Santa Monica and other Southern California cities with abundant jobs and transit may be required to build more housing than ever before.
The Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) voted Thursday to recommend that the state require Los Angeles and Orange counties to facilitate the construction of more than 1 million new homes, departing from an earlier plan that would have allocated more housing to Riverside and San Bernardino counties. If the state approves SCAG’s recommendation, Santa Monica would be asked to build 9,000 new units between 2021 and 2029, almost double what it would have been required to accommodate under the previous plan.
The state has required cities and counties to construct various amounts of new housing in eight-year cycles for the past 50 years. But many jurisdictions have skirted those requirements, resulting in a statewide housing shortage — particularly in job-rich areas.
SCAG spokesperson Jeff Liu said the association’s board changed the methodology it uses to create its Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA) to reflect that Los Angeles and Orange counties have more jobs and transit than other counties in the region.
“Many people endure hours-long commutes because they can’t afford to live near their jobs. Our leadership said we can’t continue to plan that way because it results in more congestion and more carbon emissions,” Liu said. “There has to be a better balance of housing near job centers and transit, and all cities and counties need to do their part in addressing our affordability crisis and our housing shortage.”
Santa Monica City Manager Rick Cole said the new RHNA methodology reflects a growing consensus that Southern California’s signature sprawl creates adverse environmental, social and economic impacts.
“It represents a change that has long been coming in California from sprawl development toward a more compact, urban development where people live closer to their jobs,” he said.
But Cole questioned whether Southern California will be able to construct the 1.3 million units required under RHNA, given that the state will not punish cities and counties if they fail to build enough housing. Rather, it will financially penalize jurisdictions that do not alter their zoning to accommodate more housing.
Cole added that communities could initiate litigation or hold referendums to halt upzoning and development. However, if a recession hits and puts the brakes on Southern California’s development boom, they might not have to.
“The magnitude of change both here in Santa Monica and throughout the region is greater than the ability of this law and the housing industry to produce in the next 10 years,” he said. “But there’s no question that this sets us on a path that over the next 20 years will shift much more housing development closer to jobs than would have been the case otherwise.”
The Santa Monica City Council will hold a study session on the RHNA allocation Dec. 10, Cole said.
Santa Monica has built more housing in recent years than other expensive cities such as Beverly Hills and Culver City, which would also be required to zone for thousands of units under the RHNA. The Westside as a whole would have to zone for 19,500 units between 2021 and 2029.
But Santa Monica has still only constructed 1,700 units in the past eight fiscal years, according to a recent city report. Accommodating 9,000 new units would require zoning changes that would likely be subject to significant opposition in a city where 45% of voters supported a 2016 measure that would have put any new development taller than two stories to a citywide vote.
The Santa Monica Planning Commission discussed where the city could put new housing last month, when city staff believed SCAG would require the city to build 4,800 units.
Commissioner Shawn Landres said he thinks Santa Monica will not only have to permit taller buildings along its commercial boulevards and near transit, but also densify its residential neighborhoods by allowing duplexes and triplexes on single-family lots and encouraging homeowners to build accessory dwelling units (ADUs) in their backyards.
He also said the city must work strategically to ensure that at least 30% of the new units will be deed-restricted to low- and middle-income households, as required by Proposition R, a local law that voters approved in 1990.
“We need to build housing for our teachers, firefighters and police officers, for our 20-somethings, people starting families and for our seniors,” Landres said.
Commissioner Mario Fonda-Bonardi, a longtime advocate for slow growth, said he thinks that dramatically increasing the supply of housing will only exacerbate the city’s affordability crisis.
“The laws of supply and demand are suspended in Santa Monica,” he said. “You increase the supply but the cost doesn’t go down, because there are enough wealthy people who can move in and pay the higher rents. Developers pump out lots of units for wealthy tenants and that drives up housing costs for everyone else.”
The 9,000-unit RHNA allocation will only deepen divisions in a city where pro- and anti-development groups are “at each others throats day and night,” Fonda-Bonardi added.
Landres said he thinks Santa Monicans will be able to find common ground on development if they accept that the city has to work within regional and state rules.
“I’m coming into it cautiously optimistic that if any community can figure it out, we can. We’ve produced for more affordable housing per capita than our neighbors,” he said. “It’s not going be perfect or easy and there are going to be long nights with lots of very tense discussions, but I think we have to go into it with the understanding that we’re going to have to zone for this housing and produce it.”