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.

Moving goal posts and new players: the plight of anti-development politicians

After last night’s City Council meeting Councilmember Sue Himmelrich might understandably have a “no good deed goes unpunished” feeling. You see, Himmelrich proposed that council direct staff to prepare a ballot measure for November that would be an alternative to Residocracy’s LUVE initiative. Himmelrich, whom Residocracy endorsed when she ran for council in 2014, proposed a measure that would give voters the right to approve large projects, but one that would not be as draconian as LUVE and therefore (presumably) have a better chance of passing. Residocracy, however, slammed her and her proposal even before the meeting began.

On Monday, on Residocracy’s Facebook page, Residocracy’s Tricia Crane derided Himmelrich’s proposal, calling it “an attempt to confuse voters,” and one that showed the “desperation” of councilmembers (presumably Himmelrich) “to retain power and defeat the LUVE initiative.” Ouch. (Later Crane, I suppose to make sure her sentiments were not limited to Facebook users, forwarded the Facebook exchange to her neighborhood group, Northeast Neighbors—that email must have gone viral, because even I received it.)

Crane was right about the potential confusion. (If not about Himmelrich’s motivations, which seem sincere.) As pointed out last night by, of all people, Residocracy-nemesis Councilmember Terry O’Day, having two similar measures on the ballot would create confusion. If the anti-development vote were split, probably both would lose. The cynical thing would have been if the councilmembers opposed by Residocracy had supported Himmelrich’s motion. (Neither they nor any other councilmembers did, and the motion died without a second.)

As for Crane’s attack on Himmelrich, the first-term councilmember is not the first anti-development politician to engage the wrath of anti-development constituents feeling scorned. Even Councilmember Kevin McKeown, over many years the most consistent anti-development voice in Santa Monica politics, is now enduring nasty attacks because of his opposition to LUVE.

There’s a pattern. History repeats. (Not sure just when the attacks might have been tragic, but certainly, with the attacks on McKeown and Himmelrich, we’ve now reached farce.) For reasons that I’ll get into below, at some point anti-development politicians and their anti-development constituents tend to part ways. Consider what happened the first time Santa Monica elected a City Council majority consisting of members who had all been elected with anti-development support.

That was in 1999, when after a special election Richard Bloom joined councilmembers McKeown, Michael Feinstein, and the late Ken Genser, all of whom had been elected with anti-development support. In short order the four proceeded to replace the entire Planning Commission with anti-development activists drawn from neighborhood associations. Long-term planning in the City came to a stop, as the new commissioners, led by former councilmember Kelly Olsen, browbeat planning staff, whom they accused of being in the pocket of developers.

But the anti-development majority began to fall apart in 2001 when Genser, Santa Monica’s original anti-development councilmember, voted in favor of Target; the other three were opposed. Then in 2003 Feinstein infuriated the anti-development side by voting against reappointing Olsen to the Planning Commission. Not entirely coincidentally, Feinstein lost his bid for reelection in 2004.

As for Bloom (today, of course, Assembly Member Bloom), his views evolved as he became more involved with social and environmental issues. Although Bloom’s original political base was among anti-development homeowners in Sunset Park, by 2005 or so he had become a strong supporter of housing and economic development. By 2008, both Bloom and Genser opposed the RIFT initiative, and were on the outs with their original anti-development supporters.

So why do anti-development councilmembers and their constituents become estranged? The anti-development side will tell you it’s because all politicians are corrupt and ultimately get bought off by developers, but empirically that’s not true. The real reasons are more complex.

Briefly put, when it comes to the goals of the anti-development side, as soon as one goal is achieved, a new, more extreme goal is created. In Santa Monica, where everyone involved in politics wants to regulate development to some extent (we’re all Democrats, right?), this means that a politician elected on a platform advocating one level of regulation soon finds, after voting for regulating development at that level, that some aggrieved constituents want him or her now to adopt higher levels of regulation, levels that the politician might not be comfortable with, whether because he or she is aware of legal restrictions or simply because he or she doesn’t want to go that far in preventing change.

Consider what’s going on now. In 2004 City Council began the LUCE process, and responded to anti-development sentiment (i) by pushing nearly all new development into commercial and industrial districts comprising a small fraction of the City’s land area (a good idea) and (ii) by making nearly all significant development discretionary (not such a good idea). In 2010 the LUCE was finally adopted—with the support of the anti-development community.

But when, a few years later, City staff was drafting the new zoning ordinance, suddenly there was a new target: the largest projects allowed under LUCE, discretionary projects called “Tier 3.” Last year when the zoning ordinance finally came to a vote, the new anti-development majority (McKeown, Himmelrich, Tony Vazquez and Ted Winterer) voted to eliminate nearly all Tier 3 projects.

McKeown, Himmelrich, Vazquez and Winterer retained, however, LUCE’s Tier 2, the zoning standard that allows the continued building of the kind of housing (apartments over ground floor retail) that has been the standard in Santa Monica since the ’90s. Moreover, the four have voted several times to approve more of these apartments. These votes have infuriated the extreme anti-development element represented by Residocracy, i.e., those Santa Monicans who insist that new apartments are incompatible with the character of a city that is 70% renter. Which is why Residocracy has now brought forward LUVE, which would for all practical purposes eliminate Tier 2.

So there you have it, anti-development mission creep: limit development to commercial areas and make nearly all of it discretionary; eliminate Tier 3; eliminate Tier 2. If you don’t follow us every step, you’re a paid stooge for developers.

There’s another factor, too: the constant entry of new people into the political process from the anti-development side, people who don’t necessarily have knowledge of the anti-development battles that preceded their involvement. Ten years ago, after more than 25 years of anti-development politics (and policies, many good, to control growth), the new group in town was the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City. SMCLC, acting as if no one had ever noticed traffic before, came up with the RIFT initiative in 2008, but SMCLC now takes a backseat as Residocracy drives the agenda. It’s telling that the three key leaders of Residocracy—spec mansion developer Armen Melkonians, North of Montana realtor Kate Bransfeld, and Tricia Crane, who formerly directed her activism to the School District’s special education programs—did not participate in any significant way in local development politics until three or four years ago.

It’s this combination of shifting goal posts and new players, not developer money, that causes the inevitable disconnect between anti-development politicians and their original anti-development base.

Thanks for reading.

When transparency meets opacity

In 2000 voters in Santa Monica passed the “Oaks Initiative,” a charter amendment intended to stop corruption by preventing public officials from benefiting financially from decisions they make. Unlike laws against bribery, etc., that target actual malfeasance, the Oaks Initiative is based on a presumption. It presumes that only the promise of monetary benefit, in the form of campaign contributions or compensation for services, could have motivated any public official to make a decision beneficial to a person or entity if after making the decision the official receives a monetary benefit from the person or entity that received the benefit.

Oaks was nine years ahead of the Tea Party in its cynicism about government.

The Oaks Initiative is also odd because it doesn’t prevent officials from receiving benefits before making any decision. Worse, the Oaks Initiative, by restricting contributions directly to candidates, further encourages contributions to non-accountable independent campaigns that spend far more money in Santa Monica elections than the candidates themselves.

The Oaks Initiative was in the news last week because three members of the Transparency Project, including its founder, Mary Marlow, have brought a lawsuit against former City Manager Rod Gould for accepting employment from Management Partners, Inc., a company that Gould had hired while he was City Manager to perform services for the City. Marlow and the other plaintiffs brought the suit after City Attorney Marsha Moutrie told the Transparency Project that because of a conflict of interest, she could not enforce the law.

On its face, it appears that Marlow and her fellow plaintiffs have a strong case. Gould awarded contracts worth more than $25,000 to Management Partners, and within the relevant Oaks time period during which he was restricted from getting a benefit from Management Partners (two years after he left his employment with the City) Management Partners hired him.

However, after Oaks was passed, two trial courts found that it was unconstitutional. While those rulings were voided on appeal for procedural reasons, Gould will probably raise constitutional objections, and he may have other arguments. California law includes strong public policies in favor of a free labor market. For instance, in most circumstances California bans covenants not to compete. Courts might apply those policies against the application of Oaks when it prevents someone who hasn’t otherwise broken the law from getting a job.

But unless he has someone to pay his legal fees, there will be a lot of pressure on Gould to settle. Under Oaks, successful plaintiffs get 10% of any damages assessed against the defendant and repayment of their costs of litigation, but defendants who win have no redress against plaintiffs.

One thing is clear: the case further tarnishes Gould’s reputation. While Gould did a good job running the City after the Great Recession, his taking the job with Management Partners and the Elizabeth Riel fiasco raise significant questions about his judgment.

At the same time, the lawsuit raises questions about the Transparency Project and its collective judgment.

By any standard, let alone the standards of municipal government in California, Santa Monica is a well-governed city. Even if you believe that Santa Monica City Hall is a cesspool of corruption, do you think it stinks because a technocrat like Gould hired a firm of technocrats to help manage Santa Monica’s bureaucracy? The annual budget of Santa Monica is something like half a billion dollars; the total dollar amount of the four contracts Gould awarded to Management Partners was about $165,000, less than half of the annual compensation Gould received from the City, and I presume less than what he’s getting from his new employer. Sure, Gould done wrong taking the job, but is this really quid pro quo government?

Marlow and the other Transparency Project volunteers may be well intentioned, but the case reinforces the perception that the group is an adjunct of the no-growth side of Santa Monica politics. Here they’re bringing this lawsuit against Gould, but they’ve ignored the most opaque shenanigans in Santa Monica politics, namely the deal that got Sue Himmelrich the endorsement of Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR) in the 2014 City Council election.

Consider these true statements and then I’ll give you a thought experiment:

  • Months before SMRR, by far the most powerful political organization in Santa Monica, would be making its endorsements in the 2014 election, Himmelrich hired Denny Zane, a founder of SMRR, a member of its Steering Committee, and the most influential individual in SMRR, to be her campaign consultant.
  • Himmelrich failed to get the SMRR endorsement at the organization’s membership convention, and then she didn’t get the endorsement from the SMRR Steering Committee when it met behind closed doors after the convention. But a month later, at another closed-door meeting, Himmelrich’s supporters on the Steering Committee made a deal with two Steering Committee members who had strong ties to Santa Monica College to give the SMRR endorsement to Himmelrich if the Steering Committee also endorsed Andrew Walzer, who was running for reelection to the SMC Board of Trustees.
  • The SMRR Steering Committee makes its endorsements, the most impactful decisions in Santa Monica politics, not only in secret, but following rules and procedures that are completely opaque not only to the public but even to SMRR members.
  • Himmelrich’s husband gave tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to organizations that run campaigns that are supposed to be independent of Himmelrich’s campaign.
  • Himmelrich spent over $100,000 of her own money to get elected, explaining that she would do whatever it takes to get elected.

Here’s the thought experiment. Substitute “Pam O’Connor” for “Himmelrich” in those statements. Then imagine what the reaction of the Transparency Project would have been.

Thanks for reading.

Sic transit transit center

Well, the other shoe dropped on the Paper Mate site. Hines sold the property and now the old factory’s 200,000 square feet will become offices, with another level of parking being excavated under the existing parking lots.

Turns out that the paranoia of City Council Members Terry O’Day and Gleam Davis was warranted. During the signature gathering on the Residocracy petition they warned, in an op-ed for the Daily Press, that the alternative to the plan the City Council passed was not a better version of the plan, but a repurposing of the existing building as offices, which would mean thousands of car trips, no traffic mitigations, and none of the $32 million in community benefits that were included in the Hines plan.

I’m waiting to see how long it will take for someone to accuse the developers of being greedy because they aren’t building, across from the Bergamot Expo station, plazas, streets, sidewalks, etc., accessible to the public.

Not to mention the nearly 500 units of housing we’re not getting—housing that a lot of people who work in Santa Monica could use, housing that would keep them off the streets, so to speak, during commuting hours. But housing was not a plus for many people who opposed the project, and that explains why they’re happy with the new plan.

If the paranoia of O’Day and Davis turned out to be prescient, Council Member, now Mayor, Kevin McKeown turned out to be not so good in the prediction department. In an op-ed he wrote for the Daily Press, headlined “Calling for more housing from Hines,” he said that fears that Hines would “walk away” from the deal were unfounded; that “[s]uch a walk away hasn’t happened in decades in Santa Monica.” Give McKeown his due; he’s not backing down now that Hines did walk away. Last week he told Santa Monica Next that, “[t]his project [the new one], even as adaptive reuse, will disappoint many of us, but the original Hines proposal failed in even more massive (and likely more permanent) ways to make appropriate use of a challenging site.”

I hope Mayor McKeown is right about the new plan being less permanent, but I doubt it. The “Pen Factory,” as the development is being marketed, will be around for a long time. Not only because it will take a while to amortize the considerable investment in the remodel (notably for underground parking), but also because once the offices are up and running and paying some of the highest rents in the region, the likelihood that an owner would shut the place down for the several years it would take to build a new project is slim. Expect that the Pen Factory will be there for 20 or 30 years at a minimum.

But McKeown was right that the Hines plan should have had more housing and less offices. I’ve been saying that since before the City Council approved the LUCE, which enabled the Hines plan, in 2010. The plan was flawed, and it may sound like blaming the victim, but I blame Hines as much as I blame anyone else for the plan crashing and burning. The Residocracy folks can’t help themselves, they’re going to oppose development no matter what, but Hines had a choice. Hines was warned as far back as 2010, by its friends, that if it added more commercial space and commuter traffic to the corner of 26th and Olympic, it was going to be in trouble.

Hines could have pulled its own chestnuts out of the fire. During the Planning Commission debate over the plan, Commissioner Richard McKinnon, with then-commissioner Sue Himmelrich’s support, proposed a reasonable alternative with less office and more housing. At City Council, Ted Winterer proposed much the same thing, and Tony Vazquez agreed with him. If Hines, at the commission or even at the council, had jumped up and grabbed this offer, the plan could have been approved at the City Council on a 6-1, rather than 4-3, vote.

That could have had a huge impact, because I doubt that Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR) would have joined Residocracy to oppose a plan that had had that much support among the SMRR-endorsed council members. Residocracy without SMRR might have been able to gather the signatures, but they wouldn’t have had much credibility looking ahead to November.

But then . . . maybe Hines didn’t care. The local Hines people put their heads, hearts and souls into the project, for six years, but headquarters back in Dallas probably figured they could find a willing buyer at a good price if the whole thing became just too complicated. Investors can’t wait forever. And Hines did follow the LUCE development standards, and they reduced their original project by 20 percent, so they legitimately thought they were playing fair. After the referendum, they had the right to feel that they’d never get a fair chance.

So, just how bad is the new project for Santa Monica? Pretty bad. But I’ll discuss how bad in a future post.

Thanks for reading.