By Kevin McKeown
A Daily Press headline last week bannered that the City Council supports removing barriers to development. In fact, the Council discussed restrictions on commercial development, instead encouraging housing, specifically affordable housing.
Some will say, “Why?” Others will counter, “Why did it take so long?” And isn’t it true that Santa Monica already has done a better job over many years, producing far more real affordable housing than other cities?
California’s housing crisis is an affordability crisis, which has escalated to the point where draconian state laws threaten to override locally sensitive land use and housing decisions. Newly issued regional housing mandates assign over 9000 new housing units to Santa Monica in the next eight-year cycle, with the large majority required to be affordable.
Housing for the wealthy is not a problem. If we simply let developers erect profitable market-rate housing at the same rate as the last eight-year cycle, we’ll easily meet the assigned market-rate goal. Deed-restricted affordable housing, though, will take money and encouragement, such as streamlined processes and zoning changes to benefit non-profits.
What we will not do is let mandated new housing replace our existing occupied rent-controlled apartments, displace our neighbors, or gentrify Santa Monica in ways that make living here unaffordable for long-time residents.
Fortunately, Santa Monica already has years of earned experience in protecting our inclusive mix of housing options for residents at all economic levels.
PRESERVING EXISTING AFFORDABILITY
Santa Monica’s latest zoning ordinances shift new housing opportunities to transit-served boulevards and to downtown, relieving some of the pressure on existing, occupied, relatively affordable housing in our neighborhoods.
PREVENTING HOUSING LOSS
We took decisive action when the conversion of rental apartments to vacation rentals was turning neighborhoods into tourist party zones and our existing affordable housing stock into de facto hotel rooms. Santa Monica’s law controlling home sharing is the strongest in the country, has repeatedly been affirmed in court challenges, and is now locked in by the recent resident-friendly settlement we won from AirBnb.
We have expanded our protections against tenant harassment, and increased renter relocation benefits. Recently we countered Ellis Act eviction abuses with new rules, higher fines, and greater enforcement powers for the City Attorney’s Office. We’ve enhanced no-fault eviction protections during the school year for educators and families with students.
HELPING RENT-BURDENED SENIORS
Our initial “Preserve Our Diversity” pilot program, providing rent subsidies to long-time resident seniors, was so successful that the Council allocated $2 million more to help as many as 400 low-income, often minority, senior households.
PROHIBITING DISCRIMINATION AGAINST THE POOR
Santa Monica’s pioneering “source of income” ordinance, which expanded housing opportunities for tenants with federal Section 8 housing vouchers or other housing subsidies, is now enshrined in California state law.
Despite all these efforts, the overheated regional housing market means increased economic pressures on Santa Monica residents, particularly renters. We still don’t have enough affordable housing, and just one visible proof of that is the number of unhoused people on our streets.
Just this week the Supreme Court let stand the so-called “Boise” ruling, which protects the right of homeless people to sleep in public places if housing or other shelter is not available. Again, Santa Monica is a bit ahead of most cities.
Last April the City Council authorized up to 150 units of supportive housing on city-owned land downtown, replacing an aging parking structure. This new housing will be specifically designed and staffed to ease the transition out of homelessness for individuals and families currently on our streets.
Santa Monica has a long history of commitment to affordable housing. Our City Charter requires at least 30% of new units in multi-family buildings be affordable. Our Downtown Community Plan requires up to 35%.
Ever since the state of California ended redevelopment funding for affordable housing seven years ago, though, we haven’t had enough public money to encourage sufficient production of 100%-affordable deed-restricted housing for lower-income families. Even after passing local tax measures to fund affordable housing, our best efforts have been unable to meet exploding need.
So, the Council is looking at removing barriers to more affordable housing, not development in general. We’ll be considering effective strategies to retain and increase our supply of affordable housing.
We can’t afford not to.
Kevin McKeown is Mayor of Santa Monica