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Planning Commission Rejects Council's Request to Propose Ban on "Micro Units"

Bob Kronovetrealty
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By Jorge Casuso

May 2, 2019 -- The Planning Commission on Wednesday defied the City Council's request to recommend a permanent ban on "micro units" saying they provide a valuable niche in Santa Monica's housing market.

Instead, the Commission voted 5 to 1 to recommend that the Council extend for one year the emergency ordinance setting standards for market-rate Single Room Occupancy (SRO) units it approved last month.

It also recommended that the extended ordinance require that the SRO units -- which range from 220 to 373 square feet -- be rented for at least one year to "natural persons" and not corporations.

Commissioner Leslie Lambert, who led the opposition, called the Council's request for an amendment to the City's Zoning Ordinance banning market-rate SROs "terrible housing policy."

"This is a very reactive thing," Lambert said of the Council's request. "We talk about market trends but in the meantime we lose this option.

"This eliminates a whole population from affordable housing opportunities in Santa Monica, even if they're market rate," Lambert said.

Other Commissioners agreed.

"To lose this type (of housing) would be a great concern to me," said Commissioner Shawn Landres.

"There are clearly folks experimenting with market rate housing types that are considerably cheaper" than other options.

Landres added a friendly amendment to Lambert's motion requiring that the units be rented for at least a year to ensure they are not used as temporary housing.

Staff said it would explore whether such a restriction is legal.

Jason Parry, who cast the lone dissenting vote, opposed the amendment.

"There's a need for medium-term housing in our community," Parry said, adding that market-rate SROs "maybe have greater potential to address (this) pressing need."

The Commission recommended the Council extend the Emergency Interim Zoning Ordinance it adopted on April 23 that sets development standards for market-rate SROs.

They include providing a separate bathroom and a kitchen sink, cooking appliance and refrigeration facilities with a clear working space.

The projects also must meet enhanced common area requirements, staff said.

That ordinance does not apply to 100 percent affordable housing projects or "certain specialized housing uses such as emergency shelters, transitional housing and supportive housing citywide."

Earlier in the meeting, the Commission denied six Downtown projects totaling 361 units that failed to comply with the temporary ordinance's common space requirements ("Planning Commission Set to Recommend Outright Ban on 'Micro Units' in Santa Monica," April 30, 2019).

The developer -- WS Communities -- can make the necessary changes to comply and resubmit their proposals under the emergency ordinance standards, staff has said.

The six Downtown projects spurred the Council's request on April 23 that the Commission recommend an all-out ban.

Staff has cited the projects as an instance where the Downtown Community Plan's carrot-and-stick approach to building more affordable housing produced unintended results.

Planning staff said it would ask the Council on May 14 to oppose the Commission's recommendation and adopt the all-out ban as an amendment to the Zoming Ordinance.

"There was some frustration that we didn't come back with exactly what had been requested," Planning Director David Martin said of the Council's response to the Planning Commission's earlier proposals.

Commission Chair Mario Fonda-Bonardi will address the Council in what Lambert described as a "kamikaze mission."

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