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KCBX's Out of Reach is an in-depth series on Santa Barbara County's housing crisis, reported by Beth Thornton. Senior editor Marisa Waddell and editor Benjamin Purper contributed to this project. This special report is made possible by a grant from the Sunflower Foundation.

Out of Reach: Why Santa Barbara County is in the middle of a housing crisis

Beth Thornton
Santa Barbara County is in a housing crisis, forcing many residents to spend a large chunk of their income on housing alone.

Santa Barbara County is a desirable place to live, with its picturesque ocean and mountains. But it has also become impossible for many to find or afford housing, which is leading to long commutes.

“Usually in the morning, it’s 45 minutes coming here from Oxnard and then depending on traffic, it’s about an hour and fifteen to get home,” Jenette Mercer said.

Mercer works for the post office in Santa Barbara, but lives in Oxnard. She recently missed her daughter’s soccer game because of the long drive.

“It’s a lot of time wasted daily that I have to spend away from my kids. That’s the worst part about it,” she said.

Courtesy Good Samaritan Shelter
The recent Point in Time Count for Santa Barbara County found more persons experiencing homelessness in Santa Maria, Lompoc and Isla Vista than in 2020.

UCSB economics professor Peter Rupert said the reason so many people on the Central Coast are in this position is because of a supply and demand problem.

“The demand has increased because people want to live in Santa Barbara, as they always do, but the pandemic has spurred that and then we just have no supply. So those two factors with low mortgage rates really caused a huge increase in housing prices,” Rupert said.

He said prices have skyrocketed in Santa Barbara County in the decade since the Great Recession.

“I just saw recently that median home prices are above two million dollars in Santa Barbara. Of course, that differs between the south coast and north coast, but they’re at an all-time high, which also means that rents are at an all-time high,” he said.

Rupert said on average, outside of California, one-third of a person’s income typically goes toward rent. But in Santa Barbara County, it’s a lot higher.

“When you look here, it’s like 40-50 percent for many, many people and it just puts a struggle on their lives,” he said.

With too little inventory and high prices, Rupert said a lot of people who work in Santa Barbara are not able to live here. He said better transportation options like dedicated bus lanes could help ease the commute for workers living out of town until more housing is built, but there’s no quick fix.

“In the short run, there’s nothing else we can really do. We just can’t build fast enough to help that problem,” he said.

Lisa Plowman, Director of Planning and Development for the County of Santa Barbara since 2019, said decades of no-growth sentiment, plus a large gap between income and housing prices, have the county scrambling to generate more moderate and low-income housing.

Ashley Rusch
Community members write their suggestions and hopes for housing in Santa Barbara County during a public forum.

“We just did not do a good job of keeping pace with the demand in our own community,” she said.

The housing shortage is not unique to Santa Barbara County. Governor Gavin Newson signed a flurry of legislation in 2021 to expand housing production, streamline the permitting process, and increase density to address the crisis across the state of California.

Plowman said the state assigns each region a number of units required to meet housing needs and mandates the county to create a workable plan called a Housing Element update. She said the state’s numbers for Santa Barbara County are substantial, and consequences for non-compliance can be severe.

“Currently, we got 5,664 units assigned to the unincorporated areas of the county – 1,522 are in North County, 4,142 are in South County,” she said.

Additional numbers are assigned to each city within the county, so the combined total of housing units the county and its cities must add is over 24,000.

“We need to wrap our arms around the concept of higher density housing in appropriate areas,” Plowman said.

She said the county is not responsible for actually building units, but they must make it possible for the private sector to do so.

“The county is committed to overhauling our multi-family residential zone districts, which are quite old. They were drafted in the 1980s and have been modified here and there over the years. We’re going to also be overhauling our commercial districts to allow for expanded mixed-use opportunities,” Plowman said.

SB traffic 101 south.jpg
Beth Thornton
Due to a lack of housing, many people commute to work in Santa Barbara County.

One step already taken allows for Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) on existing properties. Plowman said homeowners can add a rental unit, like a granny flat, through a streamlined permit process.

“But what we are finding is that the rents on the ADUs are high, so they’re not meeting the moderate category,” she said.

Plowman said the lack of moderate and low-income housing in the county impacts individuals and the community overall. It’s important for the health of the community, she said, for people to be able to live where they work.

“It affects people’s personal lives because they spend a lot of time commuting. When people don’t have time to interact with one another and volunteer and be a part of their kids’ school programs, if they have children, it really diminishes the vibrancy of a community substantially,” Plowman said.

Jenette Mercer from the post office agrees. When asked if she wants to live closer to work, she said simply, “Yes.”

Out of Reach is made possible by a grant from the Sunflower Foundation.
Senior editor Marisa Waddell and editor Benjamin Purper edited this story.

Beth Thornton is a freelance reporter for KCBX, and a contributor to Issues & Ideas. She was a 2021 Data Fellow with the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism.
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