In search of solutions to our housing affordability crisis

Last week, Santa Monica’s Housing Commission published several draft reports on our city’s housing affordability crisis, laying out the scope of the problem and potential solutions.

Santa Monica Forward would like to reiterate its strong support for the production and preservation of affordable housing in our city. We would also like to thank the Commission for its efforts in researching, defining, and offering some solutions for Santa Monica’s dire housing affordability crisis.

While we appreciate the efforts on the part of the Commission to attempt to lay out a strategy for addressing our current housing crisis, we do believe the draft reports are lacking. Specifically, we should not downplay the vital role the city’s Affordable Housing Production Program has played in creating affordable homes in Santa Monica, and, we must look at the broader context and causes of the current crisis.

In the past year, President Obama has sought advice on how the United States, one of most inequitable advanced economies in the world, can once again be a place of opportunity for all.

A recent white paper by Jason Furman, the chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, a group selected by President Obama to analyze and interpret economic developments and advise him on issues of national economic importance, illustrated that throughout the country, local no-growth housing policies have been widening the gap between rich and poor by increasingly making it harder for middle- and low-income workers to access homes near quality jobs.

Furman’s findings were echoed by New York Times columnist and distinguished economist Paul Krugman recently. And, last year, the California Legislative Analyst’s Office, a nonpartisan State office based in Sacramento that provides fiscal and policy advice to state lawmakers, published a report that outlined, in great detail, the negative impact of decades of minimal-growth housing policies on our state’s coastal cities.

We continue to ignore the mounting body of evidence that restrictive zoning is exacerbating our housing affordability crisis at our own peril and -- perhaps more importantly -- the peril of future generations that will inherit a Santa Monica even more inaccessible than it is today, unless we make substantive changes to our housing policies.

Santa Monica’s population has only grown from 88,314 in 1980 to 92,472 in 2014. Yet, in those 34 years, rents and home prices have skyrocketed and traffic has only gotten worse. The people who make our city run -- waiters, hospitality workers, police officers, firefighters, teachers -- are forced to commute great distances by car because of decades of minimal housing growth.

The severity of our housing crisis means we cannot afford to dismiss any strategies that would help address our affordable housing shortage, especially Santa Monica’s very successful Affordable Housing Production Program (AHPP), which was adopted by the City Council after voters approved Proposition R in 1990. Proposition R requires that 30 percent of all new housing built in Santa Monica be affordable to low and moderate income households. The AHPP provides this affordable housing at no cost to the City since the developers subsidize it.

Since that time, about 1,000 units of affordable housing have been produced by private housing developers. That’s in addition to the preservation and new housing construction accomplished with public funding by nonprofits like Community Corporation of Santa Monica (CCSM), resulting in around 2,000 affordable homes.

Recent changes in Sacramento have meant that we have lost the redevelopment funds that were available to the City to finance nonprofit affordable housing developers like CCSM. This amounts to a loss of about $15 million annually. Until we find new funding sources for publicly-subsidized affordable housing projects, the AHPP remains the single most effective tool we have to bring new affordable housing online in Santa Monica and to address our jobs/housing imbalance and resulting traffic congestion. Nearly two-thirds of the 68,000 people who work in Santa Monica, but don’t live here, are low or moderate income.

While we had the opportunity to create much-needed revenue for affordable housing construction and preservation through measures placed on the 2014 ballot by the City Council, that opportunity was defeated due to very low voter turnout. With a larger turnout in 2016 inevitable, we are happy to see that the Housing Commission is recommending a similar kind of affordable housing measure be placed on the ballot.

This year alone, assuming the City Council approves the new project at the former Norm’s site tonight, the City will have approved 54 new affordable homes as part of new market-rate housing projects and with no public funding required.

The AHPP alone isn’t enough to produce the housing we need at all affordability levels in Santa Monica. But it is a major part of the solution to our housing crisis and, as such, should not be dismissed when we discuss affordable housing policies.

The lack of affordable housing is a big problem and it will likely not be solved in one generation; this is a problem that took decades to create. The severity of the crisis does not mean that we can’t do anything about it, however. On the contrary, the severity of the crisis demands we act now, lest our children inherit an even worse problem.

But we must begin all discussions of the current crisis with a frank assessment of its root causes. We no longer have the luxury of pretending that we can maintain a no- or minimal-growth position and simultaneously support an affordable Santa Monica. The ideas are incompatible and irreconcilable, as is demonstrated by a mounting body of evidence.

Elizabeth Tooke, Ernie Powell, Leslie Lambert, Craig Hamilton, Daniel Shenise, Jerry Rubin, Irene Zivi, and Frederick Zimmerman for Santa Monica Forward. Read previous columns at santamonicaforward.org.