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Cities in northern Santa Barbara County have grown faster than their South Coast counterparts since 2000, raising questions about whether housing that's affordable for those who live and work here can keep up.

Fueled by residential, commercial and retail developments, Santa Maria has grown roughly 40.1 percent over 19 years, surpassing Santa Barbara as the County’s largest city, according to the California Department of Finance and U.S. Census Bureau.

Its rapid growth is mirrored by population increases in other North County cities: Buellton and Guadalupe experienced a more than 30 percent jump in population, Solvang grew by 8.23 percent, and Lompoc saw a 6.07 percent increase.

Chuen Ng, Santa Maria’s community development director, said new housing developments after a six-year slump in building will help support Santa Maria's continued growth. 

“We're growing at a slightly faster pace than some other coastal cities,” he said. “Some areas in California are very vulnerable to market forces, [but] I think the growth we're seeing in the city is a healthy growth.”

As more residents relocate to North County cities for their relatively lower cost of living, the demand for housing is growing and planners are trying to balance the need with options that don’t displace the region’s low-income residents.

Changes in population

Between 2017 and 2018, Santa Barbara County grew by 3,150 people, or 0.70 percent, according to estimates released last month by the Department of Finance.

The estimates are released yearly, and are a composite of data collected by several public agencies, including birth and death counts from the Department of Public Health, driver’s license data from the Department of Motor Vehicles, local housing units, school enrollment and federal tax return data. Though immigrants who take up permanent residence are counted toward the county population, the number of seasonal farmworkers is not included in the calculation.

According to the data, Santa Barbara County experienced a larger growth in population than any other Central Coast county between 2017 and 2018.

San Luis Obispo County grew by 690 people, or 0.25 percent, and was one of 17 counties across California that experienced a greater number of deaths than births. Monterey County had a 0.37 percent increase in population, or 1,623 people. Ventura County, the region’s largest county in terms of population, grew by 0.06 percent, or 502 people.

Three northern Santa Barbara County cities -- Buellton, Guadalupe and Solvang -- experienced the greatest growth by percent between 2017 and 2018. Buellton grew by 3.79 percent, adding 193 residents, and 263 people moved to Guadalupe, increasing its population by 3.58 percent. Solvang, which experienced a 2.09 percent increase, welcomed an extra 118 people.

The 492 new residents that moved to Santa Maria in that period upped the city’s population by 0.46 percent. Both Goleta, which added 327 residents for a 1.03 percent increase, and Santa Barbara, whose 563 new residents contributed to a 0.60 percent growth, passed Santa Maria for the period.

Seven new residents moved into Carpinteria, contributing to a 0.05 percent increase, while Lompoc experienced a third consecutive year of decline, shrinking by 0.64 percent, or 282 people.

A problem of price

As home and rental prices go up and people head to North County in search of a more affordable cost of living, some say limited housing stock could make it harder for lower income families to afford a place to live.

“You're seeing the displacement of a lot of working class families from Santa Barbara’s [South Coast] to western Ventura County and northern Santa Barbara County,” said Lucas Zucker, policy and communications director for the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE). “There are a lot of people moving into the area, but we’re also seeing a lot of people leaving the region (because of increasing costs).”

Santa Barbara County has seen more than 2,500 residents leave since 2016, according to the state. 

“To people who find Santa Barbara or San Luis Obispo expensive, we're certainly more affordable,” said Ng, noting that relative affordability is dependent on household income and size in addition to the price of housing. “But when you compare Santa Maria to the Central Valley or states like Arizona or Nevada, we're expensive."

Between January and May of 2018, the Santa Maria Association of Realtors reported the average sale price of a home in the city at $372,000. Asking prices for homes in certain neighborhoods could be closer to $500,000. Rent on a two-bedroom apartment during that same period was approximately $1,900, up from $1,095 in 2010.

Estimates compiled by the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey show that in the five-year period between 2013 and 2017, roughly half of the city’s 27,771 occupied housing units were home to renters. Despite a median household income of $42,279, 47.8 percent of Santa Maria renters reported spending 35 percent or more of their household income on rent.

“Santa Barbara County has some of the worst ratios of income to housing cost,” Zucker said, noting the portion of renters who spend 35 percent of their income or more on housing is higher than San Francisco (32.5 percent) because many of the region's working families are employed in the lower-wage agricultural, retail and service industries.

“Communities like Santa Maria haven't had to grapple with affordability like Santa Barbara, Los Angeles or San Francisco, but city leaders are going to have to start thinking about what policies [can] protect renters from evictions and methods of increasing affordable housing,” he added.

Planning for growth

A review of single- and multi-family building permits in Santa Maria spanning 36 years found that, on average, 238 single- and 95 multi-family housing permits were issued by the city each year.

Construction peaked between 2001 and 2004, with city planners issuing nearly 600 single-family permits per year, but slowed during the recession and economic downturn. Between 2008 and 2013, only 168 single-family and 39 multi-family housing construction permits were issued.

Home construction bounced back in 2014, with the city issuing more and more single- and multi-family permits. City spokesperson Mark van de Kamp said 154 single- and 242 multi-family construction permits were issued in 2018. More than 575 residential units were reportedly under construction as of last May, not including 318 apartments proposed as part of the ongoing Enos Ranch development project.

“Santa Maria has built a lot more housing in the last 10 years than Santa Barbara has, but even with the growth there hasn't been a lot of low income housing,” Zucker said. “It's been geared toward single family and townhomes for middle income residents.”

He hopes city leaders will consider proactive measures to address the issue of housing prices before the situation escalates, possibly through an inclusionary housing ordinance, which requires a portion of residential developments with more than 10 units to designate a portion for low-income households.

“Given where housing and rental prices are at now, we understand it's difficult,” Ng said. “It's a hard topic to address … [but it’s] somewhat beyond our ability and control. There are market forces in play that we have to consider.”

Ng said partnerships with non-profit developers like People’s Self Help Housing, and construction of Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) — smaller dwellings on an existing single-family lot — could provide “an attainable housing option for households and individuals in the city” as the city continues to explore long-term methods of addressing what some call a "housing crisis."

"The city will continue to do their part in making sure there's adequate inventory for future housing growth," he said. "It's a matter of supply and demand, and we're still facilitating a process to add to the affordable housing supply."

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Mathew Burciaga covers education in Santa Maria and the surrounding area for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @math_burciaga

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Education Reporter

Santa Maria Times reporter Mathew Burciaga covers education for Lee Central Coast Newspapers.