Anybody wanting to live in Santa Monica today has a limited number of housing types from which to choose. One could purchase a single-family home or a condominium, or rent an apartment (or condo). But there are many more ways in which people live communally. Multigenerational family homes are now more common, and the desire by many people to age in place (sometimes with assistance), start new families, or live close to their relatives can hampered by a rigid and limited zoning code that can also needlessly increase the cost of housing for many middle-class folks.
Our new zoning code will undergo a number of amendments in coming years. We have an opportunity to provide more flexibility in our laws, to help provide homes for a variety of living styles and incomes for people at different stages of life. And we can use this flexibility to improve the quality of life in our neighborhoods, while responding to the rapid changes in living styles that we are already experiencing.
One example of a flexible use of property is the use of granny flats. The law already allows accessory dwelling units, although the conditions for such units can be overly restrictive, especially with parking. There are smaller properties that just don’t have enough space to both comply with parking requirements and have room for a second unit on the property. With granny flats, a relaxation of parking requirements (including tandem parking in driveways) could allow smaller properties to have second units too. In many cases these units house family members (especially elderly ones) or students who may be less likely to own cars. Larger properties often have these units, and smaller-and less expensive-properties should have these as well.
There are also many converted garages around the city that are being used as apartments illegally. The zoning code requires the distance between accessory dwelling units and property lines to be the same as for a main home. But detached garages are often too close to the property lines to be converted legally. So many homeowners convert the garages to art studios or recreation rooms instead, and then rent them out as apartments. Since kitchens are not allowed with these uses, improvised kitchen appliances, all with extension cords, eventually make their appearance and create hazardous conditions. Why not allow these units to be converted legally? These units would need to comply with a building permit’s safety requirements, and the fire department, for one, would be happy.
Accessory units can be useful in ways that are not always evident. For example, this writer knows of one couple that downsized, moved to their accessory dwelling unit, and happily rented out the main house to a young and growing family to help with the mortgage. In another similar case, a rent-to-own arrangement helped the family renting the front house to eventually own the entire property when the downsized owners living in the back were ready to move on.
Leaving aside the state mandates regarding second units, many homeowners (and indeed neighborhoods) want and can benefit from extra people living on the property, either for reasons of rent, or family member placement, or simply having an extra pair of eyes around for safety’s sake. These kind of situations can help everyone involved take care of a property over an extended period of time; a very desirable outcome for the entire community. Future years may bring changes in single-family residence zones to allow more than one family to live in, and own, a residence. Legalizing more accessory units would help us understand in time how to maintain a neighborhood’s character and quality of life while responding to changes in society.
Another type of zoning modification could help provide more opportunities for people wanting to purchase a unit in zones earmarked for multifamily housing. The city has several zones of this type, notably R2 and R3 zones. These areas can accommodate rental apartments and condominiums. But condominium construction has slowed enormously in recent years, driven-in part-by economic conditions, and by a very bad climate of lawsuits and litigation that discourage mom-and-pop owners from building such projects, and increase the cost of bank financing and monthly fees for new owners.
For these kinds of areas, the City of Los Angeles has developed a solution, and a model that Santa Monica could follow. In Los Angeles a new kind of zoning, the Small Lot Subdivision Ordinance, has created many more opportunities within multifamily zones. The law allows the division of properties within these zones into small lots that contain detached townhomes. A buyer owns both the structure of the townhome and the land beneath it, unlike condominiums, where the buyer also owns (and is responsible for) a portion of the shared space.
In many cases this new ordinance has resulted in lower overall prices for apartments, and more easily-available mortgages. Financing is often better and cheaper, and homeowners’ association fees are usually absent. And since small lot projects do not require homeowners’ associations, mandatory HOA insurance policies are also not required, reducing costs further and making bank financing simpler.
Santa Monica could benefit from a similar ordinance. The city has plenty of suitable lots where this type of law could be applied, and the increase in affordability would attract young families that are currently locked out of this market, as well as older individuals who no longer need large properties. It’s not a question of packing in more people: the underlying density remains the same for those zones. But the different way of owning the property creates more opportunities. Why not try this in our own city?
With any amendments to the code, it is essential for new buildings to be completely consistent with a neighborhood’s established character, and for solar access and parking to be resolved in a way that maintains a neighborhood’s character. But it is also time to apply some creative thinking to the way the city’s physical layout encourages (or discourages) a variety of lifestyles and incomes, especially for the middle class. People’s housing needs continue to evolve rapidly, socially and economically. The city belongs to residents, and should reflect, and support, their lifestyle needs.
Daniel Jansenson, Architect, for SMa.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)
Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA, Thane Roberts AIA, Architect, Robert H. Taylor AIA, Ron Goldman FAIA, Daniel Jansenson Architect, Samuel Tolkin Architect, Armen Melkonians Civil & Environmental Engineer, Phil Brock Chair, Parks & Recreation Commission