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.)

Approving a compliant housing element, post-Kevin?

Planning staff has released the first draft of Santa Monica’s Housing Element for 2021-2029, and tomorrow night the Planning Commission will have a hearing on the draft. The draft reflects input staff received from the Planning and Housing Commissions and the Rent Control Board, but primarily direction staff received from City Council at the council’s March 30 meeting. Even though the draft follows what the council said to do, people are speculating whether the council will ultimately approve the Housing Element in something like its current form.

That is because council’s direction to staff was approved on a 4-3 vote, and one of the 4 yes votes came from Kevin McKeown. Last week McKeown announced that he was quitting the council. He will be gone long before October 15, the date by which the council needs to approve a housing element and send it to the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) for HCD’s review and, one hopes, its acceptance. If, as it looks now, we are headed to a special election to fill McKeown’s vacancy, the council will likely have only six members at that time. Even if the council appoints a replacement, it is, of course, unclear how the new council member would vote.  

Regarding the council’s direction to staff, the primary directive was to draft a “compliant” housing element. “Compliant” meaning a document that complies with, among other things, the City’s “Regional Housing Needs Allocation” (RHNA). The RHNA number is how many new housing units Santa Monica must find room for and allow to be built. For this housing element, the number is 8,895 residences of which 6,168 are to be affordable. As I discussed in a previous post, achieving this increase in housing units would entail an approximately 2% increase each year in the city’s housing stock. While the RHNA numbers have alarmed those in Santa Monica politics opposed to development, the draft Housing Element shows that this level of housing growth is something Santa Monica could handle easily. Financing the housing, particularly the affordable housing, is more problematic.

The RHNA numbers themselves, however, were not the reason that three council members voted against the motion directing staff to prepare a compliant housing element. Those three members, Phil Brock, Oscar de la Torre, and Christine Parra, seemed to be ready to vote for the motion (indeed de la Torre had already voted in favor of a slightly different prior motion that had failed), but they changed their minds at the last minute. That was when they realized that one part of the motion, an “affordable housing overlay,” would have allowed the construction of four-story deed-restricted affordable housing apartment buildings in single-family, “R1” zones.

The opposition of the three to the affordable housing overlay could ultimately be a problem for approval of a compliant housing element. The overlay is part of a strategy to comply with a new requirement for housing elements. As of this year, housing elements must specify actions a city will take for “affirmatively furthering fair housing” (AFFH). In the context of Santa Monica, this means allowing for housing development, particularly affordable housing development, in districts where there are few people of color, which include the R1 districts. Thirty-five percent of Santa Monica’s area is zoned R1. That’s a lot of the city, and HCD is not likely to approve the housing element if it directs housing growth, especially affordable housing, everywhere but the R1.

Language from HCD’s checklist for preparation of housing elements relating to requirement for AFFH requirements, including providing “new housing choices” in “high opportunity areas” to “overcome identified patterns of segregation.”

After Mayor Sue Himmelrich made a motion with direction to staff that failed, Council Member McKeown made the motion, seconded by Himmelrich, that was ultimately successful. The motion included the overlay. Although McKeown said that he expected, because of the high cost of land in single-family zones, that it would be unlikely that affordable housing developers would build in the R1, when it came to the final vote on the motion, Council Members Brock, de la Torre, and Parra voted no. In the end it seemed that the image of a four-story affordable apartment next to a single-family house was something they could not stomach.

I will not try to predict how the Housing Element will ultimately deal with the AFFH issue and R1 zoning. However, and maybe this is surprising, I am optimistic that even a shorthanded council will approve something like the current overall proposal. Brock, de la Torre and Parra were elected last November on the “Change” slate. Although the slate did not run primarily on the issue of development, the slate’s candidates had (and still have) support from the most stringent anti-development factions in Santa Monica politics. Many in this faction still want to scrap the whole thing, RHNA numbers and all, and fight HCD. Nonetheless, based on what the three council members said March 30, they do not appear to want to challenge HCD with a noncompliant housing element. I hope not. Santa Monica passed an inadequate Housing Element in the early ’90s that was challenged in court. The City lost and ended up having to pay about $700,000 in the plaintiffs’ legal fees. No one should want to repeat that experience.

* * *

If someone had told me ten years ago that I would be unhappy if Kevin McKeown quit the council, I would have laughed. Now, however, I am sorry to see him go. As most liberals and people of good will who are elected to the Santa Monica City Council as no-growthers sooner or later do, McKeown ultimately found that his progressive values were inconsistent with the demands of increasingly shrill supporters who fear every change that might befall Santa Monica (other than the increases in their home values that come with limiting the housing supply). While McKeown never supported pro-housing zoning as much as I would have liked, in the last five or ten years he has opposed the worst of what the no-growthers proposed. Somewhat valiantly, against their opposition, he has supported efforts to expand the housing supply for the needs of today and the future. For this they have vilified him.

Still, I cannot resist a bit of schadenfreude. For his first 15 or 20 years in Santa Monica politics McKeown was among the crowd that besmirched anyone who believed in building more housing—people like me—as being “in the pocket of developers.” What should have been serious discussions about housing policy devolved into dime-store leftist tirades against “greedy developers.” Yet today McKeown is under attack from those same Santa Monicans Fearful of Change for whom he has carried so much water. And sorry, but I have to smile now to see the leadership of Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR), whose darling he was, whose Steering Committee he dominated, turn against McKeown. Who knows, but the last straw leading to McKeown’s resignation from the council might have been his motion to apply the affordable housing overlay to R1 districts. Apparently, at a meeting of the SMRR Housing Committee last Monday, the night before McKeown announced he was quitting the council, SMRR leadership rejected upzoning R1 to build affordable apartments.

Still, the last adjective I ever thought would apply to Kevin McKeown was “quitter,” and I’m unhappy he’s quit. Kevin McKeown as a council member was nothing if not conscientious. He showed up. The City Council, in dealing not only with the Housing Element but also with everything else post-pandemic and post-May 31, 2020, needs all the seriousness it can get. So does the city.

Thanks for reading.