This column originally ran in the Santa Monica Daily Press on Wednesday, April 6, 2016.
The people of Santa Monica face a challenge to our decades-long tradition of grassroots community engagement, progressive planning, and responsible, forward-looking governance. That challenge comes in the form of the so-called LUVE initiative. The initiative is a shortsighted reaction to a complex set of issues facing our community and, if it passes, will have long-lasting and potentially devastating consequences in coming decades.
Santa Monica Forward strongly opposes the measure. Santa Monica Forward stands for a progressive and inclusive Santa Monica where our public discourse is based on facts and civility, and where sustainability, equity, and fiscal responsibility are paramount values. The LUVE initiative threatens to undermine all of that. In the place of real solutions to real concerns, the initiative offers little more than scare tactics and slogans.
What’s your vision for the future of our city? Do you want to see fewer cars on the road and more people getting around safely and comfortably by bike, by foot, and other means? Do you want a Santa Monica where your children can rent or buy (on their salaries)? A place they can find high-quality jobs? Do you want to retire here, secure in the knowledge that you will be able to stay in your home and age in place?
The reality is that these are just some of the very serious questions we must ask ourselves as we consider the future of our community. Planning in a city of about 90,000 people with as many or more ideas about the future is a complicated, sometimes downright frustrating, process. But that’s because we live in a community of intelligent, passionate, and engaged people who all care deeply about the future of our children, our city, and our planet.
Boosters of the effort to put the LUVE initiative on the November ballot claim many things: that it will solve our traffic problems (it won’t), that it will stop change in our city (it can’t), that it will protect us from shadowy outside forces whose only desire is to ruin our way of life.
This initiative flies in the face of our community’s deep commitment to sustainability, economic diversity, and inclusive, democratic planning. Furthermore, it would tie the hands of future generations who will face challenges that we cannot even yet imagine. And it will actually aggravate many of the problems LUVE’s boosters claim it would solve. Over the next few weeks, we will take a closer look at these issues, but first we will outline our concerns.
The unintended consequences of ballot box planning
In 1978, an initiative appeared on the ballot in California that promised relief to property owners who were seeing their property taxes skyrocket. Prop 13, as the initiative was called, promised to prevent those taxes from rising until the owners opted to sell. It passed overwhelmingly with nearly two-thirds of the vote.
It has helped homeowners, rich and poor alike. It has also been a boon to wealthy commercial property owners who enjoy California’s booming economy, yet don’t have to pay their share in taxes.
Prop 13 has proven to be a blunt tool that also forces cities all over California to struggle to come up with funding sources for vital services. It has severely hampered schools and virtually every public service such as fire and police protection and the development and maintenance of parks.
It is perhaps the most visible cautionary tale in the perils of ballot box planning, but it is not the only one. Cities like Encinitas and Yorba Linda, which have passed measures similar to the LUVE initiative, have already seen affordable housing production grind to a halt while sprawl continues to spread. Encinitas’ initiative has cost the city dearly after multiple lawsuits were filed.
To put it simply, sometimes you need a hammer and sometimes you need a wrench, but ballot box planning is like mandating that all future generations must only use a hammer going forward, no matter what the problem is that they face.
Preserving our neighborhoods
Preserving our existing neighborhoods is easily one of the most important priorities in our community. Many long-term residents – many of whom are now seniors – are still able to live in Santa Monica because of the affordable rent-controlled homes in these neighborhoods. By making it even harder to build new homes in places like our downtown and along our commercial boulevards, the LUVE initiative would actually force development pressures into our neighborhoods, threatening many of our lower-income seniors’ ability to age in place.
If we fail to encourage new mixed-income neighborhoods to grow on industrial and commercial properties near major bus routes and rail lines, we endanger the housing security of our more vulnerable residents. As we see in San Francisco, with its booming job market, the failure to build new homes where there currently aren’t any is devastating the city’s existing neighborhoods by forcing higher-wage earners to compete for homes among older, rent-controlled buildings, where many seniors and lower-income residents have made their homes for years or even decades.
We still have time to decide if we will take this unfortunate path – and the LUVE initiative will pave the way for this – or if we will continue to encourage responsible, sustainable growth that does not displace those who have called this city home for many years.
Santa Monica’s traffic problem is a housing problem
LUVE initiative boosters are fond of saying that the initiative is a solution to traffic. While that would be nice, it’s false. The reality is that traffic may have gotten worse over the last 20 or 30 years, but Santa Monica’s population has remained stagnate, increasing by less than 5,000 people since 1980. Many of the people who make our city run – police, firefighters, nurses, teachers, hotel and restaurant workers – have to commute in daily from their homes in other parts of the region. They face long commutes that detract from their quality of life and they contribute to traffic in our city.
However, if even 10 percent of those commuters were able to live closer to their jobs, and not have to drive to work every day, it could make a noticeable difference on our city’s streets during the morning and afternoon rush hours. The LUVE initiative makes it even harder to build new housing, especially the kind affordable to our workers, than it already is in our traditionally slow-growth city.
LUVE undermines democratic planning
One argument we often hear is that it would actually make planning in Santa Monica more democratic to require a popular vote on nearly every project that comes before the city, but the reality is, planning in Santa Monica is actually already a very democratic process.
The creation of the Land Use and Circulation Element, commonly known as the LUCE, is a good example. The entire community was invited, over the course of nearly a decade of public meetings, to discuss and shape the vision for our city’s future, which is encapsulated in the document.
It may have been a long and, at times, frustrating process, but the plans in it are very much our community’s plans. It has everything: strategies to combat traffic, create affordable housing, revamp our city’s formerly industrial zones, and ensure that our city continues to thrive in the 21st century and beyond.
Nobody was 100 percent happy with the outcome of the process, but that’s what success looks like in a democracy.
The LUVE alternative to community planning – putting nearly every future housing project up to a popular vote – actually has the opposite effect. It invites developers to pour small fortunes into our elections every other year to run political campaigns for every project they hope to build, shelling out hundreds of thousands of dollars to put their projects on the ballot and flood our mailboxes with campaign flyers.
This is no way to prepare our city for the future; it reduces serious and thoughtful planning to a competition of political sloganeering. It’s the opposite outcome of our current process in which we invite the entire community to rigorously vet and weigh in on every major project, often over the course of many years.
Unlike the referendum process, in which residents have the right to overturn approval of projects by popular vote, the LUVE initiative discourages all but the most potentially lucrative projects and robs the community of any opportunity to give feedback to improve the plans.
An end to affordable housing in Santa Monica
Under the LUVE initiative, virtually every project over 32 feet would require a popular vote. That means even if someone wants to build a three story building on an empty lot, that person would expect to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to put the project on the ballot and even more to run a campaign. That’s on top of all the money it takes to design a quality project and to pay taxes on and maintain an empty lot until the project has a chance to go on the ballot.
LUVE’s boosters proudly point out that there is an exemption for projects that are 100 percent affordable.
Unfortunately, that’s little more than a symbolic gesture, since such projects would require public funding to build and, since 2012, virtually all local funding for such projects has evaporated. The reality is that, in the past few years, the vast majority of affordable housing has been built because the city has required it of private developers through Santa Monica’s Affordable Housing Production Program and Development Agreements. About 1,000 units of new affordable housing have been built this way with no local funding needed.
Restricting market rate housing projects to 32 feet, unless voters approve the projects, will make the inclusion of affordable units financially infeasible.
Affordable housing production will come to an end under the LUVE initiative’s draconian standards. For those of who may be comfortably housed, that may not seem like an immediate problem, but the families who work in Santa Monica, whose children may attend our schools, will not be able to afford to live here. Our police officers, our firefighters, our nurses, our teachers, the servers in our restaurants, the workers in our hotels – all the people who help make this city run and yet can’t afford to live here – would be left out in the cold by any initiative that would end our ability to add housing that will rent to lower- and middle-income households.
We at Santa Monica Forward may not always agree on every issue we face in our city, but diversity of opinion is exactly what makes our city’s civic culture so great. As intelligent, thoughtful people, we ought to be wary of those offering simple solutions to complex problems.
The LUVE initiative does precisely that and over the next few weeks, we will explore in depth what the real impact of the initiative will have. We cannot ignore the issues we face – housing affordability, global warming, economic sustainability, social justice and equity – but we also need to make sure that whichever course we choose, we are on the right path to achieve the goals we hope to achieve.
Judy Abdo and Juan Matute, co-chairs, on behalf of Santa Monica Forward