There’s been an incessant discussion about Santa Monica’s work/housing imbalance. We hear constant buzz about our urgent need for affordable housing in our city, which is already the most densely packed beachside city in California. Can our city really satisfy this seemingly insatiable need? Here are a few ways to approximate how much housing we should provide:
What is Santa Monica’s “fair share” of the growth of the Los Angeles metropolitan area? Since Los Angeles has been growing at about 1/2 percent per year for the last decade, you can extrapolate that our 93,000-person city should increase 465 residents per year.
The Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) predicts Santa Monica’s population will grow by 8,000 people over the next 20 years — a total of 400 persons a year.
These two numbers could be averaged to 433 persons per year, and if we take a ratio of 1.7 persons per unit (close to Santa Monica’s current ratio), this means that Santa Monica should be building about 255 new units a year. This number is very close to SCAG’s desired 2014 target of 239 new units per year.
It is estimated that approximately 3,000 housing units are under consideration and we could see an annual production of up to 750 units of housing per year. Therefore, Santa Monica is producing housing at about three times its expected and fair-share rate. We can quibble about the assumptions, but it doesn’t change the fact that producing abundant housing is not a problem in Santa Monica.
There is surplus housing capacity on the boulevards and in downtown for this housing tidal wave. For example, 57 percent of downtown buildings are either vacant lots or one- to two-story construction. If all those lots were developed with three floors of residential space above one floor of commercial use, it would generate about 7 million square feet of housing, or about 9,000 units.
Likewise, 88 percent of the 896 parcels on the boulevards are one to two floors of construction. If those properties were all developed with one floor of commercial and two floors of residential housing, it would generate about 6 million square feet or about 8,000 units. If we choose an arbitrary two-thirds of those lots actually being developed, we have the capacity for 11,400 new units (about 20,000 people). This corresponds to a 46-year supply of housing at the desired rate of 250 units per year.
In conclusion, we have the ability to produce more than our adequate amount of housing. Therefore, we do not need to incentivize construction of housing with density bonuses, height increases or other code inducements. We can add housing without resorting to “mega projects.” In fact, height limits downtown could be kept to four stories and three stories on the boulevards and not have a large negative impact on the ability to produce housing.
So what’s the problem? There are essentially two areas of concern. The first is that the housing being produced is simply not affordable for our residents, whose median household income is about $67,000. Affordability is typically defined as 30 percent of income — in our case, about $1,675 a month. With new one-bedrooms averaging about $2,200 per month, the marketplace favors people making $88,000 a year. This excludes most of the entry-level participants in the major industries of Santa Monica: tourism (hotel waiters), education (college teachers), healthcare (nurses) and Silicon Beach (lab techs), to name just a few.
These hard working residents have limited rental choices: live outside of Santa Monica, double up on roommates or family members, monetize their residences with Airbnb or become housing slaves by paying a larger share of their income (40-50 percent) for housing. All are socially undesirable solutions. This affordability gap does not just affect the mobile young, such as students, but crushes families staying in apartments that are too small for their numbers and actively discriminates against limited-income seniors. So, at every age, there are negative impacts from the lack of affordable housing. This is not news to anyone who has tried to find a place to live in Santa Monica.
Likewise, when buyers try to buy homes in Santa Monica, lenders will typically lend four times your annual income, or in our case about $268,000. Try finding anything for that price in Santa Monica or the Los Angeles area. In spite of the best efforts of rent control and affordable housing code incentives over the last 35 years, we have become a city with housing that only engineers, lawyers and doctors can afford. We have become “Bel Air by the Sea.”
Normally, increased supply of housing will reduce its price. However, in a desirable marketplace like Santa Monica, the infinite supply of nearby wealthy buyers, including offshore buyers, means there is no effective way to build our way to affordability. Today, we are producing about one deed-restricted affordable unit for every 10 market-rate units. The financing of affordable housing is a complicated problem that has bedeviled cities all over the world and will be treated in depth in another article. Suffice it to say that it is probably the greatest challenge facing our city.
The second problem is sustainability. We can produce the housing and we have the lot space for it, but we don’t have sufficient sustainable infrastructure. All those displaced Santa Monica commuting workers — even if they drive hybrids or take mass transit — are polluting the air, adding to global and local warming and occupying gridlocked transit capacity. Our local water wells have limited capacity and — barring a breakthrough in affordable desalinization — will lose capacity as more cities tap into our shrinking aquifer. The city’s goal of water self-sufficiency is a mirage if the population keeps expanding.
Finally, Santa Monica wants to achieve net-zero sustainability. Our buildings would not generate more resources than they consume. Solar access is the key to net zero, but when buildings get over three or four stories on typical lots and streets, they start to shade each other and prevent their neighbors from getting to energy sustainability. We must mention that the same limits apply to our other common resources: open space, impacted schools, transit capacity and so on. All this frenetic urban growth initially reduces the quality of life of its residents and eventually, like a cancer, kills its host.
The good news is that Santa Monica is creating abundant housing. The bad news is the new housing won’t be affordable and will eventually exceed our ecological limits to growth. The solution will reside in our ability to add housing at a sustainable rate — within the bounds of our existing resources and infrastructure. To do otherwise could result in the degradation of the same city that everyone is coming to share. In that scenario, nobody wins.
Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA for SMa.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)
Thane Roberts AIA, Architect, Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA, Robert H. Taylor AIA, Ron Goldman FAIA, Daniel Jansenson Architect, Samuel Tolkin Architect, Armen Melkonians Civil & Environmental Engineer, Phil Brock Chair, Parks & Recreation Commission. For previous articles, see www.santamonicaarch.wordpress.com/writings.