June 15, 2021
Re: Agenda Item 8A - Housing Element
Dear Mayor Himmelrich, Mayor Pro Tem McCowan, and members of the Santa Monica City Council,
The penalty for failing to adopt a compliant Housing Element is not the status quo. The penalties are litigation, fines & fees, loss of state funding, and (most severely) the loss of local control.
Pursuant to the Housing Accountability Act, cities without a compliant Housing Element lose the ability to deny 20% below-market-rate (BMR) projects on the basis of local zoning. Almost any 20% BMR project, of any size, on any parcel in the city would become legal. Developers could build skyscrapers on streets like Georgina and there is not a thing the city could do to stop them.
Multiple cities in the San Diego region are already staring down these penalties. Chula Vista, El Cajon, Escondido, Coronado, and others failed to adopt compliant housing elements by SANDAG’s deadline in April. The most common issue - Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) compliance. We believe the same fate awaits Santa Monica if we do not take meaningful steps to address the very real segregation and exclusion that exists in our city. In our view, the current draft of the Housing Element is woefully insufficient.
Santa Monica is a city that was segregated by design. In the first half of the 20th century, deed restrictions, redlining, and other discriminatory government policies determined who could live in the city and where. White people in certain neighborhoods, people of color, religious minorities, and other “undesirables’ elsewhere. These policies have since been rendered illegal but the segregation they engineered persists. Today, Santa Monica, despite its progressive reputation, has made very little progress unwinding the segregation the city created many decades ago. Our land use rules – rules which you control – continue to prevent anyone except the wealthiest few from having the opportunity to move into our most exclusive neighborhoods.
AFFH requires us to take proactive measures. Not just talk, with vague hints at future action, but concrete commitments on defined timelines. Per HCD, AFFH “means taking meaningful actions, in addition to combating discrimination, that overcome patterns of segregation and foster inclusive communities free from barriers that restrict access to opportunity based on protected characteristics.”
We believe Council was on the right track back in March. With the push of Kevin McKeown, a majority of Council decided to explore new housing opportunities in our most exclusive neighborhoods. Not skyscrapers, or large block apartments, but “missing middle” type density like duplexes, townhomes, or courtyard apartments.
These types of homes, which are more affordable by design, would have provided less expensive, more accessible housing opportunities in neighborhoods that are currently out of reach for most. Paired with R2 zoning, which creates the possibility of deed-restricted affordable housing, Santa Monica seemed to be on a path toward meaningfully addressing AFFH requirements.
Yet despite this bold direction in March, it appears you may soon reverse yourselves. Santa Monica will proclaim – once again – that our most exclusive neighborhoods must remain exclusive. They will not be asked to do their fair share and instead most new housing, as has long been the case in Santa Monica, will be restricted to the car-choked boulevards, near the polluted freeway, and in Downtown. Not because of physical or economic constraints, but because of politics. The aesthetic desires of the most privileged coming before the needs of everyone else.
We urge you to stay the course. If you reverse yourselves, you risk not meeting AFFH requirements, which would lead to a non-compliant Housing Element.
Beyond AFFH, there are other issues in the Housing Element that we believe require further review. These issues, in no particular order, include the following:
Unrealistic plan for city owned land. Except for Parking Structure 3, Santa Monica has no active RFPs, no active development agreements, and no identified sources of funding for housing on city owned parcels. Without any of the foregoing, it’s very hard to fathom how these sites will accommodate 1,884 new housing units by 2029.
Unrealistic assumptions for pipeline projects. During the 5th Cycle, only 77% of pipeline units were built. However, the Housing Element now assumes that 90% of pipeline units will be built. This is unrealistic. As a comparison, City of Los Angeles takes credit for 79% of permitted projects and 45% of entitled projects. Our assumptions should match City of LA’s.
Incorrect capacity calculations. HCD requires a likelihood of residential development calculation for mixed-use and commercial sites. The Housing Element does not appear to make this calculation correctly which would mean the realistic capacity of the suitable sites inventory is overstated. Staff should verify with HCD that all capacity calculations are made correctly.
Excessive Constraints. The Housing Element identifies numerous constraints on new housing production but then leaves many of these constraints unaddressed. For example – new condos must pay approximately $125,000 in fees whereas new single-family homes pay only $36,000. This is a needless burden on new condos, which makes condo ownership more expensive. Condo development standards must be revised if Santa Monica is serious about creating new homeownership opportunities for future generations.
Vague Programs. Many of the Housing Element programs lack specific commitments. For example, Programs 1.E and 1.F propose revising development standards in Bergamont and Downtown to incentivize housing development but no specific standards are proposed. More concrete language is needed (e.g. “Revise development standards to make 15% inclusionary projects economically feasible”)
Incomplete AFFH Assessment. HCD requires a thorough assessment of fair housing issues in Santa Monica. Much of what HCD requires is still missing from the Housing Element. The Housing Element should be revised to include all relevant HCD requirements.
We look forward to your discussion tomorrow. Sincerely, Abby Arnold and Carl Hansen
Co-chairs, Santa Monica Forward
The draft Suitable Site Inventory concentrates new housing in some of Santa Monica’s least advantaged neighborhoods. Santa Monica Forward believes that a fair distribution of housing would site new housing opportunities in our most advantaged neighborhoods. The following maps, available from HCD’s AFFH Data Viewer, illustrate some of Santa Monica’s disparities.
Suitable Site Inventory Map
HOLC Redlining Map (1930s)
Percent of Population Non-White (2018)
CalEnviroScreen 4.0 (2021) – Measures pollution burden by neighborhood
CDC Social Vulnerability Index (2018)