NOMA — Perhaps it was a stroke of Christmas spirit, but a landlord in Santa Monica got her wish when the Planning Commission approved a mechanism to allow her to put an addition on her unit without destroying three other homes.
Commissioners voted last week to approve a text amendment which would allow Daniella Kuhn, the live-in landlord of a rent-controlled complex of four apartments on the 700 block of Euclid Street, to add a second story to her unit as long as it complied with all other code provisions, including those governing height, the number of stories and other provisions.
Key was the caveat that the construction not increase the number of units on the property.
Vice Chair Gerda Newbold and Commissioner Jennifer Kennedy raised concerns about the treatment of residents during the construction of the second story, but were assured that those items were covered under rent control law.
“I’m really happy about how everything went,” Kuhn said.
The change has been several months in the making. Kuhn decided in July that she wanted to expand her 800-square-foot apartment so that she could continue to live there when she established a family.
When she went to City Hall to get permission, she was denied.
Size, in this case, wasn’t the problem.
The proposed second story on Kuhn’s personal unit was well under the maximum square feet allowed for a single-family home in her north of Montana Avenue district.
However, Kuhn’s multi-residential complex was a legacy of a different time, before the area had been zoned exclusively for single-family homes. As a result, her building was a “legal non-conforming” use, meaning that she could not do major improvements on it without turning it into a single-family home.
To do so would mean taking all four rent-controlled units off of the rental market, demolishing them and kicking out the existing tenants.
Kuhn and land use attorney Chris Harding approached the Planning Commission in October to dispute the ruling, arguing that staff had incorrectly interpreted the zoning code, and that under their interpretation, the expansion could be permitted.
Alternatively, they could file for a text amendment, but the cost was prohibitive: $10,000 to $15,000 just to ask the staff to look at it.
The Planning Commission didn’t choose between the two methods — they used both, filing for a text amendment and requesting the staff interpretation of the code.
Last Wednesday, it was the text amendment that was approved, to the relief of Commissioner Ted Winterer, who had voted against requesting the interpretation.
“I was concerned that the hearing on her particular issue was problematic,” Winterer said. “… I was sympathetic to her cause for a variety of reasons, but thought there was a better way to change the law.”
Having seen City Hall craft a text amendment that would allow electric cars on the Third Street Promenade, Winterer felt it would be a fast, clean way to resolve the solution.
The Planning Commission voted to approve the amendment unanimously.
Kuhn was thrilled.
“Someone is just trying to live their life and then are trapped in a weird code preventing you from getting on with your life,” she said. “Now everybody’s on board.”
She hopes that the demonstration of City Hall’s willingness to work with landlords will convince others to take a more active role in their apartment buildings, possibly increasing the live-in landlord population in the city.
Kuhn has already hired an architect and will begin moving through the permit process to design and build the new floor.
“I still have to jump through a lot of hoops, this isn’t a done deal. There are a lot of approvals that have to happen,” she said. “It’ll take a long time, but I’m OK with that.”