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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 building affordable housing in SB County is such a challenge

This apartment complex under renovation in Isla Vista will have 56 units for low-income families and farmworkers.
Beth Thornton
People's Self-Help Housing is renovating this building in Isla Vista for low-income families and farmworkers.

Santa Barbara County is in a housing crisis, especially for those in lower income levels — and building affordable housing is a major challenge.

The non-profit People's Self-Help Housing builds and manages rental units for low-income households from Ventura to Monterey, along with a home-ownership program.

Daniel Gomez grew up in an affordable housing complex managed by People’s Self-Help Housing.

“I first moved to affordable housing at the age of 10, maybe 11, in 2005. I grew up in Orcutt, California,” Gomez said. “My parents moved there because we were living in a one-bedroom as a family of four people.”

He said his father worked as a laborer for a construction company in nearby Santa Maria, so the new location was convenient for work. Gomez said he had his own bedroom, and there was a playground with a basketball court and good neighborhood schools.

“It had basically everything you would want as a child or kid growing up. I didn’t really ever think that I lived in affordable housing,” he said.

Proposed design for low-income family housing on N. La Cumbre Road.
Courtesy of the Housing Authority City of Santa Barbara
Proposed design for low-income family housing on N. La Cumbre Road.

People’s Self-Help Housing CEO and President Ken Trigueiro said the organization provides housing for people who earn 60% or less of the area’s median income.

According to the 2020 Census, the median household income in Santa Barbara County is about $79,000, so the organization helps households making about $47,000 or less a year. These numbers can vary by location.

“We’re serving people who are working in agriculture, supporting the tourism industry, working in health care support, working in retail jobs,” he said.

Trigueiro said the need for affordable housing in the county grows every year, especially for year-round farmworkers and their families.

“At the properties where we already have farmworker housing established, we have pretty high wait lists — it’s around six households that are waiting for each unit that we have,” Trigueiro said.

He said it can take three or more years to build a new property. Finding land and securing grants from local, state, and federal agencies takes time. There is also a long process of permits and reviews before construction begins.

“Where and what you can build is still fairly restrictive, not only in terms of the zoning that’s different from jurisdiction to jurisdiction — even within the county — but also based on what the neighborhoods and communities really want to see,” he said.

Trigueiro said affordable housing projects sometimes meet resistance from nearby homeowners who express concerns over parking or obstructed views. But he said he’s optimistic the sentiment is changing.

The Housing Authority of the City of Santa Barbara also develops low and moderate-income housing within the city limits of Santa Barbara. It currently operates 1,400 units, with long wait lists. Executive Director Rob Fredericks said challenges include inadequate funding and a lack of available land.

“A big problem is that Santa Barbara is a built-out community. Even the entire south coast of Santa Barbara is a small sliver of land between the ocean and the Santa Ynez mountain range,” he said.

Housing Authority of the City of Santa Barbara recently completed Grace Village apartments for low-income seniors.
Beth Thornton
Housing Authority of the City of Santa Barbara recently completed Grace Village apartments for low-income seniors.

Fredericks said they are looking at some of their existing Housing Authority properties to see if it’s possible to add more units. They also recently acquired an office building on land that will be redeveloped for low-income family housing.

Like People’s Self-Help Housing, Fredericks said Housing Authority projects also meet with resistance from community members who worry about increased density or building designs.

“How we get across that bridge of community resistance is we meet with the neighborhood first where we’re planning something and get their input, and then we modify our designs to what will work,” he said.

Daniel Gomez, who grew up in affordable housing, said that when families live in a safe environment with access to resources, everyone in the community benefits.

“It’s going to help families and it’s going to help create leaders that otherwise wouldn’t be leaders, if they didn’t have access to this affordable housing,” he said.

Gomez decided after college that he wanted to pursue real estate and property management, and he found his way back to People’s Self-Help Housing, where he currently works.

“Not only am I learning the skills, but there’s a mission behind it; there’s a mission of helping people that are in lower incomes,” Gomez said.

Despite the many challenges that come with building affordable housing in Santa Barbara County, People's Self-Help Housing and the Housing Authority said they are committed to finding solutions for people struggling to pay rent.

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, and has contributed to KQED's statewide radio show The California Report.
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