Start the Park

I’m out of town on vacation and so I’m going to miss the happy event, but a momentous occasion will be celebrated tomorrow, July 1, in Santa Monica, namely the beginning of the creation of a great park on the site of Santa Monica Airport. Today, June 30, 2015, is the termination date of the 1984 Settlement Agreement between the City of Santa Monica and the Federal Aviation Administration. While by all rights the City should be able to close the airport tomorrow, July 1, administrative proceedings and the course of the City’s litigation to establish its right are holding up that inevitable eventuality. However, the 1984 Agreement contained provisions (namely requirements to provide aircraft tie-downs) that unquestionably expire today and the expiration of those requirements frees up for City use about 12 acres of land south of the runway and north of Airport Avenue (in two parcels more or less straddling the existing Airport Park).

Under Measure LC passed by Santa Monica voters last November all land released from aviation use must be used for park and recreation purposes unless voters approve something different. The City Council has duly designated these 12 acres to be turned into a park, and the budget the council recently passed includes funds for an expedited process to plan the conversion of the land (now covered in asphalt) into parkland. These 12 acres will be the first of 170 or so acres of park that the City will ultimately create from the airport land.

With antecedents in the campaign to pass LC (and defeat the aviation industry’s Measure D), a new 501(c)(3) non-profit has been formed, the Santa Monica Airport2Park Foundation, to organize public support for the park conversion. The foundation is hosting a barbecue tomorrow at Airport Park, on land adjacent to the one of the new park parcels, and the public is invited. To view the invitation, and to RSVP, click here. (If you plan to attend, be sure to RSVP so that the organizers know how much food to get.)

Wishing I could be there! (But nonetheless enjoying where I am.)

Thanks for reading.

Multiple Character Disorder

In my last post I wrote that it would take a lot of change in Santa Monica to change the city’s character. Since I wrote that I’ve been wondering what I meant.

I couldn’t have meant that Santa Monica wouldn’t change, because cities evolve and Santa Monica is no exception. Indeed, in the 140 years since its first developers, Messrs. Jones and Baker (enabled by Baker’s wife, the estimable Arcadia Bandini de Baker) subdivided the old rancho and sold their first lots, Santa Monica has changed over and over.

Santa Monica changed not only in actuality, but also in how people have imagined it. Often the reality and the image have had only a tenuous relationship, perhaps because the reality of the city emerged from an amalgam of two fundamentally different visions.

Jones and Baker wanted to make Santa Monica the region’s port, and they developed what became the north side of the city with business in mind. The original street grid between Colorado Avenue and Montana, with its large blocks, good-sized lots, and wide rights-of-way, was designed for development. Banks, office buildings, and stores were built continuously downtown until the crash in 1929. When Jones sold his Los Angeles and Independence Railroad to Collis Huntington, the line became the connection between the Southern Pacific’s Long Wharf and the nation. Along the railroad, industrialists built factories. Ultimately, Donald Douglas built one of the world’s largest industrial plants.

Meanwhile, a different kind of Santa Monica was developing south of downtown—a more sybaritic city. In the early years the magnificent Arcadia Hotel, located near today’s Tongva Park, was the big attraction. Then Abbott Kinney and his partners developed Ocean Park as a resort. The pleasure piers were built, arcades and baths, and little vacation homes.

Today when you hear competing narratives like “Silicon Beach” vs. “laidback beach town” you’re hearing a dialectic that has been fundamental to Santa Monica from the start. The descendants, actual or not, of old Santa Monica families who can’t understand why people are telling them they can’t develop their land, and those residents who can’t understand why anyone would consider desecrating Santa Monica by building anything over two stories, are all true, in their own fashions, to Santa Monica’s history.

When it comes to residential neighborhoods, Santa Monica also has two competing realities that engender different visions. It’s often mentioned that (unusual among well-off American towns) 70 percent of Santa Monica residents are renters. As a housing or neighborhood type, however, apartments don’t define Santa Monica because so much of the city is covered with single-family houses. Approximately 32 percent of all land in Santa Monica, and approximately 47 percent of land that is zoned residential, is zoned R1. Consequently many people conceptualize Santa Monica as a leafy suburb, an extension of Brentwood. You can see how they might believe that apartment buildings violate that suburban character, particularly if a developer proposes to build apartments on a boulevard near an R1 neighborhood.

People can visualize all they want, but the fact remains that 70 percent of Santa Monicans live in apartments, nearly all of which (along with quite a few condominiums) were built by developers. Given that reality, it’s at least incongruous to say that building more apartments and condos (within reason) would destroy the character of Santa Monica.

The flipside is also true—or, rather, untrue. Many residents celebrate the fact that because of its apartments Santa Monica is not a monolithic suburb and hosts a wide range of incomes. Some of these folks argue that allowing the building of luxury condominiums would alter the character of Santa Monica: make it too ritzy. But given the price of those houses in the 32 percent of Santa Monica zoned R1, it’s hard to say with a straight face that a few more rich people would turn Santa Monica into something it isn’t.

In fact, it’s hard to take any talk about the character of a city seriously. Character in this context is always a word that carries an agenda. There are so many characters to choose from, you can take your pick to support whatever point you want to make. Change is going to happen; to the extent we can control change, it’s better to make decisions based on what might be objectively determined to be good change, rather than base our decisions on something as subjective as a city’s character. It is possible to have progress, to improve things.

People don’t talk about a city’s character this way only in Santa Monica. Recently the New York Daily News ran an essay by Glynnis MacNicol about memory and a city—in that case the city being New York (“When I was young, so was New York”). MacNicol’s premise is that one’s view of what a city is depends on one’s first memories of it; as she puts it, “each of us mistakes the city we knew first with the city’s truest version of itself.”

We’d all be happier, I suspect, if whenever we started to talk about the city’s character, we would instead acknowledge that what we really wanted to talk about are our memories, especially the fond ones.

Thanks for reading.

Ideas, Values and Experience: Not a Bad Combination

It has been a few weeks since I’ve written on this blog. I was on vacation: back east for two family events spread out over two weekends. Both events were joyful, but in different ways. The first was joyful prospectively—Memorial Day weekend my niece graduated from Bard College. Everything there was about the future. The event the following weekend was joyful, but retrospectively. It was a celebration in Pittsburgh of the life of my wife’s mother, who died in March. We call these events memorials, because they are about memory and the past, but in this case the memories were of a former future that was very much fulfilled.

Between the weekend events I spent the week in New York City. So, in the span of 10 days my travels took me from small town America (Bard is located on the Hudson River 100 miles north of New York City), to New York, America’s greatest metropolis, and then to Pittsburgh, a midsized former industrial city that’s been remaking itself for a few decades as a center for higher education, research and healthcare.

Here’s a picture of downtown Red Hook, the village near Bard where my niece lived as a student.

Red Hook, New York

Red Hook, New York

And here’s Manhattan, as seen from the new state park on the East River shore in Long Island City, Queens.

Manhattan from Long Island City

Manhattan from Long Island City

Here’s Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh, PA

Pittsburgh, from across the Monongahela River

None of these places look like Santa Monica. Few places do. It’s funny how people here often either express fear or hope that Santa Monica is going to become something it isn’t or change from something it’s never been to something it will never be when it would take an awful lot of change to make Santa Monica something fundamentally different from what it is.

• • •

I may have taken a vacation, but Santa Monica news didn’t. The big news was the hiring of Rick Cole to be Santa Monica’s new city manager. I was surprised and thrilled. The surprise mostly had to do with the apparent unanimity among the City Council members over the choice of Cole, in particular the enthusiasm that emanated from both Mayor Kevin McKown and his immediate predecessor as mayor, Pam O’Connor. The conventional wisdom is that the two of them “couldn’t agree on lunch” (to borrow Abbie Hoffman’s explanation for why the Chicago Seven could never have conspired to disrupt the 1968 Democratic Convention), yet they both seem more than happy with the hiring of Cole.

But that just goes to show how conventional one’s wisdom, including my own, can be, which brings me to the “thrilled” part. Sure, we might, and McKeown and O’Connor themselves might, focus on dramatic disputes over what are in the big scheme of things small differences, but that doesn’t mean that both of them can’t appreciate the manifest talent and abilities of a Rick Cole.

What’s truly remarkable (but I don’t want to call it surprising) about the decision to hire Cole is that the council members must know that they are getting someone who has ideas, and ideas that go beyond balancing budgets and negotiating contracts. In Santa Monica, city councilmembers usually like to be the idea-generators. It’s a good thing that they are open to someone who has that vision thing.

What are those ideas? I can’t predict what Cole will come up with next, but going back to the ’80s, in Pasadena, Cole was one of those who started imagining what a post-sprawl city could and would look like. He was one of those people who didn’t believe that our civilization was inexorably doomed to take the form of freeways and shopping malls. As it happened, at the time there were people thinking the same way in Santa Monica, and the rejuvenations of the Pasadena and Santa Monica downtowns reset the thinking for the future of Southern California.

At the same time, the council’s decision to hire Cole must have been made easier because his values (and as anyone who was spent even a little time with Cole will tell you, values mean a lot to him) are in sync with those of the council members.

What are those values? Simply put, and I’m basing this upon the work he has done in his career, Rick Cole cares about the well being of people. While this includes what is usually included in phrases like “livability” or “quality of life,” Cole extends his caring to those who don’t necessarily have the luxury of merely worrying about the quality of their lives. Social justice and a helping hand to those who need it have been part of Cole’s agenda wherever he has worked in government.

Along with ideas and values, Cole has a level of experience, as a city councilmember and mayor in Pasadena, as a planner, as a city manager in Azusa and Ventura, and most recently as a deputy major in Los Angeles, that isn’t matched by anyone in municipal government in (at least) Southern California.

Cole believes in the potential of government to solve problems, and it’s not surprising that Governing magazine once named him a public official of the year. This doesn’t mean, however, that Cole believes that government solves problems alone, or from the top down. Wherever Cole has worked, he has been known for not only being a great listener, and for getting members of the public to listen to each other, but also for pushing for small-scale actions that residents and volunteer groups can take themselves.

It’s refreshing to know, or to have confirmed, that the members of the Santa Monica City Council, however they may disagree about one thing or another, can agree on Rick Cole.

“Are we there yet?”

With the Santa Monica City Council’s action last week approving the new zoning ordinance, leaving only a pro forma second reading to finalize the new law, it looked like eleven long years of planning would soon come to an end. The light at the end of the tunnel was finally more glare than glimmer.

Slow down. We’re not there yet. Just when you think it might be safe for Santa Monica government to spend more time and resources on something other than responding irrationally to bad traffic, the anti-development group Residocracy is contemplating, dare I say threatening, a referendum on the zoning ordinance.

That glare that looked sunny turns out to be oncoming headlights.

According to a Lookout article headlined “Santa Monica Slow-Growth Groups look to Public Vote on Development Issues,” Residocracy is polling its members on whether they want to take to the street to gather signatures to overturn the new zoning law, and the group’s founder Armen Melkonians expects they will say yes. (Who’s going to say no?)

Melkonians told the Lookout that the new zoning, though approved by the council’s anti-development majority, “‘still creates density.’” “‘Are we going to grow Santa Monica,’” he asked, “‘so it doubles its population?’”

Well, the answer to that question is no, or at least not until a few generations or even centuries have passed. I mean, even if Santa Monica adds all of the 4,955 housing units predicted under the LUCE by 2030, that’s only about a 10 percent increase in the city’s stock of housing units. That’s unlikely even to result in a 10 percent increase in population, however, because for decades the average number of people living in each housing unit in Santa Monica has been in decline.

Even if—as Melkonians fears—Santa Monica should add more than 4,955 units, say, twice that many, by 2030, a 20 percent increase, and even if each percentage point increase in units translated into a percentage point increase in population, well, can someone do the math? How long would it take to double the number of housing units if there was a 20 percent increase every 20 years?

In any case a while, but any significant population increase is unlikely. To give some perspective, Santa Monica’s population in 1970 was 88,289. In 2010, after decades of purported “massive overdevelopment,” it was 89,736. (I know that estimates since the 2010 census have added a few thousand more residents, but the history of those population estimates is that they get debunked when the decennial census comes around. The estimates focus on the number of housing units, but historically haven’t take into account how many young Santa Monicans leave town each year rarely to return.)

Okay, I get it—surely Melkonians was being rhetorical. But that’s what happens when you start asking people to sign petitions. If the first casualty of war is truth, then the first casualty of a local referendum campaign must be any sense of reality.

Residocracy isn’t the only group talking about going to the voters. The Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC), Santa Monica’s more establishment, less populist, anti-development group, is considering a Version 2.0 of the “Residents’ Initiative to Fight Traffic (RIFT), their unsuccessful 2008 initiative. SMCLC wants to give voters a veto over “large projects.”

Based on an open letter to supporters that SMCLC leadership published last week, it does not appear, however, that SMCLC wants to join in an effort to overturn the zoning ordinance. For now at least, based on the letter it appears that SMCLC leadership is celebrating the new law, and especially the reductions in the scope of the LUCE, as the product of the anti-development majority SMCLC helped elect last November.

This makes sense, since the SMCLC leadership has long ties to councilmembers Kevin McKeown and Ted Winterer and they view the new zoning law as an achievement.

But indications are that SMCLC wants to bring back a new version of RIFT. SMCLC has never trusted the City Council or planning staff, and according to the letter to supporters, “large projects must be subject to a resident vote.” SMCLC’s co-chair of SMCLC, Diana Gordon, told the Lookout that the group would support a measure like RIFT. SMCLC touted the fact that RIFT garnered more than 18,000 votes in 2008. (The problem for SMCLC was that nearly 51,000 Santa Monicans voted that year.)

Of course, as Melkonians acknowledged to the Lookout, the point of having votes on developments is to scare developers away. While according to him, “only the best projects would go through,” the opposite is true. Developers and landowners will build to the lowest common denominator, slicing and dicing their projects to slip under whatever the voter-approval threshold is. It’s strange to hear a group like SMCLC, which I believe honestly wants better projects to be built, promote voter control as a way to get them.

SMCLC blames RIFT’s loss in 2008 on, as Gordon told the Lookout, its being “‘outspent in a deceptive opposition campaign.’” “Deceptive” is in the eye of the beholder, but the last several elections, notably the votes in 2014 on Measures D and LC, if anything show that money doesn’t mean much in Santa Monica elections. Beyond the merits of any thing or person on the ballot, endorsements are what count. In 2008 most of the well-respected elected officials in and around Santa Monica opposed RIFT, and SMRR was neutral.

Promoters of new anti-development referendums, whether to overturn the zoning law or to make developments subject to popular vote, would no doubt base their campaigns on their conviction that the views of voters have changed.

We’d find out.

Thanks for reading.

Can Santa Monica regulate emissions at SMO? Let’s find out.

Even if planes and jets made no noise, emitted nothing harmful, and never crashed, I’d still want to close Santa Monica Airport (SMO). Why? Because the airport and its mile-long runway, which the City owns, should be a public park and cultural facility that everyone can use instead of a privatized facility that benefits only a few users of private planes and jets. For this reason, I haven’t spent a lot of time analyzing technologies that might make the airport a better neighbor by making flying over neighborhoods less objectionable, such as by making aircraft quieter or cleaner. I’ve been more interested in figuring out how to close the airport to build the park.

As we know, however, closing SMO is complicated, because of the regulatory powers of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), not mentioned a tangled legal history. Briefly put, the City’s position is that as of July 1 it will have the right to close SMO, but proving that in court is difficult. If the City simply tries to close SMO, or does something the FAA considers equivalent to closing it, the FAA will likely get an injunction freezing the status quo, and begin its own administrative proceedings, where it has all the advantages, to determine the City’s rights.

The City wants the issue adjudicated in federal court, where the playing field will be more level. For that purpose the City brought a case in federal court in 2013 seeking a “declaration” of what its rights are. The FAA, not eager to have an independent federal judge decide the issue, got the case dismissed on procedural grounds. The question whether the City can get a decision from a federal district judge is now being decided in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, with a decision not expected until 2016.

In the meantime, the City Council in March gave direction to staff to take various actions after July 1 designed to limit impacts of aviation uses at SMO and to enhance non-aviation uses—notably by converting twelve acres currently being used for aircraft tie-downs into parkland and by allowing non-aviation uses on the south side of the airport to negotiate longer term leases for the use of city-owned properties.

One thing the City Council did not do was follow a recommendation from the Airport Commission to add limits on aircraft emissions to leases to aviation businesses. The council followed the advice of City Attorney Marsha Moutrie, who gave her office’s opinion that federal legislation preempted any action the City would take regarding emissions. The commission and other supporters of emissions controls have, however, made the counter-argument that provisions in the City’s 1984 settlement agreement with the FAA allow the City to regulate emissions if the City acts before the 1984 agreement expires on July 1.

Now, however, City Councilmember Terry O’Day has put the issue back on the council’s agenda: he’s added an item for tomorrow night’s council meeting requesting consideration of an ordinance and leasing standards that would limit allowable emissions of air pollutants from aircraft and other sources at SMO.

I am a lawyer, but I’m not going to pretend to know enough about federal preemption law and the specific laws applicable to aviation to venture an opinion about who is right on the preemption issue. However, I’m not surprised O’Day is bringing this up.

O’Day is a veteran of the environmental movement. I remember him telling me, during the election campaign in 2012, before the City had decided on the bold move of suing the FAA in federal court, that he thought that pollution controls, which have greatly expanded in importance since the City battled the FAA in 1984, could be the City’s ultimate card to play against the FAA. Environmental science has shown how pollutants in the air are more dangerous than previously thought. As O’Day has reminded me, the need to reduce the negative health impacts of air pollution is what gave the environmental movement the ammunition it needed to begin to force the clean up the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

Again, sorry, no opinions here on what can or should be done. Like a lot of people I’ll be listening to the discussion. If I can, I’ll try to sort things out in a future blog.

• • •

Speaking of the airport, and battles over the airport, readers will probably recall that after the aviation industry filed its initiative (ultimately called Measure D on the 2014 ballot) to take control of SMO away from the City Council (and for all practical purposes preserve the status quo there forever), a group of eleven Santa Monica residents went to court to try to prevent the initiative from reaching the ballot.

It was a well-motivated move, but one that ultimately foundered because it turns out that it’s near impossible to prevent a measure with enough signatures from getting on a ballot in California. Even worse, a judge ordered the plaintiffs to pay $31,525 to reimburse some of the aviation industry’s legal fees, on the grounds that the lawsuit prejudiced the industry’s rights to free speech. This is a hardship for many of the plaintiffs, and for a couple of months a campaign has been underway to raise money to help them pay the bill. (As it happened, of course, Measure D lost big at the polls (after the aviation industry spent almost $1 million exercising its free speech rights!), but that doesn’t help the plaintiffs out—they are still on the hook.)

It now turns out you can help out the plaintiffs and get some fine art for your walls.

On May 3 the Santa Monica Eleven launched an online art auction that runs two weeks—until May 17.

Renowned artists, painters, photographers, and sculptors from Santa Monica, Venice and London, have furnished artworks for the auction. These works include Laddie John Dill’s Ariel Perspective, Gregg Chadwick’s The Hum of Time and Steve Bernstein’s The Roofs of Rye, as well as cartoons from award-winning satirist Tony Peyser. And a lot of other good stuff at prices for any art collector’s budget.

To view the art and take part, click here.

Remember, though, the auction closes this Sunday, May 17.

To donate to the Santa Monica Eleven directly click here.

Thanks for reading.

 

 

Rejoice. Our long municipal nightmare is (almost) over.

Tomorrow night the Santa Monica City Council will likely make the final substantive decisions on the update to the City’s zoning laws. The update process began in 2010, when the council passed new land use and circulation elements (the LUCE) of the general plan, and the new zoning was intended to implement the LUCE. It’s been a slog, and instead of a bang, the whole thing is ending in a desultory whimper. No one seems happy—neither those who want more housing built, nor the Residocracy folks who are threatening a referendum to overturn the new law.

Nonetheless you can be happy about something. Our long municipal nightmare is over. It’s been eleven long years since work began on the LUCE, but when the council (in June) gives the zoning ordinance its final blessing we will finally have new land use policies in place for most of the city.

Yes, it’s taken eleven years, three city managers and three planning directors, but, to borrow another metaphor from a certain era, you can see the light at the end of the tunnel. Think about it. It took a little city of 90,000 people eleven years to figure out how the city should evolve for about 20 years. And Washington is gridlocked?

I remember when this all began, in 2004. Back then Councilmember Pam O’Connor voted to begin the LUCE process only when staff assured the council it would take only two years. It should have taken only two years, since it was obvious that there were only two places to put new development, in the old industrial areas and on the boulevards. But with LUCE we managed to spend a few years analyzing “opportunities and challenges” and discovering “emerging themes.”

The process was at times poetic, and the best parts of the LUCE are poetic, but now the poetry has either been obliterated by events or is being removed from the LUCE with the nodding approval of those who were supposed to have believed in the LUCE the most: planning staff and councilmembers who voted for it. Plans to turn the industrial areas into vibrant neighborhoods are dead with the reoccupying of the Paper Mate site. With staff and a majority of councilmembers agreeing to remove Tier 3 and activity centers from most of the boulevards, we’re not going to get anything on the boulevards beyond box retail, two-story office buildings, and generic apartment buildings. What’s left in the LUCE? Not much that justified a six-year visioning process.

(The most disheatening aspect of the whole thing is the capitulation by planning staff. In tomorrow night’s staff report someone had the poor taste to remind everyone that the purpose of the activity centers was to “foster dynamic spaces by enabling the creation of mixed-use development at transportation crossroads on parcels of sufficient size to support creative design and to provide active and passive open space, affordable and market-rate housing, and shared parking facilities.” All of this “poetry” would, of course, only come after a process, called an area plan, to make sure that anything built would be appropriate for the context. But staff and a majority of councilmembers no longer trust themselves or their future replacements to do good planning, and they’ve caved, throwing activity centers out because they might allow development “that could be considered significantly out of scale.” Anything “could be.” Eleven years take their toll, but this is embarrassing.)

For all that’s left of the LUCE, the City could have accomplished just as much by drafting a specific plan for the industrial areas and by updating the zoning on the boulevards within the parameters of the old land use element. As for protecting the neighborhoods, little development was going on in the neighborhoods in 2004 and despite fears and fear mongering little is happening now. Why? It’s ironic, but ever since Costa-Hawkins went into effect in 1999 use of the Ellis Act to tear down old apartments has drastically decreased as apartment owners opt to charge higher rents when vacancies occur, upgrading when they can make money doing so. And the LUCE didn’t even deal with downtown—we’re still in the midst of that specific plan. A new circulation element? That could have been done separately.

But—at least it’s over, right? Hmmm. The LUCE is supposed to last until 2030. If it takes eleven years to update a land use element and draft a zoning ordinance, does that mean we need to start the whole thing again in 2019?

Thanks for reading.

Love the tourists. Not the short-term rentals.

One of the reasons I’ve loved living in Santa Monica for 32 years is that it’s a tourist destination. I’m on the Promenade nearly every day and I still get a kick out watching visitors take family pictures in front of the dinosaur topiaries.

I’m fortunate often to be a tourist myself. As I love being the recipient of hospitality when I travel, I’m proud that Santa Monica has such a long history of sharing itself with the world. Regionally, we have the most reachable and accessible beach for 10 million or more of our Southern California brothers and sisters, and it’s a badge of honor that we hold the beach in trust for them.

And let’s face it—we in Santa Monica profit from being hospitable and from maintaining our little gem as a desirable place to visit. A lot of people make their livings in the tourism business, and a large portion of our municipal budget comes from tourism, much more than the additional money we spend to provide a safe and clean environment for visitors.

So when I say that I hope City Council will tomorrow night take strong measures against the kind of short-term vacation rentals that websites like Airbnb promote, I’m not saying so because I have any animus towards visitors. Just the opposite. I want the City to continue to prohibit some short-term rentals and closely regulate others because they are a threat to what Santa Monica is before it’s a tourist center and to part of what makes it so attractive in the first place: a genuine community.

We don’t want Santa Monica to become depopulated and to exist only for tourists, which is what has happened to Venice, Italy.

Santa Monica, along with the region as a whole, also has a housing shortage. The City has policies that put housing in a privileged position: residential zoning to protect housing from being turning into commercial uses, and preferences for building housing in commercial zones. If we allow houses, condos and apartments to be turned into the equivalent of condos at a ski resort, we both reduce the supply of housing, raising costs, and commercialize neighborhoods.

Planning staff has given City Council a more than 200-page report for tomorrow night’s hearing, much of which consists of analyses that various organizations and periodicals have prepared about the boom in short-term rentals and the “sharing economy” in general. The reports, particularly those that focus on the Los Angeles region, show that short-term rentals are getting out of control, with companies buying apartment buildings and turning them into the equivalent of hotels.

The staff report is thorough, but it can get confusing. There are a lot of “defined terms.” I found that the best way to understand the situation is to focus on three facts: (1) that nearly all “sharing” arrangements that companies like Airbnb market now in Santa Monica are illegal under existing law; (2) that existing law allows certain sharing arrangements that are both traditional and beneficial; and (3) that for all the noise you might hear from the short-term rental industry that Santa Monica by regulating short-term rentals is preventing residents from participating in the sharing economy, the ordinance staff has proposed would actually expand rights for sharing.

Re: Point 1, the reason that nearly all deals currently promoted through sites like Airbnb are illegal is that the City has long had a ban on home and apartment rentals of less than 30 consecutive days. This covers all kinds of rentals.

Re: Point 2, the reason existing law allows sharing arrangements that are traditional and beneficial is the flipside of Point 1: existing law allows rentals, not only for complete apartments, but also for boarders, for 30 or more consecutive days. Existing law also allows for various non-cash sharing arrangements.

The starting point is that renting out a home or apartment for less than 30 days is illegal. Re: Point 3, staff is in fact proposing a liberalization, to allow “home-sharing rentals”—meaning rentals for less than 30 days if (and only if) at least one primary resident is present. This makes sense. If you have a spare room, why shouldn’t you be able to rent it out for a few days, just as you could to a longer-term boarder, so long as you’re living there, too?

There’s one area where I wish the City might go further, which would be to allow bona fide residents to rent out their places on a short-term basis when they are out-of-town, but only for a maximum of, say, 30 days a year in the aggregate. This would enable people to make some extra money without reducing the supply of housing or commercializing the neighborhood. However, on reading the staff report, which includes accounts from cities that have tried to do this, it seems that this kind of distinction is too difficult to enforce, at least at present. Perhaps in the future this could be looked into, but for now it’s more important to get the short-term rental situation under control.

Another issue that people have raised is whether people who own second homes should be allowed to rent them out. (Think again of ski condos.) The answer has to be no—if we allow people to make money from their second homes we’d only be encouraging more second home ownership here, which is not consistent with the City’s housing policies.

Thanks for reading.