More Real World: Facts about Housing in Santa Monica

While there are some well-publicized proposals for building, or re-building, hotels in Santa Monica, most development currently proposed for Santa Monica is for new apartments in commercial zones. Given that development is controversial, it’s not surprising that housing is a hot topic in town.

Some people opposed to building more housing in Santa Monica argue that Santa Monica is being inundated with unprecedented development, that too much of the new housing being built is for “transients,” i.e., young renters, who don’t contribute to the community, that the density in these new developments is such that they will turn into slums, and that with all this new housing, Santa Monica will be overwhelmed with traffic.

Using the Internet tools that I have now, as described in my last post, learned to access, and with the aid of the 2008-2014 Housing Element of the City’s general plan, I’ve been trying to evaluate these claims against reality and history. I suspect that what I have learned will surprise many.

For instance, did you know that in 2010 Santa Monica had fewer renter-occupied units than it did in 1980? According to census data here are the number of renter-occupied and owner-occupied units in Santa Monica since 1970:

Year              Renter-Occupied Units         Owner-Occupied Units

1970                         30,785                               9,119

1980                         34,194                               9,718

1990                         32,520                             12,340

2000                         31,220                             13,277

2010                         33,602                             13,315

When you look at these numbers, what you realize is that in the ’70s, when Santa Monica was supposed to have been a “sleepy beach town,” there was a lot of housing development — a net increase of about 4,000 units of housing, mostly rentals. There was even more building in the ’50s and ’60s — according to the 2008 Housing Element, as of 2007, 19,087 units of housing in Santa Monica still in service, about 40% of the whole, were built during those 20 years (meaning that even more were built then, considering that many have been torn down since). I suspect there were many Santa Monicans then who lamented the changes taking place, but there was a lot of pent up demand for housing from when Santa Monica had industrialized in the War years and after.

In the 20 years after 1980, there was about a 10% reduction in rental units: the city lost thousands of rental units either because they were torn down under the Ellis Act or converted to condominiums under the City’s TORCA program. According to the Housing Element, during the ’90s only 110 units of housing, of all types, were built in Santa Monica, and the total number of occupied units declined.

In the ’90s, however, the City lost a lawsuit that its policies obstructed the construction of housing in violation of state law and in response instituted policies that encouraged development of apartments in commercial zones. Between 2000 and 2010 there was a net increase of about 2,500 units in the city, but even with that increase the number of rentals by 2010 had still not reached the 1980 level.

Obviously, compared to the past numbers, Santa Monica is not experiencing unprecedented development — nor will it even if all the projects in the pipeline get built, or even if all 5,000 housing units foreseen by the LUCE get built. Moreover, as a percentage of the whole, Santa Monica has less rental housing now than it has had in decades.

I bring this up because of the contention that Santa Monica is being overrun by “transients” living in small apartments. In a certain sense, this whole argument is distasteful — speaking as someone who was once 23 years old, and who now has a 23-year-old son, a 23-year-old working his or her first job out of college in a Silicon Beach office should have as much right to live in Santa Monica as a homeowner, or someone who has lived in a rent-controlled apartment for 30 years. (Obviously the latter two have more legal rights to their own dwellings — that’s not what I’m talking about.)

In a town where more than 70 percent of residents are renters, it’s shocking that people use anti-renter rhetoric to fight the building of apartments. Renters, of all ages and economic circumstances, don’t have to prove that they make positive contributions to the community.

Some Santa Monicans contend that these new apartments will turn into slums, but there is no evidence for this. Once again according to the Housing Element, as of 2007 approximately 68% of the housing in the city was built prior to 1970, most of it apartments, a lot of them cheaply built ding-bats. Have those apartments become slums? Does Santa Monica, which is 70% renter, have any slums? The most dense blocks of Santa Monica are in mid-Wilshire — some of the nicest neighborhoods in the city. In the real world of Santa Monica, there is no correlation between how many apartments there are per lot or whether people rent and slums. It’s all rather insulting to renters.

It’s not like everything is hunky-dory. We need to regulate housing growth to make sure we get a good mix of units and demographics, and that we have the infrastructure to support our new residents, in the form, for instance, of parks and transit. But when our worst traffic problems come from people commuting into the city, and when our school district needs to import students from outside the district to balance the books, it makes sense to build more housing here.

Thanks for reading.

2 thoughts on “More Real World: Facts about Housing in Santa Monica

  1. As always, you make a good point — especially on behalf of renters (since I am one). Thank you for that! I don’t dispute the statistics, but once again, statistics can be made to support many points of view. I’ve noticed at many city planning and architectural review board meetings that statistics are a particular “friend” used to justify outcomes despite the community’s opposition. But I digress. The development binge this city seems to be on has left many residents feeling deluged by the tremendous amount of new building, street construction and traffic snarls all happening at the same time — even if not verified by statistics. Did the Pier ramp have to start just before the L.A. Marathon? It was such an inconvenience for the residents and visitors! If I didn’t know better I’d have thought Santa Monica was in a rush to be the site of some future Olympic games. As I’ve written before, your book convinced me that every city must grow or it becomes a blighted area where few want to live or work. I do think Santa Monica has made some real progress in gentrification — some good, some not so good, some gawd awful. I just wonder why the push to tear down and build new, higher towers within such a short amount of time and seemingly concentrated between Wilshire and Pico Blvd.? I am aware the city wants to redevelop mid city Santa Monica, but all at once? I walk around that area every day and have noticed most of those new, Scandinavian style concrete and metal boxes have low occupancy, even years after completion. There are several new multi-use high rises on Broadway between Lincoln and 2nd and on 7th between Santa Monica and Colorado and those on Broadway near the new library, after 2 years, still have very low occupancy and few retail occupants on the first floor — as was the intent. Within the past 3 or 4 years about 6 high rise condos built on 11th and 12th Streets between Santa Monica and Colorado have only one or two occupants after a year of availability. Maybe those condos were all purchased and are purposely being kept empty until the market improves but I do wonder why the rush to build them. I know my observations are anecdotal but I wonder how the statistics reflect real life occupancy vs. projected or theoretical occupancy. I also wonder how empty units serve our community (except for the real estate taxes collected). Couldn’t this city’s redevleopment have been done more incrementally so that those of us who live and work in this perpetual construction zone would have a respite from torn up streets, detours, blocked sidewalks and traffic gridlock? Perhaps then, what it feels like would match the statistics.

    • Dee — always good to hear from you. Without going into the specifics, my response is, can you think of a time over the past 30 years (the time I’ve been in SM) when there wasn’t a lot of construction, both for private development and public investment, going on? And according the data I found, there was even more construction in the decades before 30 years ago. So I think SM is still a work in progress after 135 years! Our job is to make sure change is positive, because change is always going to come. And consider the alternative — no change isn’t so good either. When I moved to Ocean Park 30 years ago, there was an abandoned house on nearly every block, and people told me that Main Street had just emerged from being a skid row. No one came downtown, it was like a ghost town. I loved SM when I moved here, and not all the changes have been good, but I don’t recall SM as being better then. –Frank

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