Once again, can Santa Monica pass a compliant housing element?

It took me a few days, but I made it through watching the Santa Monica City Council’s six-hour June 15 meeting on the housing element. I will try to distill the discussion here.

Where are we: at this point in the process to enact the state-required housing element of the City’s general plan, the council met to tell staff how the council wanted to revise the draft of the housing element that staff had published May 24, and which the Planning Commission had reviewed the first week of June. Once so directed, staff would and could revise the draft accordingly and submit it to the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) by July 1 for a 60-day review. HCD then gives the City comments regarding the draft’s compliance with state requirements by Sept. 1, giving the City 45 days to finalize the housing element before the due date of Oct. 15.

If you have been following this process in the press, you know that the five councilmembers who were present at the June 15 meeting voted 4-1 to approve a set of directions to staff for revisions to the May 24 draft. The dissenting vote came from Councilmember Gleam Davis.

Davis voted no because she did not believe that the draft would comply with the state requirements, particularly after the directions coming from the council, and that HCD would reject it. Davis’ reasons for reaching this conclusion fell into three categories.

The first was that the draft would not satisfy the state’s requirement that the housing element show how the City will “affirmatively further fair housing” (the “AFFH requirement”). At the hearing, the council had removed from the draft any changes to single-family (R1) zoning, including the proposal the council had approved at its March 30 meeting to allow 100% affordable apartment buildings in R1 districts. Davis believes this is a fatal flaw. She spoke eloquently on this topic, saying that “decades of intentional discrimination” can only be addressed with “intentional inclusion.”

Davis is not being alarmist about AFFH compliance. Based on examples from the San Diego region (the San Diego area is on a housing element approval schedule six months ahead of the L.A. region), HCD is being strict about the AFFH requirement and is rejecting housing elements right and left. Although there are other reasons to liberalize R1 zoning, and over time doing so would increase diversity in R1 zones, as I have previously written up-zoning R1 in Santa Monica today, to make up for exclusionary zoning in the past, is not likely to do much to remedy past discrimination. However, in its “denial” letters to cities in San Diego County, HCD has stated (quoting from HCD’s letter to Coronado) that cities must “encourag[e] development of new affordable housing in high resource areas.” “High resource areas” is how HCD refers to high-income areas like Santa Monica’s R1 zones; like Coronado, Santa Monica is mostly “high-resource.”

Excerpt from HCD’s letter to the City of Coronado explaining why its housing element could not be certified. The entire letter is 12 pages.

While given land prices and the size and availability of lots I doubt that on a practical basis it is possible to encourage a meaningful amount of affordable housing in Santa Monica’s R1 zones, the City has missed opportunities in the housing element to promote affordable housing on streets adjacent to or running through them. For instance, the City should extend the proposed overlay for 100% moderate income developments to Montana Avenue and Ocean Park Boulevard.

The second category of Councilmember Davis’ doubts about compliance includes the various ways that the council, ignoring the recommendations of the Planning Commission and staff, whittled away at the draft’s attempts, strengthened by the Planning Commission, to remove restraints against housing development in Santa Monica and make it more feasible. (Regarding the Planning Commission, in a cringeworthy moment in the middle of the meeting, it became apparent that Davis was the only councilmember who had read the commission’s recommendations and staff’s analysis of them, even though staff had provided them to the council in a convenient addendum to the staff report. (Click here then click on item 8.A.c.) It was especially cringeworthy when Councilmember Phil Brock told the council that he’d just received a message telling him which Planning Commission recommendations he should question.)

It seems clear that Mayor Sue Himmelrich and Councilmembers Brock, Cristine Parra, and Oscar de la Torre, the four councilmembers who voted in favor of the directions to staff, do not want to get into a confrontation with HCD. The penalties for not receiving HCD certification for the housing element would be too serious, including loss of funding and potentially losing local control over certain kinds of housing development. At the same time, the four councilmembers tried to shave incentives for building housing, particularly market-rate housing, wherever they could, and the directions to staff reflected that.

Frequently, this negativity took the form of making it more difficult to finance housing. For instance, the housing element includes a provision to encourage religious organizations to develop affordable housing on their parking lots, but the council added a requirement that at least 50% of the housing be deed-restricted affordable. A 50% inclusionary requirement for privately financed development? Davis pointed out that this would make it more difficult to get any housing built on these sites (which presumably would also need expensive underground parking for the religious organization).

Similarly, the council voted to require that all development on City-owned sites be affordable housing, other than a small amount of “community-serving” commercial development. This sounds virtuous, and it would make sense for all housing on City sites to be affordable, but it makes financing the housing less feasible if on a blanket basis you eliminate the possibility of significant commercial development. Consider Bergamot Station, one of the City’s largest properties, and one located at a transit station. In the City’s planning for the site, Bergamot has been seen as an excellent location for a small hotel, to serve the nearby business parks and the Bergamot art galleries (which will stay in some form). A hotel could generate considerable money to subsidize affordable housing, but the council voted to kill that possibility.

The third category of Davis’ objections was perhaps the most telling. Namely that nearly everything substantive in the housing element to encourage or even allow housing development would depend on future changes to zoning that would make housing, including market-rate housing, allowable and feasible. Changing zoning to increase the likelihood of development is difficult politically in Santa Monica. The difficulty will be intensified because many of the changes require amendments to the land use and circulation elements of the general plan (LUCE) and to the Downtown Community Plan (DCP). Amendments to the LUCE and the DCP require a supermajority of five votes in the council. With this draft of the housing element the City is not sending HCD anything more than a unsecured promissory note.

Not only that, but many of the “programs” in the draft rely on operative verbs that are wishy-washy; verbs like “explore,” “support,” “consider,” or “encourage.” In a class of its own is the replacement by both the Planning Commission and the City Council of any concrete program to address the history of exclusionary zoning with merely “a commitment to continue a more expansive community conversation around how to address past exclusionary zoning practices in future land use decisions.”

What does that mean?

Thanks for reading.

2 thoughts on “Once again, can Santa Monica pass a compliant housing element?

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