An affordable building for seniors will rise on Colorado Avenue. (WS Communities)

The city of Santa Monica’s Planning Commission says it’s time for Santa Monica to reopen the conversation around upzoning in the wake of new state efforts to address California’s housing shortage and lack of affordable housing.

Santa Monica will likely have to support taller and denser development in response to recent legislation aimed at boosting housing construction and an upcoming mandate that cities across California build thousands of new housing units, commissioners said at a meeting Wednesday. The city will likely be required to build 4,800 affordable and market-rate units from 2021 to 2029.

City planner Jing Yeo said the state’s Regional Housing Needs Allocation will require that Santa Monica build a relatively higher number of units because of its proximity to jobs and transit and past record of producing new development — or face financial penalties. The city will receive its final allocation next October.

“When we do get whatever the number is, we will have to figure something out, because the consequences of not complying with your housing element are increasingly severe,” Yeo said.

While only the City Council has the final say on changes to local housing policy, most members of the Planning Commission said upzoning is somewhat inevitable in order to meet the state mandate for new housing. In particular, they supported allowing affordable housing developers to construct buildings one or two stories over the height limit in certain neighborhoods.

The recent state housing bills make denser development, particularly affordable development, easier than ever. But increased density is politically risky in Santa Monica, where 45% of local voters supported a 2016 ballot measure to put any new buildings more than two stories tall to a citywide vote. The city currently allows taller buildings only along transit corridors and in the downtown area.

“We have to have a conversation about upzoning in this city,” said Commissioner Elisa Paster. “It’s not going to be popular, but we can’t have density in only a few corners of the city.”

Commissioners said the city will have to consider different strategies to increase housing production, such as adding townhomes and accessory dwelling units to single-family neighborhoods and instituting a “no net loss of units” rule, i.e. preventing small condominiums from replacing apartment buildings.

While they agreed that areas near transit need to densify in response to the housing shortage, Commissioner Mario Fonda-Bernardi warned that building more housing around transit will not necessarily address the city’s affordability crisis.

“Building around transit is a great thing, except the buildings tend to be expensive and therefore the people who rent them are going to be rather well-heeled, which means they’ll have cars and may not avail themselves of the mass transit at their doorsteps,” he said.

Commissioners Leslie Lambert and Richard McKinnon said the city will have to tackle affordability by requiring that new development include more units restricted to middle-class households. Santa Monica’s Proposition R requires 30% of all new units to be affordable, but the mix of affordable units prioritizes low-income households.

“We’re hollowing out the middle class here,” McKinnon said. “What we have now is people who are millionaires because they own houses or are extremely well paid enough to afford the $4,000, $5,000, $6,000, $7,000 a month rent and people who are being supported by rent-controlled or affordable housing, and less and less in the middle, and that’s an unsustainable city going forward.”

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