Housing elemental

Last year I wrote several posts about Santa Monica’s efforts to write a new Housing Element that would comply with new state laws that put teeth in longstanding requirements that local governments plan for sufficient growth in housing. Overall, I was doubtful that the City was drafting and would submit a document that would be compliant. Based on those views, I might have been pleased when earlier this month the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) rejected the Housing Element that Santa Monica submitted in October.

But I am not.

Let’s put things in context. Santa Monica was not alone. HCD is rejecting most housing elements that cities have submitted. As reported Thursday, HCD even rejected the housing element of the City of Los Angeles, one that had been much admired by the pro-housing community. The problem is that the housing elements can only go so far before they run up against reality.

While HCD must hold cities to a high standard in how they plan to allow more housing development, the process can reach a point of diminishing returns. The housing element process demands an idealization of what should be possible in a just world, but we don’t live in that world. The risk now is that continued efforts to create a perfect document will forestall reform of laws so that real housing, not paper plans for housing, can be constructed. Housing elements are only means to an end; the end is more housing.

I worry that we have reached that point.

When HCD’s rejection letter arrived, the City’s Planning Department immediately suspended a process that was underway to revise Santa Monica’s zoning to satisfy the goals of the housing element that the City had submitted. The process would necessarily lead to better, more inclusive zoning, even if ultimately new zoning, under a more perfect housing element, might be better. Now the process is stopped. Under state law, this creates a paradoxical result.

Because HCD determined that the housing element is not compliant, Santa Monica must now complete zoning changes to accommodate its regional housing needs allocation (RHNA) on an accelerated schedule — by October 15 of this year instead of in two years. However, since Planning has stopped the rezoning process while the department tries to figure out how to revise the housing element to comply, it is hard to imagine how the department can go jump throught all the hoops to get a new revision of the housing element approved by City Council, and then draft and get approval for a zoning update, all by October. (Not to mention that we have a City Council that recently violated the very first program, Program 1A, of the housing element it submitted to HCD by reinstating development review for projects on more than one acre.)

The very first program of Santa Monica’s submitted housing element calling for
administrative review of nearly all housing projects.

It’s going to be a mess; as everyone in the housing world knows, messes lead to delays, and delays mean housing doesn’t get built.

In fact, particularly in the context of HCD’s rejection of L.A.’s housing element, I wonder if it is possible to create a real-world housing element that would satisfy HCD’s requirements. Consider two requirements: (i) that housing elements show how cities will “affirmatively further fair housing,” and (ii) that RHNA numbers, including Santa Monica’s, emphasize the need for affordable housing. (In Santa Monica 6,168 of the 8,895 RHNA units are supposed to be affordable.) It is not possible, however, (i) to remedy, using only land use laws, more than a century of laws and policies that have excluded non-white people from the housing market, suppressed their wages, and otherwise limited their accumulation of wealth, nor (ii) does housing element law provide funding to build the affordable units a housing element would require. For these reasons, housing elements are always going to be aspirational. The power of housing elements comes if the state uses them to force local governments to make zoning changes. If, however, HCD keeps rejecting housing elements, the zoning changes get pushed back.

A better tactic would have been for HCD to accept the housing elements from cities, regardless how aspirational they were, but then come back and review the zoning to make sure that new zoning would allow for achievement of the RHNA numbers if financing were available. If the zoning was inadequate, then a better remedy would be for state law to allow HCD to override zoning and allow by-right development of housing. As it is, if cities continue to be non-compliant in their housing elements, the law’s counter-intuitive remedy is that they can’t receive funding for affordable housing. Does that make sense? Anti-housers are not going to complain if their cities can’t get money to build affordable housing. Better to give the money to affordable housing providers and let them build wherever they can find land. (Cities can also lose other funding, but would anti-housers care?)

The current law ultimately has provisions that give housing developers rights to build anywhere within non-compliant cites (subject to certain conditions), but those aspects of the law are untested and would probably require litigation to enforce, something developers try to avoid. One option that could work now would be for HCD (or the legislature if necessary) to extend deadlines for the rewriting of rejected housing elements while requiring cities to continue updating their zoning to allow more housing.

The amendments that strengthened the housing element law are new this year and it is not surprising that there has been a steep learning curve. Cities say that they want local control and that the state can trust them not to block housing. An extension of the deadlines for a year would give them time to prove that, and we could get better zoning sooner.

Thanks for reading.

Hail and farewell, Kathleen Rawson

After 25 years at the head of Downtown Santa Monica, Inc. (DTSM; previously known as the Third Street Development Corporation), Kathleen Rawson is stepping down.

In case you don’t know, DTSM is a public/private partnership between the City of Santa Monica and downtown property owners to operate a business improvement district (BID). The district initially consisted only of the area surrounding the Third Street Promenade, but it now includes all of downtown Santa Monica.

Twenty-five years. Santa Monica is a city where city managers, chiefs of police, superintendents of schools, and other high-ranking civil servants typically stay for, or survive, five or six years at most. A tenure of 25 years in a job with unique pressures that come from balancing the interests of anxious property owners, their demanding tenants, and politicians who need to please voters, is something that can only be described as marvelous, as in “something to marvel at.”

All hail, Kathleen. We wish you well as you head to the Hollywood Partnership to paint a picture on an even bigger canvas.

In the meantime, Rawson’s departure provides an opportunity to look back at the history of downtown Santa Monica.

I’ve been closely watching (and using) downtown for about 40 years. Even before the City brought in movie theaters and created the Promenade as we know it today (in 1989), back in 1981 I was on the board of the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble. We tried to get property owners to support building a theater on what was then called the Third Street Mall. The Mall was desolate and we thought a theater would help revive it. As was shown a few years later with the movie theaters, we had the right idea. Unfortunately, we did not have the right program to make it happen. (We wanted property owners to lease us land for zero rent, and that wasn’t going to happen.)

Then in 1994 I moved my law office downtown. Initially I found an office in the Clock Tower Building on Santa Monica Boulevard, just west of the Promenade. (My occupancy was delayed, by the way, by the Northridge Earthquake.) New owners of the building emptied out us tenants in 2001 to rehab it into what became one of the most sought-after addresses in Silicon Beach. Ultimately, I found a new office in another 1920s building, the Central Tower Building on Fourth Street. I’ve been in that office for almost 20 years.

In 2003 my parents moved from Philadelphia and rented a two-bedroom apartment in one of Craig Jones’ new buildings on Sixth Street. My mother died in 2007, but my father lived in the apartment until he died in 2019. Through them I learned about what it was like to live in the new residential downtown that new zoning that the City enacted in the ’90s made possible. (They loved it.)

Forgive me if I feel like I have not only some knowledge of, but also a proprietary interest in, downtown Santa Monica. (Hey: as a business owner downtown, I paid double business taxes to support DTSM’s activities!)

The foundation for the initial success of the Third Street Promenade was a combination of factors that predated Kathleen Rawson’s stewardship of DTSM. Those factors included: the Hollywood studios’ finally breaking the Westwood monopoly on first-run movie theaters on the Westside, which enabled movie chains to build theaters in Santa Monica; visionary leadership from city government, notably from Council Members Dennis Zane and the late Herb Katz, which allowed those theaters to be built only downtown; and excellent urban design from Boris Dramov of ROMA Design Group.

Tourists on the Promenade, 2004

Rawson, who was brought in in 1997, made downtown Santa Monica work in a way that both reflected and managed its context. And that context was and is urban, the legacy of downtown’s origins as the central business district for a satellite factory town that had a working fishing pier and honkytonk amusements to boot. Santa Monica was a blue-collar town that like so many was ripped apart by a freeway, which local boosters thought would bring investment to downtown Santa Monica but instead made it increasingly irrelevant. The City expected to solve downtown’s problems by demolishing some crucial blocks downtown to build an indoor mall, Santa Monica Place, but that was then the final blow to the old Third Street Mall, which sunk into decrepitude.

The old Santa Monica Third Street Mall

When the Promenade opened in 1989 many were tired of the suburban retail experience – of malls. I dislike using “authentic” to describe any built place, but people wanted authentic, not artificial, experiences. Neither the movie theaters nor Dramov’s design altered the fact that the Promenade and downtown had not sprung full grown from the heads of architectural descendants of Victor Gruen.

Downtown Santa Monica was undeniably authentic because it was open to all. Which brings up the shame of our society, homelessness. For the 40 years I’ve been around, Santa Monica’s treatment of the unhoused has always been controversial, from every direction. It goes without saying that in our wealthy country homelessness should not exist. We can blame ourselves for the fact that we do have homelessness. In the meantime, whenever things are not going well downtown, you can be sure that homeless people will be blamed for whatever the perceived problems are. Yet it was antiseptic Santa Monica Place, the only place in downtown from which homeless people were excluded, that had to reinvent itself, by making itself more open and better connected to the Promenade, to keep pace with the level of retail sales on the Promenade.

Meanwhile, for those who believe that Santa Monica’s approach to homelessness has made the problems the unhoused create for the housed worse: well, just consider that Santa Monica does not have the sidewalk encampments that have sprung up in Los Angeles. Santa Monica’s approach has been not to criminalize homelessness, but to provide services and to try to build more housing, all the while not allowing the condition of being homeless to justify antisocial behavior. This has been DTSM’s philosophy, as exemplified by its Ambassador program, which Rawson instituted about ten years ago. (It is also the philosophy behind replacing Parking Structure 3 with housing; let’s do it!)

Perhaps the biggest tribute to Rawson’s management of DTSM has been the expansion by the City of DTSM’s purview. Originally, the Third Street Development Corporation was focused on only the blocks around the Promenade and collected assessments from only that area. Then the geographical scope was extended from Wilshire to the freeway, and Ocean Avenue to Seventh Street. Later, when the Expo line opened in 2015, the assessment district was extended to include Lincoln Boulevard and additional areas around Colorado Avenue. Since 2018, the Ambassador program has been extended even further, to include Palisades, Reed and Palisades Park. (As a mark of the expansion of Rawson’s responsibilities, the DTSM budget increased from $800,000 to $9 million over the past 25 years.)

This expansion took place as downtown Santa Monica evolved, as living places always do. About 4,000 people now live downtown, a big change from 30 years ago. If you walk Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Streets, where most of the new apartments are, you see the neighbors out and about. They shop in local stores and, especially, eat in their neighborhood restaurants (or, rather, in these Covid days, they eat outside of them).

What I have admired about DTSM’s approach (which I assume is Rawson’s approach) is a respect for the unpredictability of the urban context, while recognizing that a little management of it can go a long way. This is the approach of the Ambassador program, and was also the approach behind the Street Performer Ordinance. You can see the approach in the new restrooms in Parking Structure 4 (how often in America does a city provide that basic amenity?).

Meanwhile, ICE, the immensely popular ice-skating rink that Rawson initiated (inspired by growing up in Minnesota) and actions like opening the Promenade for outdoor dining when Covid hit, or instituting a family-friendly PRIDE festival, reflect an attitude that public areas in a downtown should not be static, that they are flexible spaces, not built and programmed for specific functions.

What’s next for downtown Santa Monica? Even before Covid, the brick-and-mortar stores on the Promenade were feeling the pressure from on-line retail the same as retail everywhere. Stores were closing, there are vacancies, and rents are declining. With Covid, the loss of free-spending international tourists has been devastating. Rawson’s next plans were for downtown to pivot more towards entertainment, events, and dining. (Disclosure: I’m on the Board of the Jacaranda Chamber Music series, which has presented concerts downtown at the First Presbyterian Church for almost 20 years; Jacaranda has been in discussions with DTSM about presenting one or more outdoor concerts.)

One thing we know is that downtown Santa Monica will not stay still. It will continue to evolve. Let us hope that the DTSM board will find a successor to Kathleen Rawson who is as capable as she: capable enough to survive 25 years in a tough job.

Thanks for reading.

Santa Monica’s housing element: a new episode!

The next episode in the continuing series of meetings regarding the new housing element of Santa Monica’s general plan will take place Tuesday evening. Then the City Council will review and vote on amendments and additions to the version of the document that the council approved in June. The state’s Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) rejected the City’s draft in a letter dated August 30 detailing where HCD saw failures to satisfy the state’s requirements for the housing element. The changes the council will consider are those that planning staff recommends to satisfy HCD’s requirements. (Note that various drafts of the housing element, HCD’s letter, staff reports, public comment, Planning Commission actions, etc., many of which are referred to in this post, are downloadable at this link.)

On the surface of things, at this point the process seems underwhelming. This is because HCD’s comments, contained in a 12-page appendix to its letter, certainly “sweat the small stuff.” I read the document hoping for an eloquent critique of how Santa Monica, playing a small but important role in an larger story involving all of affluent California, had so botched housing policy over 40 years: (i) that our city and region are overwhelmed by and shamed by tens of thousands of people living on the streets, (ii) that low-income and even middle-class households of working people cannot find housing without paying 50% or more of their combined incomes in rents, (iii) that historically affordable neighborhoods are seeing unprecedented increases in housing costs because historically affluent areas have not allowed for growth, and (iv) that even young people with high incomes cannot find housing suitable for raising families.

Instead, and I suppose they were doing their job, HCD’s staff wrote a dry 12-page report showing where the City’s draft failed to satisfy its statutorily mandated requirements to assess the reality of the housing situation, the reality of the constraints to building housing, and the reality of what the City planned to do to fix the problem. Fine; every comment HCD made was justified, but then I don’t know how answering those comments will lead to more housing being built.

For example, in section 5 of the letter, HCD identifies numerous places where the City’s draft failed to identify constraints on the building of housing, or the costs of those constraints. But even if all those constraints, and there are many, were identified and their costs enumerated, how will that lead to more housing if there is not political will to do so? The housing element, even the draft council approved in June, has a list of actions the City is promising to take to make it easier to build housing, but with the current anti-housing council majority in power, do we believe they will follow through? Do we believe that even if they liberalize the zoning, they will not find some way to subvert the liberalization?

To get something done, you can’t ignore the politics, but of course any staff-written document must ignore the politics, even to the point of dissembling. I’ll give one example. Back in 2010, after six years of very public process, the City Council approved new land use and circulation elements of the general plan (the LUCE). To encourage housing in commercial and industrial zones (i.e., to build housing without densifying existing residential areas), the LUCE contemplated, among other things, larger projects that would be subject to a higher level of review and negotiation of community benefits (namely, development agreements). These were “Tier 3” projects and “activity centers,” the latter to be located near transit centers with the possibility of more development than even Tier 3 projects.

Santa Monica’s zoning map. Very few of these zones allow for significant new housing.

But when it came time to enact a zoning ordinance to implement the LUCE, the council had changed. It had become more conservative, more anti-change; more beholden to those who were comfortable with things the way they are. As a result, in the zoning law, the council very nearly obliterated the possibility of building Tier 3 projects and deleted four out of the five possible activity centers.

This history is recounted on page 9 of Appendix E to the housing element, the appendix that describes, as the law requires, constraints on housing. If you look at the redlined version staff is asking the council to approve, you will see language staff has added in response to HCD’s demands for more analysis of constraints, but the staff’s anodyne language ignores the real history. Instead, staff makes it sounds like the down-zoning occurred because the City wanted to avoid the discretionary processes developers would have had to go through to build the bigger projects, but that’s not what happened. The down-zoning occurred because of the politics. The council did not want the bigger projects and killed the possibility they would be built. Council did not kill Tier 3 and activity centers to make it easier to build housing; just the opposite. Later, the council passed new zoning for downtown that stopped new housing from being built; the apartments that are nearing completion now on Lincoln and elsewhere were built under the previous downtown zoning.

The whole housing element is a feel-good, “let’s pat ourselves on the back” document that belies the current reality.

If the council now passes the revised housing element it will be committing itself to, in the words of staff’s proposed revised Appendix E, a reevaluation of “development standards and regulations, both independently and cumulatively, to not only ensure housing projects are feasible, but that they also incentivize housing production citywide,” but I’ll believe it when I see it. What it all means is that the housing element is just the first step. The proof of the pudding will come when we find out if the council will enact new zoning and remove other constraints on housing to encourage housing to be built.

Otherwise, what will happen? If history provides precedent, there will be litigation. The Santa Monica Housing Council, the organization that successfully sued the City 30 years ago over the housing element the council passed then, has had its lawyers send long letters to the City detailing where they see deficiencies. Most of their comments are not reflected in the revised housing element and I doubt City Council would approve them if they were. Out of the litigation in the 1990s came the zoning that allowed the creation of a new residential neighborhood downtown east of Fourth Street; maybe more litigation is what will be needed again.

Whatever happens Tuesday evening, there will be more episodes in this continuing series.

Thanks for reading.

Some other shoes drop in Santa Monica and Malibu

As summer was winding down last week, reminders arrived that while the world wrestled with the Delta variant and Afghanistan two big local issues had been quietly percolating. The issues are whether Malibu will form its own school district, seceding from the Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District, and how the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) would react to the draft Housing Element that Santa Monica submitted to HCD July 1. In both cases shoes dropped in the form of reports from professional staffs outside of Santa Monica.

Let’s start with Malibu’s attempt to form its own school district. What happened last week was that the staff of the Los Angeles County Office of Education (LACOE) released its report to the “L.A. County Committee on School District Organization” (the “County Committee”) containing the staff’s analysis of whether Malibu had satisfied the requirements of state law to form a separate district. The context is that after about five years of on-and-off negotiations, Malibu broke off negotiations last fall, even as the parties seemed to be finally reaching an agreement. Instead, Malibu renewed a 2017 petition to LACOE to separate. (I wrote about the negotiations and other maneuvers here in April; for an up-to-date and clear-eyed analysis of the Malibu secession drama, including its history, read this article that the L.A. Times ran over the weekend.)

The County Committee held a public hearing on the petition in April, then referred the matter to staff for review. There are nine factors that come into play in determining whether to approve the formation of a school district. The document released last week includes the staff’s analysis of those factors, as well as general conclusions. The document was prepared as groundwork for a continuation of the April hearing September 18. At that meeting the committee can either kill the application or refer it to a further level of review, what is called the “regular review process” (as opposed the current, “preliminary” review). (Whatever the LACOE ultimately decides, the final decision rests with the State Department of Education.)

In the report, the LACOE staff recommends that the matter be moved into the regular review process, during which the County Committee can gather more information and do more analysis. If the committee accepts staff’s analysis, that would keep Malibu’s proposal alive, but if I were a Malibu separatist, I would not be entirely optimistic after reading the report. Staff found that the proposal only satisfied one of the nine conditions, and there is at least one, that a district have at least 1,501 students, that seems difficult for Malibu to satisfy.

More generally, staff advised the committee that a simple desire to have one’s own district does not justify forming a new district: “Staff is informed and believes that resident students in the area proposed for a Malibu UFD [unified school district] have access to enrollment in Santa Monica-Malibu USD schools now, and always have. Whether or not they find the Santa Monica-Malibu USD insufficient for their particular needs does not merit the creation of a new USD, especially in light of the potential negative fiscal impacts such reorganization would have on the resulting Santa Monica USD.”

Nonetheless, perhaps recognizing that neither Malibu nor Santa Monica want to continue in one district spread out over 30 miles of coast and even more social and economic distance, the thrust of the staff’s recommendations is that the parties get back to the negotiating table. The report concludes as follows: “It is also clear that, though they have hit roadblocks numerous times, the City of Malibu and the Santa Monica-Malibu USD still have the opportunity to negotiate and to come to the County Committee with a joint solution. A negotiated solution that honors the needs and concerns of both parties remains the best recommendation.”

As for Santa Monica’s housing element, the shoe that dropped last week was not unexpected: it was a letter from HCD telling the City how its draft housing element was deficient under state law. I say not unexpected, because given all the restraints on building housing in Santa Monica, both regulatory and financial, and the substantial political opposition to growth, it was unlikely that Santa Monica would submit a first draft that would satisfy state housing law. State law requiring real efforts to allow for housing has been substantially strengthened since the last time the City produced a housing element.

It is clear from reading the 12-page HCD letter that Santa Monica has some hard work to do before it will be able to satisfy HCD. As I discussed in previous posts, compliance with housing law has two fundamental dimensions. One is providing enough zoned capacity for the number of units, the “RHNA allocation,” assigned to the city over the eight-year term of the housing element. This involves some tough political decisions in a town where zoning has been used for decades to keep new housing from being built in much of the city. Nonetheless, achieving enough capacity is fundamentally a matter of numbers: how many square feet of land can be built on, and how much can be built on that land. Along with getting rid of all the administrative and regulatory impediments and costs used to slow approvals and construction, determining how much capacity is available, and increasing it as needed, should be a reasonably objective enterprise.

The other dimension of compliance is more subjective: it is a requirement for what’s called “Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing” (AFFH). This entails trying to remedy a century of unfair housing: legacies of single-family (R1) zoning, restrictive covenants, redlining, outright discrimination by realtors and sellers, etc., the purpose, and result, of which was to allow Anglos to live in their own enclaves and diminish the economic prospects available to households of color. In an earlier draft of the housing element prepared by staff there were provisions to allow more housing development in R1 zones, provisions that the City Council rejected. Those provisions are justifiable on their own as means to increase housing capacity and as such would have opened R1 areas up to more households, some of which no doubt would be of people of color. Because of economic reasons, however, it is not clear that these provisions themselves would have furthered fair housing to a significant extent. A century of discrimination has created fundamental economic obstacles to fair housing.

HCD, in the letter, dismisses the City’s AFFH analysis, saying that the draft “does not address the requirement to provide an Assessment of Fair Housing,” and later advising the City that it “should go well beyond exploring options and must commit to meaningful and sufficient actions to overcome patterns of segregation and foster inclusive communities.”

This is a challenge. More is going to have to be done.

The schedule now is that the City has a statutory due date of October 15 to adopt an approved housing element, but in fact penalties do not accrue until 120 days after that. This means that Santa Monica has about five months to get things right.

Thanks for reading.

The countries we’ve lost

I have been writing my Lookout column and this blog for about 20 years and nearly all I have written has been about Santa Monica or urban issues that affect Santa Monica. At times, however, world events, such as 9/11, have caused me to write about broader matters. A few days after 9/11 I wrote, “I hope we are as smart as we are tough. I have a fantasy that the U.S. will obtain and show the Taliban convincing evidence that Osama bin Laden is guilty, and that the Taliban will give him up to our justice system. Think what a triumph it would be to show that we can give our sworn enemy a fair trial.”

Okay, that was a fantasy, but then fantasies play a big part in the tragedy of Afghanistan.

I was born in the middle of the Baby Boom, in 1952, and as I complete my seventh decade, I am chagrined to realize that while I was born to an American generation that when young had participated in saving the world, my life has been bracketed by two disastrous foreign adventures, Vietnam and Afghanistan. To paraphrase Vizzini in The Princess Bride, two “land wars in Asia” that we should never have gotten involved in. 

Perhaps Vizzini could have made a more generalized statement: don’t get involve in peasant revolutions. People forget that the U.S. sent troops to Mexico and Russia during their peasant revolts, supported the losing side in China, tried to overturn the revolution in Cuba, and then there was Vietnam. You can throw in Iran’s revolution against the Shah, too—as we saw there, and as we see in Afghanistan, peasants and villagers do not always revolt with the purposes we think they should have. They can express their grievances against centralized authority by means of tradition, too.

In any case, our interventions had no effect. We “lost” China. We lost Vietnam. Now we’ve lost Afghanistan. We’ve lost a lot of countries, right? And what of it?

George Santayana famously wrote that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” They study history in the universities and service academies our leaders and generals attend, right? Nonetheless we have been condemned to repeat a lot of history. Then there’s that other aphorism (often attributed, apparently mistakenly, to Albert Einstein), “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” What if we are doomed not by forgetfulness, but by insanity? A mass psychosis that makes us believe we have powers we don’t have?

“Losing” China, then Cuba, and then losing the Vietnam War, fueled a decades-long rage among the right-wing in America. One result was distortion of the notion of patriotism. It was patriotic to blindly support policies (and deployments) that resulted in America’s humiliation, and unpatriotic to be clear-eyed about reality and what America’s interests were. (The Left fed the rage with its own rhetoric, and lost a lot of elections along the way, but that’s another story.)

Fighting the peasants in Vietnam was unpopular, to say the least, among the Left. Fighting peasants in Afghanistan, after going in to clear out Al Qaeda, not so unpopular. I count myself among the Left in this regard: until three weeks ago I was hoping, even expecting, that the urbanized population of a modernizing Afghanistan would take to the barricades and repulse the Taliban from the cities. More fantasy. One fantasy we have on the Left is that colonialism and imperialism, including the neo- varieties, are all about power, control, exploitation, and capitalism. There is also imperialism of ideas, and that imperialism runs against the tide of nationalism and peasant revolutions just as much as the other imperialism runs against the tide of anti-colonial liberation.

As a leftist I’ve always felt a bit embarrassed with the inconsistency that we on the Left have about this. We trumpet the rights of indigenous peoples, yet is there any economic theory, ideology, or philosophy more Western than everything that came out of the Enlightenment, including human rights, secularism, feminism, and both capitalism and Marxism? How far should we go? What would be better: to extend the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to an unknown people living in the Amazon, or leave them alone?

We on the Left want to change the culture of rural Afghanistan as much as Christian missionaries. To say that we oppose all fundamentalist religions, not only fundamentalist versions of Islam, hardly erases the contradiction with our anti-imperialism, our pro “self-determination.” As for the missionaries, it’s been a century or so since they journeyed to darkest wherever with protection from a powerful military, as our civil society NGOs had in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, along with Western music, there’s been one extremely successful export of Western ideas: materialism. There is an effective means of reaching the hearts and minds of the un-modern peoples of the world, and that’s been through their stomachs, using “stomach” as a stand-in for all the things people find that they like when they can leave behind subsistence and barter and enter a money economy. People like their cellphones.

Japan might have been the first non-Western country to join its interests to the modern Western economy, about 150 years ago. Many nations have joined since, especially since the end of World War II. It typically takes two or three generations, but generally modernizing countries gradually acquire first a legal system that protects individual rights (such a legal system is essential for a modern economy) and ultimately a democratic system, or at least, along the way, a quasi-democratic system that protects civil and political rights. Hey: arguably we had only a quasi-democracy until women’s suffrage, the termination of lynching, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. (And we’re still working on it.)

The essential American interests around the world are to support our long-time developed and historically democratic allies as well as those peoples who have joined this group since 1945, while securing a peaceful framework around the world for other peoples to develop and modernize. We don’t need to “confront” China and Russia as much as we need to have patience with them. This patience needs to be grounded in an unwavering faith in our Enlightenment values of democracy and human rights. While these values cannot be imposed from above, certainly not by force, they are powerful. We are on the right side of history.

I’m speaking here of long-term history, but on the short-term, the idea that nationalist and fundamentalist Islamic Afghans are suddenly going to be friendly with Russians and Chinese is farfetched. Again, look at Vietnam, which for quite some time has had friendlier relations with the U.S. than it has with China or Russia.   

Meanwhile, there is the unfolding misery in Afghanistan, and the likelihood that many Afghans, particularly women and girls, are going to lose their freedoms and rights, and are at risk of losing their lives. Many want to get out, and we need to help them. Again, this is not the first time that a revolution has created a wave of refugees. The wars in Indochina produced over a million, of which the U.S. took in 300,000 or so, while hundreds of thousands of “boat people” died at sea.

The experience with the refugees from Vietnam and elsewhere should give us hope and perspective over resettlement. Vietnamese and other Indochinese refugees have, like so many “homeless, tempest-tost” before them, joined our nation and become part of it. If once the dust settles Afghan refugees cannot go back, let’s welcome them here.

As for those who stay behind, or who are left behind, history shows that the worst alternative is for the U.S. to grab its ball and go home. Whenever we lose and then walk away—think Russia, China, Cuba, Vietnam, Iran—we lose influence. In each case, it took decades to reestablish diplomatic relations—we still haven’t done so with Iran. America somehow thinks we help ourselves by denying diplomatic recognition to regimes in power that we don’t like. It’s like having a tantrum and sending ourselves to sit in the corner. More fantasy, more insanity. We need to stay engaged with the Taliban. We’ll have more influence.

Thanks for reading.

Stop the presses: nice words about landlords uttered at the Santa Monica City Council

Before I can quit with writing about the housing element that the City of Santa Monica has sent to the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD), I have to visit an extraordinary conversation that took place during the June 15 City Council meeting. That was when council gave planning staff final directions for the housing element before sending it to HCD.

The discussion I’m referring to was extraordinary because in it two councilmembers praised landlords for their role in providing affordable housing. Certainly, I have not observed every City Council hearing during the nearly 30 years I have been following and participating in Santa Monica politics, but I cannot remember anyone praising landlords, as a group or class, from the dais during that time. It seems that after the rent control battles of the ’80s subsided, all political discourse in Santa Monica, even from the pro-business side, devolved into a default mode in which anyone who owned or developed residential property (other than a homeowner) was at best the equivalent of a “kulak” (wealthy peasant) or at worst a predatory capitalist.

The discussion occurred when the councilmembers were discussing Program 3.A in the draft housing element. In the draft presented to the council June 15 Program 3.A said that the City would amend its ordinances to make permanent anti-displacement provisions in the California Housing Crisis Act of 2019 (known as SB 330). SB 330 requires that if a housing developer would in building a new housing development destroy existing rent-controlled or affordable deed-restricted units, the developer would need to replace those units in the new development and rent them to low-income tenants. Under SB 330, these provisions sunset in 2025; Program 3.A would make those requirements permanent in Santa Monica.

The discussion began with Mayor Sue Himmelrich expressing her opinion that not only did she want to make SB 330 permanent, but she wanted to provide that the rents in the newly built, but rent-controlled, apartments would be the old rents, not reset to current market-rate levels. Even better, she wanted the new units to be deed-restricted and made available to low-income tenants. She said this would add “predictability.”

Councilmember Oscar de la Torre, however, had a problem with Program 3.A. He was concerned with its impact on “mom and pop” landlords. He said these apartment owners had been providing affordable housing for many years in the form of rent-controlled apartments. De la Torre said that he would “have a hard time punishing them,” because they had been “doing the right thing for so many years.” He asked if this law wouldn’t “lock them into the same situation where they can’t make any progress for their family.” He said that “government should compensate these people;” he asked, “shouldn’t we have a way where we share that burden?”

De la Torre made it plain that he was only talking about “mom and pop” apartment owners, not corporations that might own “25 buildings,” but still my jaw dropped. As I said before, I cannot remember a member of the Santa Monica City Council expressing sympathy for landlords, big or small, let alone their heirs. Nor one of them making arguments that would make it more economically advantageous to tear down existing apartments—and this from a local figure known for his opposition to the use of the Ellis Act to do precisely that.

Councilmember Phil Brock agreed with de la Torre. He said that the law requiring replacement of rent-controlled units would disincentivize replacement of old housing, and that we would end up with “more rundown apartments.” He used a hypothetical of a 75-year-old building that might ultimately need to be replaced. He said that given the cost of doing so, the replacement could not happen if the new units were rent-controlled or deed-restricted affordable. (Both Brock and de la Torre come from families that own apartments. They did not make announcements at the meeting about this (although Brock referred to his mother as an apartment owner), but I expect that everyone on the (virtual) dais was aware of it.)

At this point Mayor Himmelrich jumped in. She responded to de la Torre and Brock by saying that property owners could make enough money to justify rebuilding from additional, market-rate units they could build. She took a hypothetical four-unit building de la Torre had used and said that such a building could be rebuilt with eight units, and the owners could make plenty of money from the four new units.

I doubt Himmelrich is correct. Since the ’80s Santa Monica has downzoned its multi-unit residential districts, so that it is not generally possible to build as much on a residential lot as could be built previously, when these old apartments were built, let alone double the size of existing apartment buildings. Here is a detail from the zoning map:

Detail of Santa Monica zoning map.

As shown, most multi-unit residential districts are zoned “Low Density Residential” (R2 or the analog in Ocean Park, OP2), including nearly all of the Pico Neighborhood, mid-Wilshire/WilMont, and Ocean Park. The theoretical maximum number of units per lot in R2 is four, but for most lots the real maximum is three because the minimum size of a unit in R2 is 2,000 square feet. (This large unit size is evidence, incidentally, that the downzoning discouraged affordable housing.) Even if retaining the units would qualify the development for a 50% state density bonus (the best available), at most the development would have five, or maybe six, units. Possibly the owner/developer could add a unit by asking for “concessions” under density bonus law, but even if Himmelrich’s hypothetical eight units could be built, privately-financed housing cannot be financed with a 50% inclusionary requirement. Finally, is it realistic that on single lots in residential districts, the size of apartment buildings will be doubled?

In fact, planning staffer Jing Yeo had already explained the real impact of SB 330 on Santa Monica: she told the council early in the discussion that the effect of SB 330 here was to prevent a property owner from tearing down four units and replacing them with three.

Brock replied to Himmelrich by saying that the replacement provisions made reinvestment infeasible. Himmelrich responded by asking him, “are we doing this housing element for landlords or for tenants?” Brock seemed taken back by the question. “I think we’re doing it for everyone,” he replied, “[i]t should be ideally a symbiotic relationship.”  

I am a New Deal-type Democrat with socialist leanings, and as such I believe in regulation of economic activity. That includes rent control, which is, or can be, a reasonable exercise of governmental authority with multiple social benefits. Rent control, however, like any economic regulation, needs to be reasonable. Regulations are not reasonable if they are so strict that they defeat their own purposes. The purpose of rent control is to deliver safe and well-maintained housing that people can afford. All regulations require recalculation and review from time to time, just as all housing needs maintenance, whether the building is a wood-framed apartment structure in termite-country or a steel and concrete condo tower in Florida. Sometimes old buildings need to be replaced.

Councilmember Brock was right when he described the relationship between property owners and tenants as symbiotic. Our economy is largely capitalist, and we rely on private capital to build and maintain housing. This is even the case, to a great extent, when it comes to affordable housing. (Personally, I would like to see government get back into the business of building public housing, but that is not likely to happen any time soon.) Whether the capital comes from “moms and pops” investing their life savings into an apartment building, from private placement financing for specific developments, or from publicly-traded REITs, etc., investors have to believe that they have a good chance of having a better risk/return ratio than they would have if, for instance, they invest their money in a stock market index fund.

If you would like to watch these City Council deliberations about making SB 330 permanent, click here to go to the video, and then go to the 5:02 mark and start watching. Lasts about 20 minutes, and you’ll also see what they decided to do. Hint: nothing.

Thanks for reading.

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.

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.

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.

Will Santa Monica’s housing element comply?

As I posted June 1, in late May Santa Monica planning staff released the first draft of the City’s general plan 2021-29 housing element. The Planning Commission conducted a hearing on the document June 2 and 3 and sent comments City Council. The council will hold a hearing on the plan next week. The goal is for the council to give staff directions for preparing this draft for submission to the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) for a preliminary 60-day review by July 1. The final version is due by October.  

At its March 30 meeting, City Council instructed staff to prepare a “compliant” housing element—one that would satisfy the requirements of state law. These requirements involve not only allowing and planning for Santa Monica’s “regional housing needs allocation” (RHNA) of 8,895 units (of which 6,168 are to be “affordable”), but also showing that Santa Monica was “affirmatively furthering fair housing” by allowing development to “overcome identified patterns of segregation.” (The “AFFH” requirement.)

Whether staff has drafted a compliant housing element, and whether the now six-member City Council votes to give staff a mandate to do so, are interlocking questions. Rhetorically, staff’s draft is compliant, but vague. I’d say the devil is in the details, but there are too few details. Much is left to later actions, such as changes to the City’s Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE) and zoning laws, to implement wishful housing element “programs.” The council might approve a document that is purportedly compliant, but which HCD rejects.

For instance, and this is just one example, one program (Program 1.F.) is to revise the Downtown Community Plan (DCP) to support inclusionary affordable housing. The DCP was adopted in 2017 with rhetoric, backed up by questionable data analysis, that it would produce thousands of new apartments downtown of all sizes and levels of affordability. So far, however, the only projects that have been built or even permitted under the DCP standards are small, “Tier 1” projects with small units of which very few are affordable.

That the DCP would not produce much development was predicted, because of the high levels of affordable housing the DCP required in larger (“Tier 2”) developments and other costs housing developer had to assume. It may seem paradoxical, but to fix the problem and get more affordable units built, the DCP would need to be amended either to reduce the affordability load on market-rate developments (without increasing the size of the development), or to allow bigger projects with more market-rate development to offset the affordability requirement.

At the time council passed the DCP, council and staff said they would revisit the DCP if it failed to produce housing. Nothing has happened since 2017, however, except that the council tightened affordability requirements even further to make it even harder to build. Skeptics about the City’s intentions will look at the housing element’s “programs” as more dodges unless the document includes specific parameters for rezoning downtown.

Those skeptics surely exist. The Santa Monica Housing Council (SMHC), the organization that successfully sued Santa Monica in the early ’90s over inadequacies in the City’s housing element, has had its lawyers (the same firm whose fees of nearly $700,000 the City was required to pay) send letters—“shots across the bow”—to the Planning Commission detailing the many ways they see the City heading towards noncompliance. The SMHC’s critique focuses not only on the vagueness of the housing element, but also on what the lawyers see as overly optimistic projections of what might actually be built on the “suitable sites” the housing element must identify for housing growth.

To its credit the Planning Commission recognized vagueness as a problem. The unanimous comments of the commissioners emphasized how the housing element should specify more clearly how the City would not only make building housing (both affordable and market-rate) more feasible, but also make the approval process easier, such as by facilitating the use of the state’s density bonus program.

As for my views of the draft housing element, I’m mixed. I share the skepticism of the SMHC lawyers, especially because, as their letters reminded me, we now have a super-majority requirement of five votes in the City Council to approve any changes to the LUCE or the DCP that increase height or density. The nightmare scenario is that the council passes a feel-good, purportedly compliant housing element, but won’t or can’t because of the super-majority requirement enact the zoning changes that would implement it. Litigation and/or enforcement actions from HCD might then stretch out for years. (It is true, however, that the City could significantly increase the potential for housing development simply by returning to the standards in the LUCE, such as for “activity centers” and other Tier 3 developments. After passing the LUCE, subsequent city councils passed zoning and local plans, such as the DCP, that reduced what the LUCE allowed.)

So yes, I’m skeptical, even cynical, but when I look at the data assembled in the draft document and its supporting documents, including the inventory of “suitable sites” (Appendix F to the draft), I’m optimistic for the future of the city as a whole. That’s because the sites the planners have identified, filtering as they must do (and as the SMHC doesn’t think they have done realistically enough) are so few. They don’t include many commercially-zoned sites that have the potential for development of housing, once patterns of development are set. (Here’s the housing element’s “suitable sites” map; it leaves out a lot of commercial properties, particularly along the boulevards.)

These sites are commercial lots primarily found along the boulevards, although this housing element finally would open considerable old industrial land to housing development. (I give staff credit for that.) There is plenty of commercially-zoned land in Santa Monica on which housing could be built, even if perhaps now the land doesn’t meeting housing element standards for availability. Over the years, the City has been hesitant to allow conversion of formerly industrial land to housing, because jobs are important, too. Frankly, however, there was nostalgia for the old factory jobs that defined Santa Monica 50 years ago. Jobs today require much less square footage than the industrial jobs of the past. Converting commercially-zoned land to residential typically means fewer car trips associated with the property, and often less consumption of resources like water. Perhaps most important, you get more housing without displacing anyone.

I live in Ocean Park, a few blocks from Lincoln Boulevard. There is now beginning to be housing development on Lincoln. The new buildings under construction include a four-story Community Corporation project and a 47-unit project that’s mostly market rate. (I wrote about the latter development when it was approved in 2018.) Here are pictures of these projects under construction.

Once property owners see what can be done, more will develop their now underdeveloped land. Already other properties have been vacated and fenced off, as this photo shows, I assume for development.

Housing development along Lincoln will one day convert an “auto sewer” into a habitable boulevard.

This is what happened in downtown Santa Monica after the City passed game-changing zoning in the ’90s that encouraged residential development over commercial by allowing twice as much of the former. The changed zoning came in response to the City’s defeat in the first SMHC lawsuit. It took time for developers (and the City’s planners) to realize how to make mixed-use projects work, but ultimately a pattern emerged. A lot of housing, including a lot of affordable housing, was built downtown, turning the then desolate (other than the Promenade) core of the city into a vibrant neighborhood.

I’m not necessarily optimistic about the housing element and what will happen to it, but I am optimistic that with the right policies Santa Monica can easily find room for housing and become a better place to live at the same time.

Thanks for reading.

(This post only considered issues relating to compliance with the RHNA requirement. In a part 2 I will look at the AFFH requirement and similar issues.)