Most people agree that Santa Monica is a wonderful place to live: we have great weather all year, excellent public schools and social services, transparent and responsive government, and we have the beach.
However, even in paradise, there are problems and most people would tell you that, in our own paradise, the biggest problems are traffic and the high cost of living.
They are right. The vast majority of our traffic problem is a direct result of the fact that while, over the last 30 years, as Santa Monica and our neighbors have created many new jobs, we haven’t provided enough housing for those who work here, not by half.
Instead of having the option to live near to Santa Monica’s major employment centers — the commercial district around the Water Gardens and in Downtown — tens of thousands of people are forced to sit in the daily crush of traffic to get to work, negatively impacting their personal health and the health of the community.
The other, perhaps even more pernicious, impact of decades of allowing only minimal housing growth on the Westside is that we’ve seen a dramatic increase in the cost of living here. That economic reality is fast eroding our community character and will continue to do so unless we make a concerted effort not only to preserve existing homes but to create new ones at all levels of affordability.
Yes, Santa Monica is a desirable place to live, but that alone isn’t what drives our skyrocketing rents. Since 1960, our residential population has grown by less than 10,000 people. In that time, the county population has doubled. The high cost of living and traffic are the legacies of decades of underdevelopment of housing on the Westside.
Building more housing may not bring down rents in Santa Monica, but it can help those living without the protections of rent control, since yearly increases in market-rate rents are directly related to how many new apartments come online. And adding more housing relieves the economic pressures that could lead to mass displacement of long-term residents in our existing neighborhoods.
As the population grows and competition for places to live becomes increasingly fierce, unless we create more options for homes, only the wealthiest will be able to afford to live in Santa Monica, even in our older apartment buildings, which should be naturally affordable at this point.
New market-rate housing not only gives wealthier people an option other than competing for homes in our existing neighborhoods, when it is built through a development agreement process, the City Council can require that a certain number of the units produced are subsidized and affordable to low-income earners.
Housing, like fair wages, affordable health care, access to healthy food, and access to a good education, is a human right. Restricting people’s housing options is regressive policy and it impacts people of all ages. Whether you are a recent college graduate hoping to find a starter apartment or a retired couple who wants to move closer to your children and grandchildren, people need realistic, affordable choices to fit their various lifestyles.
Nonprofit housing developers like Community Corporation of Santa Monica and Step Up on Second provide an indispensable service to our community by creating and preserving permanent affordable housing. But these organizations can help only a fraction of those who truly need subsidized housing. The loss of redevelopment money and the voters’ rejection of Measure H in November have left us with virtually no money to fund affordable housing projects, a situation that is hopefully temporary, but still underscores the need for more housing of all kinds.
Recently, the City Council voted to remove the possibility that 4- to 5-story apartment buildings be built along Wilshire and Santa Monica boulevards. While that was arguably a mistake considering the dire housing shortage we are facing, the Council maintained some flexibility for housing growth along Colorado and Broadway, a wise decision considering both streets’ proximity to the coming Expo Light Rail.
This Thursday, the Council may consider taking away that little bit of flexibility that remains. A proposal by Santa Monica Mayor Kevin McKeown will be heard at the City Council. Mayor McKeown is proposing that we further remove options for housing where the Council had already agreed to preserve: along Broadway and Colorado.
Some have argued the solution is to get rid of some of the jobs in Santa Monica, a policy, that if enacted, would only further hurt many working people. Others have argued that the housing supply crisis is just too big. While it’s true that this crisis belongs to all of California, Santa Monica only stands to benefit from building more housing in the form of more stable rents and housing security for long-time residents and fewer cars choking our streets during rush hour.
Strategic and coordinated moderate housing growth in Santa Monica and the Westside of Los Angeles benefits both long-term residents and future residents who would otherwise not be able afford to live here.
Too often smart planning is sacrificed on the altar of politics, but if we continue to fight housing growth in the right places, as we have done in the past, we will continue to lose ground in the fight to keep Santa Monica affordable and in the fight against worsening traffic. No one wants that.
Ana Jara, Craig Hamilton, Cynthia Rose and Leslie Lambert for Santa Monica Forward