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It’s always exciting to finally reach the top spot. But as every No.1 knows, the real work lies ahead, as in, what do we do now?

Such thoughts must have crossed the minds of North County policy makers as they examine population figures showing cities up in this end of Santa Barbara County are, for the most part, growing faster than their South County cousins.

The North County population growth has been slow, but steady since the 2000 Census, and it seems almost a certainty that when the 2020 Census totals are announced, that trend upward will continue.

For example, Santa Maria’s population has mushroomed more than 40 percent in the past 19 years, and during that span Santa Maria has become the county’s largest city, edging past Santa Barbara.

Buellton and Guadalupe’s populations have grown more than 30 percent since 2000, Solvang is up just more than 8 percent, and Lompoc’s increase is a tad over 6 percent. The Lompoc growth probably needs an asterisk, but more about that in a moment.

The obvious reason the population is shifting toward North County is that while we have more or less the same ambiance as South County, what we have that they generally do not have is more affordable living, especially with regard to housing.

That’s not to say housing costs aren’t astronomical by national standards here in North County, but a typical single-family home is a more reasonable financial consideration for families up here, compared to families trying to find housing in Santa Barbara’s hyper-thyroidal market.

Still, while we can brag about being No.1 in growth, the big-picture snapshot of the county’s overall population is not encouraging. While most of the rest of California is growing steadily, Santa Barbara County actually has lost more than 2,500 residents in the past two years. Again, an obvious cause is the cost of living, specifically housing costs for both buyers and renters.

About that asterisk next to the Lompoc figures, while other North County cities have added population, Lompoc experienced a third consecutive year of a shrinking base population. Some may view any sort of population decline as a positive, but from a municipal operations standpoint, it is worrisome for elected officials trying to tailor policy to fit the needs of a community that should be growing.

Remaining No. 1 in growth will be a challenge for decision-makers in Santa Maria, because housing costs are following the population curve. In the first six months of 2018, the Santa Maria Association of Realtors reported the average sale price of a home in the city at $372,000. Rent on a two-bedroom apartment during that same period was approximately $1,900, compared to $1,095 in 2010.

Another big factor is that between 2013 and 2017, about half of the city’s 27,771 occupied housing units were rentals, and nearly 48 percent of Santa Maria renters spent 35 percent or more of their household monthly income on rent, an alarming fact considering that’s a higher percentage of income on rent than in the San Francisco Bay area.

Unlike Santa Barbara and other trendy California cities, housing affordability is a relatively new issue for Santa Maria, but it is clearly a puzzle city leaders will need to solve, sooner rather than later.

Santa Maria has added a lot more housing in the last 10 years, but that hasn't included enough low-income housing. Unless city leaders are successful in their multi-faceted efforts to attract industries with higher-paying jobs, that problem is destined to get worse.

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