By Tara Barauskas
Santa Monica is uniquely equipped to be a leader in Southern California’s quest to solve the affordable housing crisis. Our engaged and compassionate community has demonstrated leadership on embracing progressive values for decades, and these values can guide us as we work together to meet new Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA) requirements for our city to build substantially more affordable housing in the next Housing Element cycle (2022-2030). I have four suggestions to help Santa Monica rise to the challenge and meet these requirements, simultaneously reducing traffic, embracing diversity, increasing affordability, and promoting environmental sustainability.
1. Grow Smart
No one wants to see 10-story skyscrapers next to a beach bungalow. Incremental incentives and bonuses, like allowing most areas to add an additional floor for 100% affordable housing, will efficiently and effectively use the limited land available to meet the projected 9,000-unit RHNA requirement. This gradual change, such as going from three to four stories, if built in neighborhoods near jobs, schools and transit, will also reduce traffic congestion and greenhouse gas emissions.
We want to embrace sustainable planning that reduces traffic, encourages walking, and improves our air quality. Adding new affordable homes close to jobs and schools will make our city more walkable, bikeable or transit-oriented, which will make Santa Monica a even more close-knit, progressive community. This means seeing your neighbors’ faces, not their cars, when you’re out and about. If we fulfill these requirements by adding homes near job centers, that means more Santa Monicans can walk or bike to work, the grocery store, or use our incredible Big Blue Bus system. It means children are safer walking to and from school and after-school programs. And it means fewer cars clogging up the streets.
2. Reduce Construction Costs
The City of Santa Monica has long been a champion of affordable housing, with policies like inclusionary housing and administrative approval processes. Expanding these policies can have a tremendous impact in cutting red tape without compromising the character of our communities or the quality of our homes.
Championing change starts at the local level, but must be followed by regional and state policymakers. For example, increasing the administrative approval threshold for 100% affordable housing from 50 units to 75 units seems like a small change, but it will offer much-needed savings (time and cost) for non-profit housing providers that serve low-income neighbors. Utilizing modern innovations like modular construction or pre-fabricated building components could also significantly cut costs. And using City-owned property to build affordable housing would stretch limited housing dollars used for each development.
3. Support Affordable Housing
Our community understands that we all have to pitch in to keep our city the special place that it is. A few years ago, citizens voted yes on Measures GS/GSH to help fund affordable housing in our city. Already, this funding has been instrumental in helping produce housing for low-income, seniors, and disabled residents. In the next decade we have a major task ahead of us to meet the RHNA housing requirement so a lot will need to change to meet this new challenge. Simply reducing the cost of construction won’t be enough, so we need to bring more ideas to the table to make sure that responsible developers have access to the funding needed to meet this critical requirement. Many people in the community have embraced affordable housing in their neighborhood for many years, have said “yes” to new affordable housing and voted yes on GS/GSH to provide more resources to build it. That is the kind of embracing that is appreciated, helpful, and will be needed even more in the coming years.
4. Support Our Neighbors
Santa Monica has a diverse job market, and people who work critical job functions in highly unaffordable areas shouldn’t be penalized with a lengthy commute that is frustrating and hurts our air quality. Businesses and schools have a hard time attracting and retaining staff when that staff faces driving 1.5-2 hours each way in order to work in this area. It’s time for informed advocates to discuss how affordable housing, clustered around job centers, is necessary to truly embrace residents of all incomes, backgrounds, and abilities. Making sure that people who grew up in Santa Monica, or work here, can afford to live here builds community and affirms our values.
It might seem simple but starting a conversation and sharing these values with your neighbor can have impact. Even better, going out in the community to discuss how our City can grow incrementally helps put a friendly face on how we will benefit from changes. Please attend a community meeting, affordable housing tour, or advocate for well-planned, efficient affordable housing at a public hearing.
Everyone is welcome in our City. We are truly lucky to live and work in a place that upholds the values of diversity and inclusion. Now, as we shift our action plans to meet the RHNA requirement, and do our part in California to end the housing crisis, we can make our home the model for progressive city planning.