Next generation housing

Regardless whether the Santa Monica City Council approves a housing element that is truly compliant with the City’s RHNA obligation or one where compliance is aspirational (or worse, only rhetorical), most of the controversy about the document will involve not the number of units the housing element plans for, although that’s controversial enough, but rather where they might be built and who might live in them.

Most prominently, there have been scores of emails to the City’s planners opposing the proposal City Council approved at its March 30 meeting to extend an “Affordable Housing Overlay” to the City’s R1 (single-family home) districts and another proposal to up-zone parts of the R1 north of Montana Avenue to R2 (the City’s least dense multi-unit zone).

The issue exists because state law now requires cities in their housing elements to explain how they are going to undo the lingering impacts of past segregation-creating practices, such as exclusionary zoning, restrictive racial covenants, and federal policies such as redlining. The R1 districts make up 35% of Santa Monica’s land. Regardless of how tolerant people consider themselves today, the demographic and economic make-up of the R1 zones reflects a legacy of excluding working-class people in general and people of color in particular. It’s hard to “affirmatively further fair housing” without doing something about the land tied up in R1.

At the same time there are issues about what kind of housing should be built anywhere and who should live in that housing: questions about “affordability” and “density.” Then there’s “gentrification”—the idea, current among many activists, that investment in low-income neighborhoods, even if it’s in new housing that doesn’t directly displace current residents, displaces residents indirectly by leading to increased rents and home prices.

As it happens, extending zoning into R1 districts that would allow multi-unit developments, affordable or not, is not going to survive in the housing element. The planning commissioners voted 6-1 to remove the Affordable Housing Overlay proposal and the proposal to up-zone any of R1 (beyond the up-zoning of parking lots adjacent to commercial zones). The commission was mindful of the exclusionary history, but, taking note of the political difficulties, found reasons to focus on other means of achieving a more equitable mix of housing around the city.

Those reasons included that given the cost of land in R1 districts, and the difficulty of assembling contiguous lots, it is unlikely that meaningful amounts of affordable housing would be built. The commissioners also pointed out that the state, with its laws requiring cities to allow accessory dwelling units (ADUs) in single-family zones, had already turned R1 into something like R1.5. They thought that to bring affordable housing to R1 areas it made more sense to better enable multi-unit housing along the commercial streets that border or run through the R1 districts than to expect affordable housing to be built on single-family lots.

Staff has informed City Council that it agrees with the Planning Commission and instead wants to facilitate construction of ADUs to bring more affordability to R1 districts. As seen in this map, nearly all ADUs are being built in R1 districts.

A map showing where ADUs have been built in Santa Monica since the state required liberalization of ADU requirements. Contrary to the legend, green denotes R1 zoning (not only yellow).

Although ADUs are not deed-restricted affordable, staff considers them “affordable by design” since they are smaller than the typical home in R1.

As for me, I agree that it doesn’t make sense to include major changes to R1 in the housing element because they won’t achieve the goals state law requires of the housing element. Best now to limit the housing element to pragmatic solutions. In the meantime, there is legislation in Sacramento, SB9, that’s passed the State Senate and has a good chance of becoming law that would alter R1 by allowing lot splits.

As for one pragmatic solution, staff, with agreement from the Planning Commission, is suggesting a return to previous policies to encourage developments entirely consisting of apartments deed-restricted to up to moderate income households. Ddevelopers had since the ’90s constructed 100% moderate buildings in Santa Monica without subsidy and these apartments have provided a lot of Section 8 housing. A few years ago, however, the City effectively killed production of 100% moderate projects by requiring inclusion of low-income units, which made them unfeasible without subsidy.

What I don’t understand is why, if the City is trying to disperse affordability, staff suggests limiting this policy to downtown, the Bergamot area, and the area near the 17th Street E line stop. Moderate income housing serves an important demographic (household income for a family of four of up to $96,000) that is otherwise priced out of Santa Monica. Why shouldn’t moderate income apartments be encouraged in all multi-unit zones? Particularly on boulevards adjacent to R1 neighborhoods? I don’t get it.

Which brings up the “who should live in the 8,895 units” issue.

At the March 30 City Council meeting on the housing element, Councilmember Phil Brock said something that was quite simple, but that really got me thinking. Brock, who was elected with strong support from the anti-development faction in local politics, said that he was in favor of building housing for people “who can’t afford to live here.” I don’t know if he meant that that would be the only kind of housing he favored, but nonetheless it got me thinking about the question, “who can’t afford to live here?”

We have a lot of laws and policies, federal, state, and local, about building housing for people with limited means, in categories from no income up to 120% of median income. These policies try to address the issue that is, when joined with the inextricably related issue of homelessness, the most pressing social issue in Los Angeles County. That is housing our working class. The number of working people priced out of the housing market; the number of people doubling and tripling up in worn-out houses and apartments; the number of people who run out of that last couch to surf on and end up in the streets; however you describe the problem, the data is overwhelming.

Perhaps Councilmember Brock was thinking of them and only them, and that would make sense, since so much of housing element law is justifiably directed towards creating housing for those populations. That’s why 6,168 units of Santa Monica’s RHNA obligation of 8,895 are meant to be “affordable.”

But there is another population that also “can’t afford to live here.” Let’s call them the “next generation.” Meaning young people who are now forming families. Young people who went to college and are making good money, who have paired up with spouses and partners who are also making good money, and who as a result do not qualify even for “moderate income” housing. (Remember – a limit of $96,000 for a four-person household. Two or often even one college-degree income will quickly take you over that.)

Many of these young people are literally the “next generation,” in that they are the children of the millions of immigrants who came to California starting around 1970. Or they are the “first generation” of African-American families who were able to get decent educations and possibilities for decent careers based on the achievements of the Civil Rights Movement. These are young people who did just what we’ve been telling our schools to do: they closed the achievement gap. They’ve gone to college. They’ve made their parents proud. They’ve made anyone who has paid school taxes and voted for school bonds proud.

But now there is no place for them to raise families. Honestly, this goes for young people from affluent families, too. My son graduated from Samohi in 2008 and his cohort, now turned 30, are pairing up and starting families. They all seem to be doing well, but the only ones whom I can see being able to get a place anywhere on the Westside are those who have families from whom they might expect major help. (Sure, if their parents have sat on a house in Santa Monica for 30 years, reaping the benefits of a constrained housing market, they may well have the money. But then they’d have to move!)

This is not only a Santa Monica problem. It’s happening all over the world. It is one reason why birthrates have fallen below sustainable rates everywhere from here to Italy to China. It’s not only that housing is expensive in cities, where most people live today, but that the housing that is being built is not big enough or configured to make family life comfortable.

Councilmember Christine Parra, who was also elected last year with support from the anti-development faction, had perhaps the most eloquent speech at the March 30 council meeting. Parra is the daughter of immigrants. She recounted how she and her husband managed to find a house to buy in Santa Monica some years ago, but she wondered how anyone like them would be able to do so today.

The fact is that the single-family house can no longer be the solution for middle-class housing, at least not in urbanized California. For both economic and environmental reasons there’s not going to be more sprawl, and you can’t manufacture an infinite number of single-family lots. This means that we need to focus not only on the number of units being built, but their size and shape. Townhouses, rowhouses, courtyard housing, apartments with decks and terraces. Room somewhere for a Thanksgiving dinner. This is an architectural problem as much as a planning problem. Also, the next generation wants to own their homes, just like previous generations did, to build nest eggs. We need condominiums and lot splits to allow for ownership.

This housing doesn’t need subsidy, but it does need to be allowed and planned for, at sufficient volume so that demand might someday meet supply at a reasonable place. If this housing is not allowed to be built in affluent areas like Santa Monica then these young families will buy in less advantaged communities, making housing less affordable for current residents and their children.

Let me reiterate: the housing crises are the crises affecting poor and working people who can’t find any housing they can afford, including unhoused people who need permanent housing with supportive services. State housing law properly prioritizes their needs.

But we need to think beyond that, too. No one can live in a home that hasn’t been built.

Thanks for reading.

4 thoughts on “Next generation housing

  1. Pingback: Once again, can Santa Monica pass a compliant housing element? | The Healthy City Local

  2. Excellent piece, Frank. We learned during the Planning Commission hearings that there are about 4,000 single family homes built on land zoned for more density. Mostly R2. These properties are far less costly than parcels north of Montana and should be pursued for condos. The feasibility of building and selling 2 to 4 unit condos on R1, especially north of Montana, is zero because their development costs exceed the condo market. Zoning parts of R1 as R2 would not solve the problem. As one Commissioner, I have no interest anyway in paving the way for the development if $2 million + condos. There were many other factors such as the accessibility of all residents to good, diverse schools, parks, libraries, transit, jobs etc. The State considers Santa Monica a high resource area for good reason. I agree that we need to give more attention to moderate income housing and ownership opportunities that don’t require a $500,000 annual income.

    • This is more an indictment of our R2 zoning standards (minimum 2000 square foot unit size, minimum two parking spaces which need to be underground because of parcel coverage rules, exorbitant fees) than anything else. We could get cheaper townhomes if we had more reasonable rules.

  3. Thanks, Frank. Great post as always.

    I was really disappointed that Planning Commission (in response to some pretty vile public comment) decided to strip out all the R1 changes from the housing element. When you discuss housing for the next generation, the R1 neighborhoods are exactly where that housing should be built. Gentle density, not much larger than what exists today, in quiet, residential neighborhoods where many families were raised. But you don’t see families there anymore because it’s become too expensive for anyone to buy in. Townhomes, courtyard apartments, row houses, etc. would change that. But, as you say, we have to allow them first.

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