Just a month or so ago, many of Santa Barbara County’s leaders were bemoaning the high cost of housing in the county’s wealthy southern half, some calling it a major crisis best resolved by building more affordable housing for the county’s 400,000 residents.
But now comes a housing crisis of another kind. The state of California has touched off controversies in almost every city in the county by telling county officials that they need to show they can meet area population demands by finding someplace to build 17,531 new housing units.
The reaction from most county residents has been the same: Not in my backyard.
And that, according to one of the county’s top economic leaders, is more proof that the county’s housing problems are only getting worse.
“On the one hand, we have housing prices in the south that are absurd,” said Mark Schneipp, director of the California Economic Forecast in Santa Barbara. “On the other, we have people in every city who don’t want to see more housing. And yet more housing is the solution the county needs."I expect we are just going to wrangle around some more and the housing crisis will get more severe, with more impacts on the business communities,” he said. “Look for more businesses to either expand elsewhere or move out of the county altogether.”
Housing quotas have been set every five years by the state for all California counties under a 1969 housing law aimed partly at providing sufficient affordable housing and partly at keeping land-use issues on the public agenda. In the past, they have sometimes been ignored, often only partly met.
But this year, the 200,000 residents of the county’s wealthy south coast have seen the median home price shoot as high as $900,000, the highest among 20 state regions monitored by the California Assn. of Realtors. The northern half of the county has a median home price of less than $300,000, so it has increasingly become a commuter region for the south.
In recent years, most new housing has been built in the northern half of the county, particularly near Santa Maria, which will soon pass Santa Barbara as the county’s most populous city. In contrast, many south county communities do their best to keep new housing as close to zero as possible.
Now county officials are talking about building more new housing in the north, even though political leaders there point out that the housing shortage is in the south. And some north county residents, even those who are generally pro-development, say they have had it with the south’s dumping its problems on them.
A preliminary county proposal that placed a special emphasis on new housing developments in Goleta and Orcutt has touched off much of the controversy and prompted the Board of Supervisors to promise a review of its overall plans.
Supervisor Joe Centeno, whose 5th District includes the Santa Maria area, is among the north county leaders who think a serious review is needed. Housing prices in the north county are also rising, he said, because the south county cities refuse to add much housing, forcing more of the Santa Barbara work force to move north.
Centeno said he believes the time has come for the south coast to solve its own housing problems. And Schneipp said he understands the sentiment.
“The major problem in the county is in the south,” he said. “Goleta and Carpinteria have had housing moratoriums. Only a few houses get built there in any year. And higher density in Santa Barbara’s downtown area isn’t going to be enough.
“Every time the county identifies a spot where it could add 300 to 400 units, someplace that really is an ideal location, everybody in town turns out against it,” he said. “The result is, there’s almost nothing in the pipeline, and the political leadership is frozen.”
Jim Diani, a Santa Maria developer, is one north county resident so upset with what he sees as the south county’s general attitude of superiority that he is leading a secessionist drive to form a new Mission County, with a boundary at the Gaviota Pass. He is leading a signature drive to put the issue to the voters countywide.
One of Diani’s major arguments for a new county is that the present Board of Supervisors is run by a 3-to-2 majority of liberals who rely on the Santa Barbara vote. He feels they don’t represent north county issues.
But Schneipp is among those who have pointed out that the county’s population is shifting steadily to the north. It is only a matter of time before north county voters control county politics, some say. At that point, said Schneipp, the county’s political balance may tip.
“It’s that 3-to-2 majority on the board that keeps a lot of this unsettled,” he said. “One solution for the county’s economy would actually be to move county government to Santa Maria and move all those thousands of dollars there, too. And a new 3-to-2 majority that’s more pro-development is probably also a necessity.
“Meanwhile, we will spend a lot more time just talking about these things.”