Santa Monica and Santa Barbara: Not the Same

The policy of mixing market-rate housing with affordable housing has been not only accepted wisdom nationwide since the debacles that standalone public housing created in the ’50s and ’60s, but also a policy goal in Santa Monica for a long time. Santa Monica voters enacted Prop. R in 1990 to require that 30% of all housing in the city be affordable and from the first ordinance that implemented the law Santa Monica has pushed the goal of building affordable housing with, or in close proximity to, market rate housing.

Surprisingly this “inclusionary” policy was challenged last week in a column, “Community benefits do nothing for the community,” from the “Our Town” collective at the Daily Press. In the column, Our Town writer Ellen Brennan argued that mixing low-income and luxury housing is “not a recipe for healthy neighborhoods.”

But maybe Brennan’s opposition to inclusionary housing is not surprising because in the column she also blasts three council members backed by Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR) for pushing for more development downtown because they believe in a SMRR “dogma” in favor of building affordable housing.

Note to Brennan: affordable housing is not dogma in Santa Monica, it’s the law, and it’s the law because the people passed Prop. R. And then in 1998 they passed another measure authorizing Santa Monica to spend money building affordable housing, and in the latest opinion survey Santa Monicans said that affordable housing was the top community benefit they wanted to see from development.

Before I criticize Brennan’s column more, however, let me say that I have a lot of respect for her. We’ve even agreed occasionally, and in any case she’s been an articulate and gracious participant in Santa Monica politics, which prompts a relevant digression.

Which is that readers may detect a trend. In the blog I posted last week I also took pains before disagreeing with Denny Zane and Mike Feinstein to say admiring things about them. You might be thinking, “Oh, Gruber, he’s just trying to make nice to people he’s going to bump into on the street.” Or worse, “Gruber – typical politician.” In fact there’s a substantive point I want to make, which is that despite the hyperbole to the point of vitriol and the wild accusations that can fly around (welcome to local politics anywhere), the level of discourse in Santa Monica is high. There are always intelligent and articulate people on all sides of any issue, and over the decades Santa Monica has been a well-governed and progressive city because people listen to each other and make compromises. It helps that anyone who gets involved in more than one issue knows that the person you’re violently disagreeing with today about X is your ally tomorrow about Y.

I say that this is a relevant digression because what’s happening in Santa Monica lately (although not by any means for the first time) is that the rhetoric has become the lead story, not the underlying decisions that have to be made. People are focusing on the box, not what’s in the box (let alone what’s outside the box).

Okay, end of digression, and having said that, I’ll say right away that I disagree with nearly every word of Brennan’s column.

Why? Because Brennan bases her reasoning on a false understanding of what Santa Monica is.

I first became acquainted with Brennan in the ’90s when I was on the Planning Commission. One night the issue before the commission was the hours of operation for Pacific Park on the rebuilt Pier: the amusement park wanted to extend its hours to later at night. Brennan appeared before the commission in opposition; she told us that she had moved two years previously to an apartment across from the Pier, and that she had expected that living on the beach there would be like Mendocino.

Mendocino? I remember wondering to myself, “When she looked at the apartment, did she notice the Pier? Or did she turn around to see a whole region that for a century or so had considered the sand in front of her apartment its favorite beach?

Mendocino?

A few weeks ago Brennan appeared before City Council – the issue was the Downtown Specific Plan – to complain that on a recent Saturday afternoon she had encountered terrible traffic and difficulty parking when she tried to use her car to accomplish a few errands downtown.

Hmmm. For getting onto a century Santa Monica has been a place where on a beautiful Saturday afternoon 500,000 people are going to be here. That’s what Santa Monica has been, is, and will always be. If you live near the beach summer Saturdays are not good days to drive to the bank and the grocery store.

Not only is Santa Monica the favorite beach for 10 million people, but its history also includes being a would-be great port with mile-long wharf, an industrial center with one of the world’s largest factories, a medical center with two big hospitals, a corporate office center (including a 300-foot high tower built for a phone company’s headquarters), etc. These are all histories not shared with any real or hypothetical sleepy beach town that Santa Monica isn’t.

In fact, the main thing that Santa Monica shares with Santa Barbara is traffic congestion (and complaints about it). Try visiting Santa Barbara on a nice weekend.

Thanks for reading.

One thought on “Santa Monica and Santa Barbara: Not the Same

  1. Excellent points. The clarification of what is and what is not Santa Monica is much needed as our civil discourse proceeds. Your post represents in a big way, what the City is all about. thanks.

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