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Council Sets Priorities for Santa Monica

Santa Monica Real Estate Company, Roque and Mark

Pacific Park, Santa Monica Pier

Harding Larmore Kutcher & Kozal, LLP  law firm
Harding, Larmore
Kutcher & Kozal, LLP

Convention and Visitors Bureau Santa Monica

By Niki Cervantes
Staff Writer

August 25, 2015 -- Confronting a slew of headaches tied to Santa Monica’s growing popularity, the City Council emerged from a special retreat Sunday vowing to double down on three top problems: Congestion on car-clogged city streets, the lack of affordable housing and getting the municipal airport closed.

The session, which lasted from 10 a.m. until about 1 p.m. at the Ken Edwards Center Downtown, was an effort to help the Council set its priorities at a time when it faces a multitude of issues.

About 40 city activists and advocates of a variety of causes attended the session, said Mayor Kevin McKeown. 

It was held away from City Hall and on a weekend “to help break us out of formal thinking and encourage inventive collaboration, the mayor said.

“The scope and complexity of these initiatives ties up the limited capacity of the City Council and leadership team to manage them all simultaneously and to effectively focus on the most critical ones,” a staff report to the Council noted.

“To better serve the community and more effectively mobilize community partnerships, it will be helpful to select and commit to deliver a manageable number of strategic goals.”

Secondary goals, the mayor said, were addressing homelessness, and continuing the City’s work with both the local school district and Santa Monica College to emphasize Santa Monica’s role as a “learning community” from “cradle to career and beyond.”

The issues selected as top priorities are ongoing for Santa Monica. Trying to maintain a diverse population has been a particularly difficult goal for the City, which is politically progressive but so wealthy it is already known as “Beverly Hills by the Sea.”

Council member Sue Himmelrich, who attended the retreat, said the rising cost of living in Santa Monica is a constant strain on efforts to maintain a diverse population.

Statistics show that in the year 2000, about 70 percent of the rental housing in Santa Monica was still affordable for middle-income earners, Himmelrich said. Today, less than a third of those earners could find affordable housing in a city where 70 percent of the housing is rental.

“People simply can no longer afford rental housing,” said Himmelrich, a lawyer with the Western Center on Law and Poverty.

Affordable housing, long a top priority for the City, took a big hit when the state of California abolished redevelopment agencies, which were a major source of funding for Santa Monica and other cities throughout the state.

At its regular meeting on Tuesday, the Council is scheduled discuss the city’s struggle to provide affordable housing and will study a report that spells out new options.

For instance, a possible new source of funding could come from the state of California, which is funneling money for affordable housing through a special program that receives funds from the state’s emissions cap and trade program.

It’s a highly competitive program, though, and focuses heavily on disadvantaged communities. That makes it hard for Santa Monica to qualify, the report said.  Still, the Expo light rail expected to arrive in Santa Monica early next year could increase its chances of competing, the report said.

California legislators are also proposing a $75 fee on the recording of real estate documents, a move that could raise $500 million annually statewide.

Whether AB 1335 can make it out of Sacramento is still uncertain, however, and even if it does, “it is highly unlikely that the funds would be sufficient to fill the financing gap for any project,” the report said.

“Local funds would likely be necessary to leverage the state funds,” staff concluded.

Several council members also have expressed interest in a ballot measure in 2016 aimed at raising funds for affordable housing.

The issue of mobility in the car-clogged city is also now among the top three priorities. City officials will continue to explore ways to steer motorists to alternative modes of transportation and even recreate neighborhoods so that residents are encouraged to walk or ride a bike.

Another priority will be the Santa Monica Municipal Airport, which City officials, neighboring residents and others have waged a long battle to close.

Staff said it was important for the Council to take the time to wade through its long list of goals and prioritize them.

Santa Monica’s $1.1 billion biennial budget for fiscal years 2015-2017 includes 68 high-level department goals and related measures, the report to the Council said.

“Identification of three to five strategic goals will focus the attention of the City Council, executive leadership team and community on the prioritized, game-changing project and policy initiatives over the next three to five years,” staff said.

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