Tonight, the Santa Monica City Council will hold its first hearing to discuss specific and substantive proposals from planning staff for what to include in the next iteration of the state-mandated Housing Element of the City’s General Plan. This is the document you may have heard of in which the City must tell the state how during the period from 2021 to 2029 it will be possible, really and truly, to build 8,895 housing units, of which 6,168 must be affordable. (The numbers are Santa Monica’s “RHNA numbers,” from “Regional Housing Needs Allocation.”)
Cities need to file housing elements every eight years, and the deadline for filing this one is October. Between now and final approval of the Housing Element I will likely write more than a few posts about it. The purpose of this initial post is to give some context for the numbers involved.
The number to begin with is 52,983. That is the total number of housing units in the city as of June 30, 2019, as set forth in the City’s 2020 Affordable Housing Progress Report, the latest calculation I could find. As of that date, the City also had about 1,000 units, give or take, either under construction or approved, and these units presumably won’t be countable against the new RHNA number. That means that going into the 2021-29 period Santa Monica has about 54,000 units either extant or in the works.
The RHNA number, 8,895, is 16.5% of 54,000. Over eight years, that means that Santa Monica must plan for increasing its housing stock by two percent per year. While a two percent annual increase should not be anything to panic over, it would be a marked increase over the rate of housing production in Santa Monica for the past 40 years.
In 1994 I was appointed to the Housing Commission. A year later I was appointed to the Planning Commission. On both commissions I worked on a housing element. With regard to housing policy, I recall many similarities to the situation today.
The context then was that the City had just lost a lawsuit brought by housing developers who contended that the City had adopted a housing element that did not take into account measures the City had enacted that discouraged the building of housing. The developers won the case, and the City had to change its policies to allow more housing to be built. As now, there was a lot of gnashing of teeth.
You may ask, what did the City do in the 80s that was so anti-housing that it lost this case?
It’s complicated. For most of the 80s Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR) controlled City Council. SMRR leadership was committed to what it called a “human scaled community,” in opposition, say, to the towers previous city leadership had enabled to be built on the beachfront in Ocean Park or along Ocean Avenue. This led SMRR to oppose higher densities, even for affordable housing. While today people don’t see a disconnect between density and “human scale,” in fairness to Santa Monica’s leadership 40 years ago, the renter neighborhoods in Santa Monica, such as those along Wilshire, Ocean Park, and the Pico Neighborhood, were already among the denser neighborhoods in California and they probably didn’t think they needed to make them denser.
From what I understand, the primary motivations for SMRR’s anti-housing policies in the 80s were not meant to be anti-housing, but rather to preserve rental housing in residential districts from being destroyed to build condominiums. This was a big problem; conversions were a reaction to rent control, which had been enacted in 1979. While some warned that limitations on new development in residential areas would ultimately mean fewer low-income households in the city, City Council enacted limitations to make conversions less profitable.
Another at least putatively well-meant motivation was to get more affordable housing built. In 1990 City voters approved Measure R, which required that 30% of housing built in Santa Monica be deed-restricted affordable. That goal was not by itself unattainable, and Measure R by itself need not have stopped development of housing. (Since 1990 about 38% of the housing built in Santa Monica has been deed-restricted affordable.) The City Council followed up Measure R, however, with an enforcement ordinance that included draconian on-site requirements for projects with as few as five units.
The results of these policies were that virtually no housing was built, as shown in the following charts, which I scanned from City documents.
Based on the data in this chart, in 1990 the City had 47,753 housing units. Of them, you’ll see that roughly 9,000 were built before 1940, 7,500 in the 40s, 9,000 in the 50s, more than 10,000 in the 60s and nearly 8,000 in the 70s. (Note that these numbers represent only the units that survived to 1990; considering how many units were destroyed by the freeway and other public works, and normal attrition and replacement, many more units were built in those decades.)
Then note that only 3,617 units were built in the 80s, and there is reason to believe that nearly all of them were constructed early in the decade.
The second chart picks up the story in 1990. You’ll see that the 90s were a catastrophe for housing development. The net number of units in the city increased only 110, from 47,753 to 47,863 in 2000, the lowest rate of increase of the cities listed (none of which did very well, by the way). During the 90s the region was bursting with new immigrants as the population of Los Angeles County increased from 8.86 to 9.5 million (more than seven percent). Working-class poverty and homelessness were becoming crises, but Santa Monica only added, on a net basis, 110 units of housing. Santa Monica’s population, by the way, decreased during the 90s from 86,911 to 84,073, a decline of 3.3%. (This chart shows clearly how the housing crisis we have today in Southern California has its roots in the 90s when housing production failed miserably to keep up with population growth.)
After losing the court case in the early 90s, what did City Council do?
Actually, some good stuff. Before I joined the Housing and Planning Commissions, so I get no credit for this, the City passed landmark new zoning for downtown. The council, which for the most part was still controlled by SMRR, still wanted to discourage building in existing neighborhoods, to preserve rental units. In the meantime, however, the City had opened the Third Street Promenade, and the focus was on downtown. There was little housing there, and so new housing would not cause much displacement. The City decided to focus housing development downtown.
Downtown was zoned for commercial development, but the council did something simple to encourage residential development: it not only allowed residential development in commercial zones but also allowed twice as much development on downtown properties if the development were residential instead of commercial. The City also passed a new, much more flexible, ordinance implementing Measure R.
Not much happened immediately as we know from the housing production numbers for the 90s. It took a while for developers to figure out what they could do.
By 2000 the reforms began to take effect. In the first decade of the new century, as shown in the second chart, Santa Monica had a net increase of 3,049 units, to a total of 50,912, an increase of 6.4% over the decade. This was in fact a better rate of increase than the County as a whole. While I don’t have data for the next decade all the way through 2020, as of June 30, 2019, as I wrote above, the total number of units was 52,983, an increase of a little over 2,000 in the nine years after 2010.
While slower than the previous decade, growth was steady. An average of about 200 units per year was close to the rate of 250 units per year forecast in the 2010 Land Use and Circulation Element, a growth rate of half of one percent. I’ve previously written that a good, sustainable rate of increase for Santa Monica would be one percent per year, or about 500 units. As discussed above, the RHNA requirement over eight years is about double this number, a return to the housing production number of the decades before the 80s.
In future posts I’ll discuss why this number should not frighten anyone. The lesson of the 90s is that the City can respond creatively to the need to build more housing. And the lesson of the 2000s is that dense housing can create a vibrant neighborhood, as has happened downtown.
One last point: I hope someone tonight asks staff why the land the City owns at the Civic Auditorium isn’t included in the inventory of City-owned properties available for housing.
Thanks for reading.