Housing is Complicated — Post #1

I attended a fascinating meeting of the Housing Commission Thursday afternoon. The only item on the agenda was the question, which the City Council will likely take up this summer, whether the City should readjust the parameters for production of affordable housing. These parameters include the limits on income that households can make to qualify for affordable housing, and the amount of rents that affordable housing providers can charge. (The commission heard from a panel of experts, asked a lot of good questions, asked staff to come back with more information, and postponed making their recommendations until their meeting in May.)

Anyone who has paid attention to City Council hearings lately, on matters such as the Village Trailer Park, or what developments should receive expedited planning review, has heard a lot about the different categories of affordable housing. These include extremely low, very low, low, and moderate. These terms all have definitions, but those definitions vary depending upon various factors, such as where the financing comes from to build the housing or what governmental entity is making the rules and for what purpose.

Santa Monica has a definition of its own, which it uses for one purpose. (It uses other definitions for other purposes, too.) This definition was included in Proposition R, which the voters passed in 1990, and which requires that 30% of all multifamily housing built in Santa Monica be affordable to “low and moderate income households.” Prop. R defines those terms with reference to the Los Angeles County median income as determined by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development: “low income” under Prop. R means a household with income not exceeding 60% of the county median, and “moderate income” means a household with an income not exceeding 100% of it. Under Prop. R at least half of the 30% (i.e., at least 15% of all housing production) must be affordable to and occupied by low-income households.

Santa Monicans support the building of affordable housing – in 1999 voters here passed an authorization for the City to build more of it, an authorization that is generally difficult to get passed, and in opinion surveys the cost of housing regularly appears as one of the primary concerns of residents.

One of the many interesting aspects of Prop. R is that while its stated purpose is to make sure that Santa Monica as it evolves maintains its historic economic diversity, with housing affordable to both low and middle-income families, Prop. R also has the potential to limit all housing development. Under Prop. R the amount of market-rate housing development is limited by the amount of affordable housing: the number of market-rate units built under the “70%” is limited by the number of affordable units built under the “30%.” For instance, if only 60 affordable units are built, only 140 market-rate units can be built.

At the same time, the City has always relied on market-rate housing developers to provide at least some of the affordable 30% — particularly moderate income housing that can be financed from private markets without subsidy. With the end of redevelopment, which provided much of the funding for low-income housing, the City will be looking even more to market-rate developers to provide affordable housing by “subsidizing” it with profits from market-rate rents. (The City is also now going to seek housing funds from commercial development.) The equation works the other way, too – if you want a big number of units in the 30%, you need a big number in the 70%.

It should be no surprise then that the politics of affordable housing have always been entangled with the politics of development. Affordable housing advocates, including non-profit providers that have had to deal with anti-development groups the same as for-profit developers do, have often made common cause with the latter to fight restrictive zoning policies. Meanwhile, the largest for-profit developers of housing in Santa Monica have typically built affordable housing to satisfy their affordable housing obligations rather than pay an in-lieu fee because they know that if the 30% figure is low, they ultimately will not be able to build as much market-rate housing.

On the other side of the political equation, anti-development interests have used affordable housing requirements as a means of making development less financially feasible and otherwise more difficult.

Personally, this attention to affordable housing has given me an opportunity to learn about the effects of different parameters on how and what affordable housing gets developed, and about how affordable housing can be financed in the post-redevelopment world. In posts over the next couple of weeks I expect to share what I learn and my thinking on the subject.

Thanks for reading.

The “Real World” — First Post of an Intermittent Series

If you participate in Santa Monica politics, one theme you hear often is that the planners and consultants the City hires to give advice don’t know Santa Monica and are out of touch with the “real world.” Santa Monica is truly special in many ways, but maybe because of that the appreciation for our town’s charms gets turned into a kind of “Santa Monica Exceptionalism” that is the opposite of boosterism. You know what I’m talking about — Santa Monica has the worst traffic, the biggest daytime population, the most homeless, the most development, even, to some people who mustn’t read the L.A. Times, the most corrupt politicians.

What I’m going to try to do, intermittently, in this blog is to examine some of the facts about Santa Monica to see how unique we are and what our real world is. Fact is, I got inspired to do this because during my campaign for City Council last year I met some young, data-oriented new friends who have pointed me to some fantastic online tools. One is a website the U.S. Census has established to give the public access to its troves of data. It’s called American FactFinder; using it takes a little practice, but once you get the hang of it, you can make charts, graphs and maps just like you were a real demographer. Another great site is Los Angeles Almanac, which has made census data for each of the cities in L.A. County accessible.

The first question I wanted to learn about was how dense Santa Monica’s population is compared to our surroundings. One common “fact” one hears bantered around about Santa Monica is that it’s the “most dense” city in the region, and I always wondered about that. As it happens, while it’s true that Santa Monica is more dense than the City of Los Angeles which surrounds it on three sides (Santa Monica’s population per square mile in 2010 was 10,664, while L.A.’s was 8,092), many of the small cities in central L.A. County have higher densities than Santa Monica. For example, Maywood’s density is about 23,250 per square mile, and cities like Bell, Hawthorne and Hawaiian Gardens have densities in the 15,000 range.

Well, okay, perhaps not many Santa Monicans spend time thinking about Hawaiian Gardens, and it’s true that Beverly Hills, Culver City, Pasadena, Burbank and Glendale all have densities in the five to eight thousand range. Still, driving around the Westside, or anywhere between the beach and downtown L.A., Santa Monica doesn’t seem comparatively dense. I wanted to find out where Santa Monica fits in its surroundings, population density-wise.

So I went to the FactFinder site and plugged in parameters to produce a map of L.A. County that showed the population density of each census tract. If you want to see the map, click here; wait a few minutes (depending on the speed of your internet connection you might want to get up and stretch); and voila, you should see a map that shows relative population densities for all the census tracts in the county — you can zoom in and out and move around to see more or less detail.

What the map shows is that except for the mid-Wilshire district, the population density of Santa Monica is on the low side, and decidedly less than that of West L.A. or along the Wilshire and Santa Monica Boulevard corridors. The City of L.A. is a big place, and its average density may be lower than Santa Monica’s, but most of L.A.’s west side, on the flats, is more dense.

What does it mean that Santa Monica’s population density is on the low-to-mid range? You might be surprised, but my answer is “not much.” But by that I mean that the issue of population density should be nearly irrelevant for any discussion of Santa Monica’s future, since our density is so unexceptional.

For instance, contrary to rhetorical flourishes, there’s nothing we could do that could lead to the “Manhattanization” of Santa Monica, simply because the population density of Manhattan is nearly 70,000 per square mile.

I can already hear a comment — “but our daytime population is 300,000!” But then Santa Monica is part of the Westside, which has the second-highest number of jobs in the region; what do you think the daytime populations of Century City, Beverly Hills or Westwood are?

That question could be the subject of a future post, but in the meantime, rather than deal with red herrings, straw men and tilt at windmills, can’t we focus on (i) solving the real problems we have and (ii) making Santa Monica an even better place than it is?

Thanks for reading.

About that City Council Election: Who Besides the Winning Candidates Won?

I posted Sunday about the City’s newly released survey of residents, which showed that Santa Monicans are not only happy to live here, but also generally credit our city government with doing a good job tackling a long list of important tasks.

The survey results provide a good lens for analyzing last November’s City Council election. Yes, that election, the one in which I was a losing candidate. Naturally, since losing, I have been thinking about what the election might have “meant.”

From a winner/loser perspective, the election was always between candidates who were trying to win the fourth seat on the council, since no one handicapping the election expected the two incumbents, Terry O’Day and Gleam Davis, to lose, and everyone expected Ted Winterer, a popular Planning Commissioner, who had across-the-board support and was running for the third time, also to win.

The fact that most groups making endorsements endorsed these three candidates reflected the expectation that they would win: everyone likes to back winners.

As it happened, Tony Vazquez, who had served on the council in the ’90s, won the fourth seat. In his (well-run) campaign, Vazquez ran almost as if he were an incumbent up for reelection. That was an excellent strategy in a town where, as the survey shows, 92% of the residents love to live here. In Santa Monica, it’s good to be an incumbent — the Tea Party wouldn’t get much traction here.

But winning election in Santa Monica requires getting your name out to the voters in the midst of a national election, which is not easy. It’s not just a matter of sending out mailers, which get tossed in the recycling bin fast. It requires forming coalitions of voting blocs. Vazquez put together a winning coalition, and to understand the dynamic of the election one needs to understand his coalition.

The first element of that coalition was Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR), which was by any measure the big winner in November. SMRR has dominated local politics for three decades, but this was the first time SMRR-endorsed candidates won every slot in the elections not only for City Council, but also for the School, Rent, and College Boards. SMRR also passed Measure GA, which changed the method for determining rent increases for rent-controlled apartments. The election proved that among the city’s happy voters, SMRR has the most trusted brand name.

But Vazquez’s victory was not preordained; not since 1981 had SMRR elected candidates to fill all the council seats being voted on in a regularly scheduled election. True, SMRR benefited from the fact that no non-SMRR candidates with name recognition equivalent to that of Herb Katz, Bob Holbrook, or Bobby Shriver were running, but electing all SMRR-endorsed candidates was nonetheless a remarkable (and unexpected) achievement.

While SMRR’s support was crucial, Vazquez could not have achieved his victory without the other elements of his coalition, notably the labor movement and the movement to close Santa Monica Airport.

In Santa Monica, Unite Here, the union that represents hotel workers, is the primary representative for labor. Unite Here endorsed the same four candidates as SMRR; Vazquez, for his part, has strong long-term labor credentials, and this wasn’t a surprise. Working with SMRR the union staffed an extensive door-to-door campaign and Vazquez did well in all the renter-dominated precincts.

It’s worth noting that of the organizations that traditionally endorse candidates in Santa Monica, only SMRR and Unite Here endorsed Vazquez. The police and city employee unions, and the education group Communities for Excellent Public Schools (CEPS) did not. Neither did the PAC that local developers and hotels formed (“Santa Monicans United for a Responsible Future”), nor did the PAC that the Huntley Hotel formed to support anti-development candidates (“Santa Monicans for Responsible Growth”). Clearly, looking back over 30 years of elections for council, the SMRR/Labor victory was dramatic.

The third element of Vazquez’s winning coalition was the movement to close Santa Monica Airport, and it was also important. This election marked a turning point for the anti-airport groups, which became more directly involved in the election than they had been previously, reflecting the fact that with the FAA Settlement Agreement expiring in 2015, the airport is becoming a huge issue.

Vazquez was one of four candidates given the highest anti-airport rating by Community Against Santa Monica Airport Traffic (CASMAT). Shari Davis, the candidate who came in fifth, lost to Vazquez only by about 1100 votes and she outperformed Vazquez on the city’s north side. But Davis was perceived to be the candidate most supportive of maintaining the status quo at the airport, and she lost to Vazquez by 863 votes in Sunset Park and Ocean Park, the neighborhoods that are “in the flight-path.”

So, if SMRR, Unite Here, and the anti-airport movement were the winning interests in the election, what interests were the losers? I’ll consider that question in my next post, but hint: they were two sides of the same coin.

Thanks for reading.

Happy City, USA

Every two years the City of Santa Monica hires a polling company to conduct a survey of public opinion, and the latest report has just been released. Jason Islas wrote a good summary of the report for The Lookout, but it’s worth taking a look at the report itself. (Which is accessible through the City’s staff report —the whole survey can be downloaded as a PDF from a link at the end of the report.)

What the survey shows is that Santa Monicans are aware of and care about a full range of urban issues and have a sophisticated understanding of how city government responds to those issues. But when reading the report one needs to take into account that the pollsters ask two kinds of questions: open-ended questions and direct questions, and the distinction is important for understanding the results.

When investigating what issues residents think are important the pollsters start with an open-ended question, asking their respondents, without giving any suggestions, to name one or two “most important issues” facing the city. Asked this way, no single issue (which was “too many homeless”) was mentioned by more than 29% of the respondents; one other issue, traffic congestion, was mentioned by 28%, and after that there was a quick drop off — 13% mentioned lack of parking, 10% cited too much development, and so on.

So from this it appears that there aren’t many issues that excite residents; good news at least is that when given two chances to bring up a problem, no more than 29% of Santa Monicans agree on any given problem as being important. At least this indicates that there is no single issue that has masses of us in a panic.

But the message is different if you look at the answers to questions where the pollsters name issues that might be important and the respondents aren’t limited to only two responses. When the survey asked residents to evaluate the importance of seven specific issues, clear majorities found that four issues (traffic (63%), affordability of housing (63%), number of homeless (62%), and lack of parking (57%)) were “very” or “somewhat” serious issues; lesser percentages believed that the three other issues were very or somewhat serious (amount of development (43%), crime (20%), and youth violence (15%)).

The universe of concern expands even further when the pollsters ask about city services. The poll asked respondents to evaluate 23 specific city services (from providing emergency services, to keeping traffic flowing, to providing affordable housing, to providing services to youth, etc., etc.) as to how important they were; what do you know, but according to the survey, majorities of Santa Monicans believe that all 23 services are important.

I said two paragraphs ago that how the questions are asked leads to a different message, but I want to amend that – in fact it’s the same message. Santa Monica residents have a broad understanding of what role a city government plays in managing our society, and an understanding of how complex the problems are. They’re not panicked about anything: when asked about how good a job City Hall does in providing each of those 23 types of services, on every issue only minorities of respondents said they were dissatisfied with the City’s performance. By a ratio of 2-1 respondents said they believed they had the opportunity to voice concerns to the City.

On the most basic question — when the pollsters asked them how good a place Santa Monica was to live — 92% said it was either an excellent place to live (60%!) or “pretty good.”

Yet some people still wonder why incumbents get reelected and why Santa Monicans for Renters Rights, the dominant political organization for 30 years, is the Number One brand name in local politics.

Much political discourse in our town invokes crisis – we seem to bounce from one to another, in response to whoever is complaining, and how loudly, about something at any given moment. They always say they represent the residents.

But our residents cannot be generalized about – except perhaps in the City’s motto: “Populus felix in urbe felice.”

Thanks for reading.

Track Records and Traffic Engineers

The other shoe has dropped, and we won’t be seeing Jeff Tumlin at any public meetings in Santa Monica. It’s too bad, because Tumlin had an ability to help people see the forest instead of the trees when it came to managing traffic. Simply put, what Tumlin was telling us, and which a lot of Santa Monicans came to understand during the LUCE process, was that if you want to reduce the amount of traffic, you need to address your policies to the amount of traffic, and that you can’t control traffic indirectly by trying to prohibit development, because in a growing region ultimately development is going to happen.

A couple of days ago I was talking to a friend, a Santa Monica resident who is active in the city and her neighborhood but not particularly involved in the politics of land-use. She had, however, been following the Tumlin controversy, and she told me that people she was talking to from the anti-Tumlin side were saying that his “theories” about reducing traffic through reducing parking and increasing density and access to alternative forms of transportation had never been proved, and that “real” traffic engineers scoffed at the theories because there was no “track record.”

I was kind of stunned. You mean, traffic engineers are bragging about their track records? Who else do they want to blame for the transportation and quality of life disasters of the past half-century? To be blunt, traffic engineers were presented with a problem of how to facilitate movement in a growing region, and they blew it.

Ever since the ’20s Southern Californians have been complaining about traffic. The solution from traffic engineers and other planners (okay, the traffic engineers weren’t working alone) was always to solve the problem by (i) increasing road capacity (meaning freeways and six and eight lane “boulevards” with vestigial sidewalks), (ii) dispersing development (sprawl), and (iii) requiring parking everywhere. On the short run, when the concrete was fresh, these policies could help some people get around in their cars (while impoverishing the urban core, but that’s another story), but on the not-so-long term the result not only was our long regional traffic nightmare, but also some of the ugliest urban vistas in creation, elephantine carbon-footprints, and a world where millions need to drive to the gym to get the exercise equivalent of a good walk.

So let’s get this straight: now that there’s no room to build more freeways or to widen the boulevards, now that we’ve reached the limits of sprawl, and now that we can’t build an 800 square-foot apartment without building 700 square feet of parking, the traffic engineers are saying that people who want to try another approach don’t have a track record?

I should say at this point that what Tumlin proposes has by now gone beyond the theoretical stage (and didn’t originate with him anyway, as he would tell you in second). Nonetheless, let’s assume, like the intelligent design folks say about Darwinism, that we’re just talking about theory, and let’s acknowledge that in the history of urban planning, like in the history of everything else, there have been some disastrous theories.

But does that mean we have to keep banging our heads with something that didn’t work?

What Jeff Tumlin proposes for Santa Monica isn’t for the benefit of developers. It’s for the benefit of us.

Thanks for reading.

“Leo” at the Broad and history that repeats

I’m rushing to get this posted this Sunday morning to alert any readers who don’t have plans this afternoon that they should try to get tickets to see “LEO” at the Broad Stage in one of its two remaining performances (at 1:00 and 4:00). My wife and I saw it last night and we were mesmerized. I mean it’s not every day that you see gravity turned 90 degrees.

Whenever I attend an event at the Broad, which is part (the biggest part) of the Santa Monica College Performing Arts Center, I can’t help but think about Santa Monica politics, because ten or so years ago the small theater (about 500 seats) was a political football. A few nearby neighbors worried that it would generate traffic, some saying it was out of scale and would destroy the neighborhood, and most of the City Council opposed building it. (This was in the context of overall difficult relations between the City and the College at the time, which fortunately are much better today.)

Yesterday I was also thinking historically for other reasons, and not only because I’ve written a couple of posts recently on recent history in Santa Monica in response to the Jeff Tumlin affair. But I was with some people involved in local politics and the general consensus was that never had public anger been so great about development.

As I left the Broad last night I thought about this and I realized I had to disagree. I only became involved in politics here in the early ’90s and so I missed all the “important stuff” in the late ’70s and ’80s when Santa Monica politics fundamentally changed with rent control and the initial moratorium on development and down-zoning and the ban on hotels along the beach, but even in the ’90s I’d say that the anti-development arguments were more strident than today.

Today at least the anti-development energies are focused on big projects, or a large accumulation of smaller projects. One can agree or disagree, either in general or on a project-by-project basis, but there’s nothing irrational about being concerned about 35 projects in the development agreement pipeline.

Contrast that with the ’90s, when I first became involved in local politics as a member of the Board of Directors of the Ocean Park Community Organization. Yes, there was a big project, the Civic Center Plan, that was controversial, and after the earthquake there was the rebuilding of St. John’s Hospital that was the focus for much debate (but did anyone think that the hospital shouldn’t be rebuilt?), but what I remember vividly about the ’90s were long public battles that seem incomprehensible now: like whether to build a new elementary school in Ocean Park (for John Muir and SMASH), or build the Project New Hope AIDS housing on Ocean Avenue, or the Ralph’s Market on Olympic. And after those, the Broad Stage controversy.

I recall some of the people who opposed those projects and some of the rhetoric, and let me say — it was a colorful time.

As I said, I only became involved about 20 years ago, and I never considered myself an old-timer, but I’m starting to think of myself that way. A lot of people only now becoming involved in Santa Monica politics act as if they are raising concerns that have never been of concern to anyone before. But when you study history, you find out that it’s often repeated.

78.72% to 16%: One Reason Santa Monica is Better Governed than L.A.

The L.A. Times ran Steve Lopez’s column on the front page today lamenting the fact that only 16% of voters in the City of Los Angeles bothered to vote in Tuesday’s primary, even though they were voting for a new mayor and an important half-cent sales tax measure (that went down to defeat). (Election officials believe the turnout might rise to 20% once all absentee and provisional ballots are counted.)

Santa Monica holds its local election in November of even-numbered years. The turnout  last November was 78.72%.

In L.A., candidates and their supporters run campaigns to get their voters to the polls. In effect, they choose their voters, and whoever can motivate the most, or who has more voters with special reasons to vote, wins. In Santa Monica, the voters are going to vote anyway because of the national and statewide races. The candidates have to persuade them who to vote for—the voters choose the winners.

Sure there are problems running local elections in Novembers of even-numbered years. Speaking as a losing candidate in November’s election, I can tell you that it’s hard to reach masses of voters when you’re competing for attention with national and statewide campaigns.

But the voters who vote represent the people—actually they don’t represent the people, they are the people. (It’s no coincidence, but when Santa Monica wanted to pass a half-cent sales tax increase the City Council put the measure on the November 2010 ballot, and it passed.)

Just one reason—not the only one—why Santa Monica is bettered governed than L.A. Oh, and it has a name. It’s called democracy.

Thanks for reading.