Measure LV is the most relevant question in this election cycle. The proposal to require voter approval of most development projects would not only impact the physical scope of Santa Monica, but also have far-reaching implications for the city’s demographics, economy and political future.
LV will call upon voters to approve most construction projects above the City’s Tier 1 standards (32-36 feet). The measure includes exemptions for some parcels of land, affordable housing, senior housing and a few specific kinds of projects.
While LV’s impact would be significant, the only certainty is that it will slow the pace of development. Everything else is speculation.
With an uncertain future, the campaign would ideally promote reasonable debate with respect for differing views based on reasonable assumptions. That hasn’t been the case. Instead, both sides have mounted wildly speculative campaigns. The No on LV camp has centered its campaign around unintended consequences, such as dangers to public safety, impediments to disaster rebuilding and worsening housing prices. The Yes on LV camp is describing the measure as a magic pill that will improve traffic, lower housing costs and protect rent control.
Measure LV does nothing for traffic. It doesn’t even mention automobiles and won’t alter the number cars currently on the road. The argument is that if LV passes — and voters reject all new projects — traffic won’t get any worse. A complete moratorium on all new projects will have some impact on the number of car trips, but contrary to popular belief, Santa Monica isn’t an island, and its roads are significantly impacted by factors outside city limits.
The Yes on LV campaign’s claims about traffic are wishful thinking. It isn’t accurate, but it’s been an effective argument among voters. It serves as a galvanizing talking point among LV supporters and is the theme of most of their campaign material.
Housing hasn’t had a significant impact on traffic. Since 1970, Santa Monica’s population has increased approximately 5-to-7 percent, depending on the source of the data. By contrast, Los Angeles County’s population has grown by close to 45 percent. Traffic here will continue to worsen as long as more people arrive in LA County, as long as gas prices are low, as long as regional infrastructure incentivizes single-use cars and as long as work/housing needs are out of balance.
Will LV lower housing prices? Highly unlikely. The argument is that if the land becomes less valuable, the cost of housing will decrease. It’s possible the kindly landlords will share their lower costs with tenants, but housing costs are based on the market and we already know renters are willing to pay thousands for an apartment and buyers pay millions for a home. If the cost to build housing decreases, will a developer artificially lower the market rate? Or will he charge as much as he can and make more profit?
The only thing Measure LV guarantees is a slow-down of construction. It will constrain supply even as demand shows no signs of dropping. If the promises of Measure LV all come true, it will only make Santa Monica more desirable. Supply drops, demand grows and prices are expected to decline? Doubtful.
We don’t believe LV will protect rent control in any significant way due to the kind of exemptions included in the measure. Exempting senior housing sounds great, but it’s not senior-affordable housing. It’s already profitable to evict rent-controlled units and convert them into condos. LV’s exemption for market rate senior housing will incentivize that trend.
While we think many of LV’s speculative benefits are unrealistic, we also think the counter arguments, that LV will make things worse for traffic, housing and rent control, are also weak. The status quo has already worsened traffic, driven up housing and increased Ellis Act evictions. If LV passes, many of the market forces that are responsible for those problems will remain in place and as we said earlier, there are many causes for each problem.
Will LV’s passage inflate housing prices at a rate significantly higher than the market would naturally? Probably not. Will it make traffic worse? Probably not more so than existing policies. Will it cause more evictions? It could change the kind of project tenants are evicted for, but it probably wouldn’t accelerate the already growing trend.
Expecting any single action to significantly impact any of these huge problems is foolish on both sides.
This puts voters in a tough position because they have to judge two imaginary outcomes. In looking at the potential harm versus the potential good and given the alternatives, we think the possible downside is greater than the possible benefits and we think there’s a way to fix LV’s problems without ceding control of large developments.
The loophole for senior housing is one example of the unintended consequences at the heart of the No on LV campaign, and while there is certainly fear-mongering in their argument, we find it plausible that those consequences could add up to problems in the long term.
LV contains several errors that appear small on paper but provide big opportunity for abuse.
It will take lawsuits to resolve the questions raised, so it’s hard to know what the lay of the land will be in the event LV passes, but by wholesale exempting some parcels, by allowing market rate senior housing without a vote, and by failing to make explicit exemptions for some projects (like public safety construction and emergency rebuilds), the measure cloud set up a future Santa Monica vastly different from the one LV’s supporters desire.
It’s a frustrating problem. If LV’s authors had utilized the kind of public, transparent process they claim to want for the city, those loopholes could have been identified and fixed. If LV were the only solution to the problem of large development, we might be willing to take the horrible with the good, but it’s not the only choice. Citizens already have a way to veto development they don’t like and they’ve already used it effectively in Santa Monica. Anyone can mount a voter referendum on a Council decision or conduct referendum campaigns on large development in the coming year (even as a better version of LV was being drafted).
Of the total number of projects in the works, some are small and unlikely to trigger outrage, and not all the large projects will, or even could, come to fruition in the near term. There’s time to referendum any large project that is actually approved. A successful referendum on a project like the Plaza at 4th and Arizona would likely chill other big projects. Then, a cleaner, more targeted and more effective version of LV can be implemented, one that still provides automatic voter approval of large projects without the kinds of mistakes the current version contains.
We think this is a very reasonable solution, but unfortunately, this isn’t an election about reason.
Voting for LV isn’t about what the measure actually does or doesn’t do. To argue about the measure’s merits misses the point of its appeal. Measure LV is a referendum on the existing power structure in Santa Monica. For decades, the mechanisms of power in our City have run through a specific political philosophy that created two very powerful election forces — Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR) and the local hotel union (Unite Here Local 11).
The power structure has controlled nearly every elected office and by extension dominated the city’s priorities. There was a time when candidates would drop out of elections if they didn’t get the SMRR endorsement and the power of the union on local decisions is evident to this day. (See the City’s minimum wage exemption for union contracts and the upcoming revision to the noise ordinance for examples of the Council giving absolute deference to union concerns).
For decades, the machine did represent the will of the people, but as with anything political, there has always been a group that felt disenfranchised, minimized and ignored. While historically powerful, there are signs the old guard has waned. Times change, as do the populations and priorities of a city, but our political system hasn’t kept up.
For those residents who don’t feel well represented by the city’s leadership, voting for LV isn’t about its impact on development, it’s a protest against the way candidates are elevated to public office only to disregard the priorities of a population that feels excluded from the powers that be.
We’ve had many conversations with residents who don’t actually believe in what LV does, but they need to do something in order to be heard. Time and time again we’ve heard a variation on the same logic — LV is flawed, but what else can we do?
You can vote for a challenger in the City Council race and utilize the referendum process to control development while LV gets fixed. The Council isn’t unanimous in its support for large projects. The much reviled Hines project was a 4-3 vote and one of the “yes” votes was replaced with the election of Sue Himmelrich in 2014.
Casting a protest vote for LV might make people feel better, but it doesn’t actually solve the serious problems facing the city, and in this case, it has the potential to do as much harm as good. We don’t support LV and encourage a No vote this Election Day.