People stand in line to apply for affordable housing in December. (Daniel Archuleta daniela@www.smdp.com)

Based on the discussion at theCity Council meetingAug.25, most Santa Monicans support the concept of affordable housing. However, residents differ in preferred funding choices, how much housing to build, where that housing should be and even the importance of affordable housing to the city.

The purpose of the council’s discussion was to provide direction to staff regarding possible ways to increase the amount of affordable housing in the City.

Council received 24 requests to speak on the issue and while residents differed on the kind of housing they preferred or what funding mechanism they supported, the vast majority expressed philosophical support for the concept of affordable housing.

Several specifically praised the city and the city council for taking up the subject.

Former Mayor Denny Zane called affordable housing a hallmark of Santa Monica for more than 40 years.

“If we value our economic diversity, and I think we do, we have to make this our top priority,” he said.

Zane said he supported a ballot measure of some type to secure funding.

Councilwoman Sue Himmelrich, who hired Zane as her campaign manager last year, called him “the father of rent control” and asked for his thoughts on expanding rent control to more units. Zane said it might be possible to extend rent control to units built before 1995, but as the majority of those units are currently set at or near market rates, residents who need affordable housing are already priced out of that potential housing category.

Sarah Letts, executive director of Community Corporation of Santa Monica, the city’s largest affordable housing provider, said the city should leave no stone unturned when evaluating options and said it was important to utilize all of the options that exist under this program.

“When it comes to the financing of affordable housing we need more tools and we need much bigger tools,” she said.

Sunset Park resident Leslie Lambert praised the council for addressing the issue. She said she had seen the positive impact affordable housing has on a community in her professional work.

“It really boggles my mind that people don’t find that an important objective and I appreciate that you do,”

Carter Rubin, who served briefly on Planning Commission this year, said the city needed to expand the area it considers appropriate for affordable housing.

“I think Santa Monica has changed so much in such a short period of time that we have to look at the single family neighborhoods as places where we expect to generate additional housing,” he said. “I think it’s unfair and unjust that such a huge swath be off the table for new housing.”

While most speakers said they supported the goal, some did so with reservations.

Current planning commissioner Mario Fonda-Bonardi spoke on his own behalf and said the pace of housing, whether affordable or otherwise, needed to be slowed.

“Our city is changing and reaching the limits of its infrastructure,” he said.

Some speakers supported the concept but took issue with the city’s process saying minorities where excluded from affordable housing options, that the city’s recent restrictions on Airbnb prevent residents from maintaining enough income to pay rent or that more social services were needed to accompany housing.

The strongest criticism came from Trisha Crane who addressed the council on behalf of the Northeast Neighbors Association.

She attacked the council for developing priorities that she said were out of step with residents and for creating what she described as an atmosphere of hostility toward residents who disagreed.

She said her association recently polled residents on their top concerns, with development and traffic topping the list.

“Not one of our members identified the public funding of affordable housing as a top priority,” she said.

“We have many questions about the way council is moving ahead with this without public support,” she said later in her statements.

During the exchange, Councilman Tony Vazquez questioned if Crane could represent a majority of residents as he felt she had tried to do in an email she sent to the council. He said the council has to respond to the city at large and cited overwhelming public support for their work on the airport as an example of an issue the public supported, yet was absent from the Crane’s neighborhood list of priorities.

“To make a generalization on that small sampling, I have a problem with that,” he said.

Crane said more residents responded to the open-ended questionnaire than attended Council’s priority-setting meeting over the weekend that had identified maintaining diversity as a key priority. She went on to say the council meeting study session was a “rigged event” staffed with supporters.

Vasquez said, “It’s not a rigged event, it’s an open meeting.”

Vasquez said affordable housing was hugely important to maintain the diversity of the population. He said while the overall population has remained stable for about 40 years, the number of minorities has dwindled as a direct result of increasing housing costs.

In response to Crane’s assertion that affordable housing was not a top priority for residents, Mayor Kevin McKeown said affordable housing was a vital issue in Santa Monica and said the city’s housing growth wasn’t keeping pace with the city’s birth rate. “We’re not even housing our own kids,” he said. “When we say we need to create affordable housing, the need is probably near infinite.”

He asked Crane how they could create housing without government funding.

Crane said her group wasn’t opposed to the idea of affordable housing, but doubled down on her criticism that the council should not be funding it with public money and that the council was pursuing an agenda that disenfranchised residents. She claimed residents weren’t allowed to ask questions about the council process.

Himmelrich offered to ask any question of staff on Crane’s behalf. Other than to reiterate a question about the total need for affordable housing, Crane declined to ask additional questions but returned to her theme that questioning the council is discouraged.

“It needs to be OKfor people to not support what you all want,” she said.

City Manager Rick Cole weighed in on the discussion toward the end of the meeting. He said the city should think about ways to encourage long-term participation by residents in the civic process and consider how to encourage that conversation. He said a council meeting wasn’t designed for widespread public participation and that limited interaction to the two minute speech.

“Which is really not a great way to have that kind of community dialog,” he said. “And we saw three councilmembers try to engage in that dialog and it didn’t work particularly well and it clearly didn’t work for Trisha Crane who felt, as we talked about, the intimidation of this setting and it didn’t work for all three of you that were very intentionally trying to engage in a public dialog but this is not the place or the time for that kind of thing.”

He said a discussion should encourage the best thinking, not just solicit opinions and said resident opinions needed to be “seasoned” with the opinions of experts while motivating everyone to work toward a solution. “Our residents need to hear a wide range of opinions and expert analysis,” he said.

See Monday’s SMDP for more information about the affordable housing discussion.

editor@www.smdp.com

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