The housing element: better late than never

As expected, Santa Monica planning staff submitted the City’s draft housing element to the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) on July 1. You can find the draft by clicking here. HCD now has 60 days to review it. Based on the rejections HCD has made to draft housing elements filed by cities in the San Diego area, it is unlikely that HCD will accept the draft as is. HCD is also unlikely to accept the draft because it lacks detail and the City’s “programs” to allow for more housing to be built here are not based on existing policies but on promises to enact changes to Santa Monica’s land use laws. But maybe I’m wrong.

Nonetheless there are reasons to be optimistic about the housing element and what it means for the future evolution of the Bay City. I have been following housing policy in Santa Monica for almost 30 years. What I see in this housing element is recognition of policies that the City should have enacted beginning about 20 years ago, when the success of the pro-housing zoning enacted for downtown Santa Monica in the ’90s became apparent.

Santa Monica has two primary tools for significantly increasing housing production, although there are other policies that would help on the margins. These are allowing housing development on land that has been zoned for commercial or industrial purposes and then encouraging housing on that land by giving property owners and developers (both market-rate and affordable developers) major incentives that favor housing over commercial development.

The housing element if implemented would do both. Its Program 4.A says that the City will allow housing in non-residential zones where housing is now prohibited. Program 4.B says that the City will revise development standards both to incentivize housing development over commercial development and to make housing development financially feasible in all commercial zones (whether or not they have previously been permitted for housing). While the housing element doesn’t specify how much development standards will change, when discussing these provisions with the Planning Commission and City Council planning staff said that based on the City’s financial analysis the City expected that housing development would be entitled to double the square footage allowed for commercial development. This was the standard the City in the ’90s used to encourage housing development downtown.

As I said, these changes have been a long time coming. I remember back in the ’90s arguing on the Planning Commission in favor of allowing housing everywhere. Santa Monica, however, rejected proposals to allow housing in industrial zones. There was nostalgia that factories would return to Santa Monica.

What this argument ignored were the facts that, one, Los Angeles County was no longer the world’s workshop and that, two, office jobs, the kind being created for the “information economy,” take up much less floor area than industrial jobs. Santa Monica and nearby neighborhoods in L.A. could house much of the industrial workforce 75 years ago, and in low-density neighborhoods, because manufacturing jobs were spread out over a one-story factory or workshop. Office parks, with four- or five-story office buildings, with three or more employees for every 1,000 square feet of floorspace, replaced the factories.

Suddenly tens of thousands of employees were streaming into Santa Monica and more into the rest of the Westside every morning and streaming out every afternoon. Most of those workers had no hope of finding places to live close to their jobs. Because of the demand, housing in Santa Monica became as expensive as any place in America. (To the financial benefit of current homeowners, spec buyers of single-family tear-downs, and any developer who could manage to thread the development needle and build apartments here.)

Nothing is wrong with the new jobs. The rest of the world (including Republican politicians in Texas) is envious of the growth and modernization of the Southern California economy. But whenever planners authorize 10,000 square feet of “creative office” space they should plan for 20 or 30 new units of housing: three or four times the square footage of the commercial development.

Financial pressures on local governments militate against this, however. Local governments make money from businesses but spend it on residential services. You can understand why it has been hard, especially in the Prop. 13 world, to get cities to incentivize housing without prodding from the state. This was made quite plain when Santa Monica adopted the 2010 land use and circulation elements of its general plan. Then City Manager Rod Gould wanted most of the development in the Bergamot area to be offices. The attitude was that the City of L.A. could provide the housing for the employees.

What I have never been able to understand is why the anti-development element of Santa Monica politics opposes building housing in commercial zones, when the only thing they care about is traffic. Residential development generates less traffic than commercial development. Any commercially-zoned land that becomes housing is permanently going to generate less traffic than if it were developed commercially. Meanwhile, hardly anyone who ends up living in one of these new residences in Santa Monica would contribute to the worst traffic problem residents face: the masses of commuters who leave Santa Monica every afternoon and trap residents at home.

Who knows what will happen to the housing element, but thanks to California finally mandating a serious effort to address California’s housing needs, the trend is in the right direction.

Thanks for reading.

1 thought on “The housing element: better late than never

  1. By dumping more low income housing projects in the historically segregated Pico Neighborhood The housing element violates federal and state fair housing laws see government code section 8899.50.

    Sent from my Verizon, Samsung Galaxy smartphone

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