Santa Monica claims to be a “Sustainable City of Wellbeing.” And yet, housing continues to be a severe challenge in Santa Monica. Our communities are dying as more and more of our friends and neighbors leave due to the high cost of homes. For those that remain, housing is a constant worry.
Santa Monica has a rent-burden rate of nearly 50%. According to the recent Wellbeing study, 62% doubt their kids will be able to afford to live in SM in the future. Can we really consider ourselves to be a city of wellbeing when housing creates so much insecurity and anxiety?
On the City’s Housing Commission, we are forced to make decisions in “triage mode,” trying to allocate a small amount of housing resources to an increasingly large pool of people in need. We are forced to make morally repugnant decisions about what kind of people “deserve” to live in Santa Monica. At the January Housing Commission meeting, while determining how to prioritize the insufficient housing funds available, we discussed whether families or single people have more value to our City.
The housing situation we find ourselves in is deeply wrong and deeply inequitable. And now, the City is required to produce over 6,000 units of affordable housing over an eight year period, which would likely require over $1.6 billion in funding. To many, meeting our affordable housing obligations seems impossible. How did we get to this situation, and how did things get so wrong?
A crisis this massive builds up over time, through a series of policy failures at different levels of government. But Santa Monica’s affordable housing failures deserve specific attention.
Historically, Santa Monica, following the trends of cities at the time, created racist land use and zoning restrictions to “preclude from the residential districts the undesirable classes.” These restrictions prohibited multifamily housing development in many areas, and some of these restrictions were continued and strengthened in later decades. As demand increased but housing stock was limited, homeowners benefited financially while renters struggled. Those struggling renters mobilized to pass rent control in the 1970s, but a real strategy or consensus on how to address the long-term needs of population growth and production of affordable housing never materialized.
Instead, in 1998, Santa Monica voters approved Proposition R, under which 30% of new housing in Santa Monica is required to be affordable. Santa Monica has consistently met this requirement. From 2018-2019, Santa Monica exceeded this requirement with 59% of affordable housing in new housing construction. Why, then, is Santa Monica becoming increasingly rent-burdened? If we are exceeding our affordable housing goals, why are more and more of our neighbors forced into homelessness?
The problem is that so little housing is being produced overall. From 2018-2019, only 116 housing units were completed. 68 of those were affordable units. This a small fraction of the thousands of affordable units we currently need. It’s easy to make more than 30% of our new housing affordable when there is very little new housing. Santa Monica used to build more than 1,000 housing units every year. Now we’re lucky to get a few hundred at most.
In 1998, Santa Monica voters approved Proposition I, as a response to the public housing restrictions created by Article 34 of the California Constitution. Proposition I allowed the city to finance a limited amount of affordable housing each year. However, the effect of Proposition I is that it caps financing of affordable housing, and guarantees we cannot finance enough affordable housing to meet our 6,000+ home requirement. Even if we were to repeal Article 34 and Prop I, finding $1.6 billion (the amount necessary to completely fund the 6,000 affordable homes needed) in the city budget will be an enormous challenge.
Put these intersecting policies together, and affordable housing is an impossibility. 30% of new housing must be affordable, but we cannot fund it through government means.
Looking to the private market, In July 2017, Santa Monica implemented a requirement that 20-30% of all new condos and apartments built in Downtown be designated affordable. Unlike Prop R, the requirement applies to each individual housing project, and not overall housing production. The result is that housing construction stalled, causing us to not only lose housing, but the opportunity to create subsidized affordable housing as well.
We can’t fund affordable housing to the degree we need using government funds. And a 30% inclusionary requirement on the private market has proven to be a housing killer. So the only thing we can do in the City is to continue to produce very little housing of any kind, deepening our crisis, and forcing more and more of our community to be displaced every year.
What will it take to turn this crisis around in our City and make this once again a livable place of wellbeing? For one, it will take many major interventions. No one policy solution can reverse a problem of this scale. And it will also take some statewide (and regional) changes, so that our municipal neighbors also do their part to create housing. Despite this, none of our Santa Monica leaders endorsed SB 50, the More HOMES Act, even though it would have created a statewide housing production solution and required the creation of much more affordable housing.
First, we need to start supporting state and regional solutions that get all cities to do their fair share. Next, we need to make hard choices and use any potential funding for affordable housing. We need to reevaluate our inclusionary requirements in the downtown, and start scaling them to something realistic so we can see an increase in construction. We need to give affordable housing developers in the City every possible advantage and financial break that we can provide. We need to allow more multifamily housing construction overall, which will help us finance affordable housing, and lessen our housing deficit at other income levels. We need to plan longer term to repeal Proposition I (which first depends on repealing Article 34 of the California Constitution).
But first, we need to acknowledge that the status quo we are defending has failed to make housing affordable for our residents. Only then can we start to find solutions that work to meet our goals.
Leonora Camner is a Housing Commissioner in Santa Monica and Managing Director of Abundant Housing LA, a pro-housing organization. @abundanthousing