The City Council has passed the Downtown Community plan and the final discussion focused on how much affordable housing will be built in the 40-block zone.
The DCP covers all zoning rules for Downtown such as heights, density, incentives for historic resources, increased pedestrian/bike measures, public art projects and open space rules. However, affordable housing dominated the July 25 meeting.
Santa Monica’s City Charter requires 30 percent of the total housing built in the city be affordable but that rule measures total units built and does not impose requirements on specific projects. The terms of the charger could be met by a 100 percent affordable housing project offsetting for-profit development that had less than 30 percent of their units designated affordable.
The new rules specify individual projects in the Downtown must set aside up to 35 percent of their total units as affordable housing depending on the size and location of the project. Under the new rules, projects of less than 50 feet will have a 20 percent requirement for onsite housing and 25 percent for offsite. The percentages increase by one percent per two foot in height and any project between 70 – 84 feet will have to provide 30 percent onsite or 35 percent offsite.
While that requirement was initially hailed by the council as a bold step to securing affordability in the city, it became the dominant point of contention during the July 25 meeting.
Traditional housing advocates, developers and builders came out against the requirement saying housing development is not profitable with a mandate of more than 20 percent and developers will choose to abandon housing projects in Santa Monica. Several speakers referenced similar rules in San Francisco that were seen as depressing construction and eventually resulted in that city dropping its regiments back down to the 20 percent range.
Their arguments landed with three councilmembers who backed a proposal to phase in the affordable housing rules over time.
Councilmember Terry O’Day said the rules seemed like a good idea two weeks ago but after a constant stream of experts saying the rules would strangle housing production, he said he had changed his mind
“This is largely untested and where it has been tested it’s been failed and retracted,” he said.
The attempt at a phased approach failed and Council ultimately passed the more stringent rules by a 4 – 3 vote.
Councilmember Pan O’Connor voted against the strict rules.
“My ‘no’ vote reflects that the Downtown Community Plan really is no longer a housing plan,” she said. “Because the signal that’s being sent out by the city of Santa Monica now, is that like other cities that have set high affordability standards, really the message is ‘don’t build here.’”
Joining O’Connor and O’Day was Councilmember Gleam Davis. While she voted against the housing standards, she did ask the council to mandate regular reporting to measure the impact of the rules.
“If we truly believe that the administrative approval level and the elimination of minimum parking is going to open the floodgates of housing, then the floodgates should open tomorrow and if they don’t open within six months to a year then I want to know that,” she said.
Mayor Ted Winterer defended the affordability rules and said the DCP had given many concessions to incentivize housing such as streamlined approval for projects under 75,000 square feet and eliminating parking minimums.
“I feel strongly that we have a downtown plan that’s been carefully calibrated to generate 2,500 units of housing between now and 2030, and we have a time window there where we can shoot for the higher affordability levels,” he said.
Winterer said given the quantity of housing already in the pipeline, the DCP would meet its housing goal long before a phased set of rules would matter.
“Let’s give everybody a chance to see how this works, if it doesn’t work I’ll be the first to say let’s go back and make an adjustment,” he said.
Of the 2,500 housing units envisioned in the plan, about 1,775 units are already proposed for Downtown. Of those, 1,095 have been approved with their own varying affordable housing requirements. An additional 680 units are covered by 11 pending development agreements and Council chose to apply a flat 20 percent requirement to those units.
“Given the diversity of views in the community, the unanimous vote by the City Council reflects both consensus-building and compromise. The DCP adopted by the Council strives for a balance that offers a potential model for other cities for tackling the growing crisis of housing affordability in Southern California,” said City Manager Rick Cole in a press release. “The Council is committed to pursuing Santa Monica’s values of inclusion, equity and environmental sustainability to maintain and enhance our historic Downtown.”