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.
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.