the report.

“This is what we have for now, and we just have to deal with it,” he said.

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