All of California is experiencing a housing crisis, and Ventura is no exception. The median home price is over $600,000, the median rent for a two bedroom apartment is $2200/month, and yet the median household income is only $76,000. A married couple with that income would struggle to pay that rent. They’d need to earn about twice that amount to buy a $600,000 home. Local employers have trouble keeping qualified employees because of the cost of living in Ventura. Young adults who grew up in Ventura can’t afford to live here. It’s not just a statewide housing crisis, it’s also a local one.

The Housing Crisis Act of 2019

The state legislature has made the housing crisis a top priority. Last fall, Sacramento passed a sweeping bill, SB330, also known as the Housing Crisis Act of 2019. The bill was designed to limit a local government’s ability to hamper the development of housing projects. Scott Weiner’s controversial SB50 was much more aggressive in overriding local control, and it failed in the state senate — by only three votes. It may be dead, but we may see bills like it signed into law if the housing crisis persists.

Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA), 2020-2030

Meanwhile, we are under the gun to identify where 24,000 affordable housing units can be built in Ventura over the next ten years. The city doesn’t have to build them, and they don’t all have to be built, but we must identify all the vacant and under-utilized parcels, and how we could accommodate them. And then the city can’t get in the way if somebody comes in to build them.

Housing Element Land Inventory (HELI)

To meet our RHNA numbers, City staff will develop a Housing Element Land Inventory (HELI) and submit it to the state, long before we’ve adopted a new general plan. Council must scrutinize the HELI to ensure it’s not as terrible as our current one. Once we submit our HELI, it won’t be easy to change it. If we adopt a General Plan that conflicts with the HELI, I expect we would have to allow a project based on the HELI, even if it conflicted with the General Plan.

When I say our current HELI is terrible, this is just one example:

There’s no map or anything, just a spreadsheet with addresses. Only when you look up “3553 Telegraph Road” do you discover that our current HELI claims somebody could build 6 affordable units in the parking lot of the Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Imagine, now, a developer being able to build those units by right. Staff will need to work with community groups, such as the Community Councils, to develop the HELI, so that we can fix any errors before it’s too late.

Commercial/Residential Balance

While we have a shortage of housing, and many potential sites for new housing are small, inconvenient, or problematic, we have a surplus of commercial real estate. It’s not just the rise of Amazon and the shuttering of local brick and mortar retail. For decades, the city has encouraged building new development, rather than redeveloping existing properties. (This is an example of how our Design Review Process is broken, and yet another reason I support streamlining it.)

This has the effect of newly-built commercial space cannibalizing tenants from older sites, which often sit vacant, and sometimes grow seedy and descend into blight. We’ve seen this in the District 3, as the once-thriving College Square Shopping Center has declined. There are several parcels with different owners, and the parcels occupied by CMH’s Centers for Family Health and the College Pharmacy are well maintained. The rest of the center, though, is dominated by the gun shop and the smoke shop and a declining CVS.

These parcels would be an ideal location for student housing. And indeed, they could be turned into student housing, because they are zoned C1, Limited Commercial. They’re limited to three stories, they can’t by right be used for heavier uses such as a utility substation or a motel. More importantly, they could include residential units, as mixed-use, or even go purely residential.

We must keep, and perhaps expand, C-1 zoning when we update our General Plan. It provides the tools and flexibility to turn an unneeded commercial space into a desperately needed residential property. By expanding C-1 along transit corridors, we can reduce blight and encourage infill, which has less of a negative impact on traffic than developing at the periphery.

Protecting C-1 zoning is critical in District 3, especially along the Telegraph Corridor. Of the 71 C-1 parcels in the city, 48 of them are in District 3:

While there has been a nearly total turnover of staff in the city’s Planning Department since the 2018 attempt to refine the General Plan, at that time a key staff member assumed the C-1 zone definition would disappear altogether, in part to unlock those properties for development taller than three stories. It would make it easier for the city to identify that many more potential affordable housing units if they can assume a five stories instead of three. If built, that would have a dramatic impact on the character of the College Area. More likely, though, is that they wouldn’t be built, in part because of neighborhood opposition centered on traffic and parking and massing. In 2011, we saw these tensions boil over at the College Area Community Council when a local couple’s bid to build a three-story senior housing complex on Telegraph was met with fierce opposition.

Enabling High Quality Infill Development

One key reason we do not see infill multifamily housing projects built very often in Ventura is our broken development review process. A hearing before the Design Review Committee now costs $8000, regardless of whether your proposal is a building with ten apartments, or 20 acres with 100 homes and 50 townhomes. Even those smaller projects often need to go before the Planning Commission or the DRC four or five times. It drains their capital, paying the fees and hiring architects and consultants to make constant revisions. Only the most profitable investments, often with massive amounts of capital from outside the city, can throw those kinds of resources at the city to keep the project moving forward. This is yet another reason I support nearly all the recommendations made by the Matrix report to fix our broken development review process.

But I would not go further than the Matrix Report. We should implement the recommendations, and Council should formally review the progress once a year. Once fully implemented, it will be a transformative change to our development review process. Now is not the time to introduce other profound changes.

There will be growing pains as we move through the process, and there are always unintended consequences. Council should not multiply the unintended consequences by overriding the work of the consultants, work the taxpayers paid tens of thousands of dollars for. The Matrix Report does not recommend disbanding the Design Review Committee or Historic Preservation Committee. I oppose disbanding the DRC or HPC. Despite the differences I’ve had with the DRC, it is still our best tool to guarantee high quality infill development.

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