Today in our city, supporters of the so-called Land Use Voter Empowerment (LUVE) initiative are gathering signatures to put the measure on the ballot in November.
Put simply, the LUVE initiative is an extreme measure that will effectively make it impossible to build anything over two or three stories by requiring nearly every such project, save for a few exemptions, be put on the ballot every two years. It would also require that any major changes to the General Plan or the Zoning Code, even for affordable housing projects, or for any development agreement be put on the ballot.
Last week, Santa Monica Forward announced, after careful consideration and analysis of the measure, we would oppose the LUVE initiative because it is a shortsighted reaction to a complex set of issues facing our community. If it passes, the LUVE initiative will have long-lasting and potentially devastating consequences in coming decades. It will effectively halt our current participatory planning process, threaten our local economy, put many long-time renters at risk of losing their homes, and destroy our ability to create housing, affordable and market-rate. We will address these issues in upcoming columns.
We stand for a progressive and inclusive Santa Monica where our public discourse is based on facts and civility, and where sustainability, equity, and fiscal responsibility are paramount values. The LUVE initiative threatens to undermine all of that. Santa Monica Forward opposes the so-called LUVE initiative for a variety of reasons, but perhaps most fundamentally, the initiative is a direct challenge to our future as an inclusive, diverse city.
The reality is that the LUVE initiative will, in no uncertain terms, undermine our ability to maintain even our city’s current level of economic diversity by bringing the production of new housing — especially housing affordable to lower-income people — to a grinding halt at a time when we are most desperately in need of it.
Although some LUVE supporters believe the proposed initiative adequately protects the production of new affordable housing, their logic is flawed.
Supporters believe that the proposed initiative will not stop the development of new affordable housing because it contains some token exemptions for affordable housing. The reality is these exemptions, including a provision that allows for 100 percent affordable housing projects to be developed without voter approval, so long as they contain fewer than 50 units and do not require a General Plan amendment or Zoning Code revision to be built, are little more than window dressing designed to hide the initiative’s real purpose: to turn Santa Monica into a gated community for the wealthy.
Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman recently noted in the New York Times that opposition to new housing in cities is making our national income inequality crisis worse, leading to increased income segregation, and denying our country’s lower-income workers access to quality jobs, schools, and other opportunities that would help them improve their circumstances.
The LUVE initiative, by making it nearly impossible to build new housing at all levels of affordability, exemplifies exactly the kind of regressive, exclusionary planning that experts like Krugman maintain is widening the gap between rich and poor in this country.
Before we get into just how the LUVE initiative would kill affordable housing in Santa Monica, let’s explain what we mean when we talk about affordable housing, which is clearly defined by state and federal law. Affordable housing is housing that is rented at below market rates to households whose incomes qualify them for lower rents.
On the city’s website, there is a very clear definition of the maximum allowable rents in these affordable units and the maximum income of a qualifying household. In Santa Monica, nonprofits create a large amount of our affordable housing through new construction or by buying and rehabbing existing buildings. The other major source of affordable housing comes from what we require of for-profit housing developers through our Affordable Housing Production Program (AHPP). Affordable housing created through either of these sources is deed restricted for 55 years, meaning rents must be maintained at affordable levels for at least this long and units must be occupied by qualified families. It is one of the most meaningful rent control programs we have.
Let’s examine LUVE’s exemption for 100 percent affordable housing projects, which are usually funded with public money and built by nonprofits, and consider how meaningful that exemption is.
Historically, Santa Monica has surpassed its housing production goals because our City Council has understood the dire need for housing that is affordable to lower-income people and, with that understanding, the Council has been committed to meeting that need.
That was possible because there has been City funding sufficient to subsidize a robust production program. While our leaders’ commitment is still there, the money is not. Before the dissolution of redevelopment agencies by Governor Jerry Brown, Santa Monica had about $15 million annually to commit to affordable housing. Today, that money is gone and an alternative funding source has not been found, though not for lack of trying.
In 2014, Measures H and HH were put on the ballot by the City Council in an effort to create a new revenue stream that could be used to pay for affordable housing by slightly increasing the tax on property sales valued at more than $1 million. However, the measure was defeated in part because of opposition by many of the people who are supporting the LUVE initiative today.
As long as there is no local public funding source, the exemption for 100 percent affordable housing in the LUVE initiative exemption is functionally meaningless.
Adding insult to injury, the LUVE also cuts off Santa Monica’s only other major source for creating affordable housing: the Affordable Housing Production Program, mentioned above.
Santa Monica’s Affordable Housing Production Program requires that residential developers either include affordable units in their projects, acquire land for the development of affordable units off-site, or pay an in-lieu fee to the City’s housing fund.
About 1,000 affordable housing units have been produced by private developers, at their expense, under the City’s Affordable Housing Production Program. This is because developers have been able to build large enough projects — usually four-to-six stories — that they can feasibly offer the deep subsidies required to offer some units to lower-income households below market rents.
By forcing the vast majority of new construction to be under three stories, as the LUVE initiative does, this program will no longer work.
If we care about keeping our city inclusive and diverse for future generations, the reality is that we cannot, in good conscience, support measures like the LUVE initiative that would simply render useless the tools we have to help achieve progressive housing goals. It’s worth noting that the strict definition of affordable housing means that there are many who work in our community who make too much money to qualify for affordable housing, like our firefighters, police, and teachers, for example. We need affordable housing to support some of our community’s most vulnerable members. And we also need housing that addresses the needs of others who work in Santa Monica but don’t qualify for affordable housing, as it is defined. The LUVE initiative effectively prohibits both.
This is more than just an abstract policy discussion. LUVE will adversely affect people we know.
If we can’t build affordable housing in Santa Monica, how many gifted young people will miss the opportunity to cultivate their talents in our quality school system simply because they were born into families that don’t have the means to live here? How many more hours will the single mother who works long shifts as a caregiver at one of our local hospitals spend in traffic commuting from Sylmar rather than with her children?
What we decide today will determine the answer to those questions for decades to come.
Judy Abdo, Leslie Lambert, Juan Matute, Craig Hamilton, Tim Harter, Natalya Zernitskaya, and Cynthia Rose for Santa Monica Forward. Read more at santamonicaforward.org.