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Council Submits Housing Plan Under Pressure

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By Jorge Casuso

June 28, 2022 -- Under the gun, a frustrated City Council voted last week to submit a revised plan to the State to add nearly 9,000 new housing units they fear will forever change the face of Santa Monica.

The vote came after California housing officials rejected a plan submitted by the City last October, saying it failed to provide specific information on how Santa Monica plans to spur the development needed to meet the State-mandated quota ("City's Housing Element Fails to Comply," February 11, 2022).

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Before grudgingly submitting the revised Housing Element -- which includes building more multi-family buildings in single-family neighborhoods -- the Councilmembers said they will consider filing a lawsuit challenging a quota Mayor Sue Himmelrich called "arbitrary and capricious."

"I'm appalled by the State's approach to the whole process," Himmelrich said at the meeting last Tuesday. "There probably ought to be a lawsuit."

Calling it "the best plan we can come up with under these dumb restrictions," Himmelrich made a motion to submit the revised plan, which increases the overall housing capacity it analyzes to more than 13,000 units to address technical comments made by the Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD).

The motion failed on a 5 to 2 vote, with only Himmelrich and Mayor Pro Tem Kristin McCowan voting to support it.

"The face of the City will be forever changed," said Councilember Phil Brock, "and it will not be changed in a positive way."

Brock noted that about 180 other cities had submitted draft Housing Elements that were not in compliance and that some of those cities are considering legally challenging their mandates.

"It's not just Santa Monica," Brock said. "A lot of (cities) are scrambling."

City Manager David White said staff had exhausted all its options to urge the State to reconsider the mandate to plan for 8,895 new housing units -- more than two-thirds of them affordable -- over the next eight years.

The City has submitted a letter to State housing officials that was "met with some derision," White said, and it has "spent a lot of time reaching out to State reps and engaged our lobbyists.

"We don't have any more avenues," White said. "We're running out of ammunition."

Planning Manager Jing Yeo assuaged the Council members' fears the City will be overrun with new developments by stressing the units don't need to be built, only planned for.

"The requirement is to plan, it is not an obligation to build," Yeo said. "You set the environment, but what the private market does is out of our control."

After Yeo's assurances, the Council voted to reconsider its previous decision and submit the revised plan, with Councilmember Gleam Davis casting the lone opposing vote.

"I continue to have concerns that this is not a complaint draft," Davis said, adding that the plan fails to "affirmatively further fair housing."

The revised Housing Element includes "a more explicit explanation of how City-owned sites would address affordable housing by identifying five City-owned sites that can accommodate 1,880 affordable housing units," according to staff.

The City hopes to receive a “draft in compliance” letter from HCD on the submitted redline revisions, "which would provide a path forward for the City Council to adopt a revised compliant Housing Element," City officials said.

Failure to adopt a compliant Housing Element jeopardizes the City's ability to receive funding from several federal, state and regional programs, State officials warned.

If the City fails to meet the State-mandated housing quota, it could face 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.

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