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Council Cautiously Approves Housing Plan

Bob Kronovetrealty
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By Jorge Casuso

October 13, 2021 -- A divided City Council on Tuesday approved a plan to build nearly 9,000 new housing units, but will warn State officials their daunting mandate will likely be impossible to meet without help.

Approved on a 5 to 2 vote, the Housing Element Update provides a road map for building 8,895 housing units over the next eight years, more than two-thirds of them affordable.

Failing to provide a compliant plan carries stiff penalties, but Council members worry that adding some 20,000 new residents -- nearly as many as have been added over the past 70 years -- will tax the City's resources and infrastructure.

Unlike previous Housing Element updates that relied on private developers, the new plan encourages non-profit housing providers to build on City-owned land and homeowners to add auxiliary units that can be rented.

The plan, however, largely excludes single family neighborhoods, an option that met with resistance from residents.

"The final Housing Element Update will expand Santa Monica’s leadership on affordable housing production on the westside and living our values of equity and inclusion by leveraging both public and private land for new affordable units,” Mayor Sue Himmelrich said in a statement after the meeting.

“The road to get here was not easy, but we have taken a balanced approach that complies with the State’s requirements while also maintaining the character of our neighborhoods.”

Before voting to approve the plan, Himmelrich struck a cautious note, joining in a unanimous decision to include a message to the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) conveying the enormity of the task.

"We're doing everything we can, we're running as fast as we can, and this is really impossible," Himmelrich said. "I think we need to say that."

Councilmember Phil Brock -- who headed a slate that was swept into office last November on a slow-growth platform -- agreed, adding that "the intent is there" to build more affordable housing but "we'll need public money" to carry it out.

"What we're really saying is we're going to need help," Brock said. "We need to do this Housing Element, let's do it, but I also want the Governor and HCD to help not only Santa Monica, but every city in the state."

Councilmember Gleam Davis -- the only established incumbent to survive last November's voter revolt -- cast a dissenting vote along with Mayor Pro Tem Kristin McCowan.

Davis said the plan may be "technically compliant," but warned that it won't "generate the kind of housing that HCD expects us to generate or that we're morally obligated to generate."

She said the plan fails to abide by the Fair Housing Act and questioned its commitment to "environmental," "social justice" and "community" issues.

The plan, Davis said, offered an opportunity to address "hundreds of years of intentional segregation" but instead leaves single family neighborhoods "completely intact with no affordable housing there."

The plan also fails to address the need for "middle income housing that is market rate," Davis said.

Councilmember Christine Parra echoed concerns aired during public testimony that the City lacks the funding and infrastructure needed to increase its current population of some 93,000 resident by 20 percent in eight years.

Adding some 20,000 residents, she warned, would require building schools, adding police officers and firefighters and increasing the City's water supply.

"Whose going to pay for this," said Parra, who ran with Brock and Councilmember Oscar de la Torre on the slow-growth "Change" slate. "I'm all for affordable housing but we have to think how is this going to affect our city.

"I don't think it's fair that our property owners have to take the brunt of taxes to pay for this mandate from the State," she said. "We're being basically set up to fail."

While private developers are expected to easily meet the market rate mandate of 2,727 units, the Housing Element attempts to reach the affordable housing target of 6,168 units by relying on non-profit affordable housing developers.

It allows moderate-income 100 percent affordable housing projects in targeted areas of the City, especially around Expo light rail stations.

It also earmarks City-owned properties, including parking lots and parking structures, the Bergamot Arts Center, the former "Plaza" site at 4th Street and Arizona Avenue and the parcels surrounding the Expo station Downtown.

In addition, the plan adopts standards that would allow developments with at least 50 percent affordable units on surface parking lots owned by religious congregations and allows one additional auxiliary dwelling unit (ADU), commonly known as a "granny flat," on single-unit parcels in R1 zones.

Failure to meet the State-mandated housing quota can result in penalties that include fines of at least $10,000 per month, the loss of eligibility for grants and State funding programs and the loss of local control over development, according to City staff.

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