In Santa Monica, both market-rate and affordable developers must guide housing projects through a review process that takes one to three years.
But with a forthcoming state mandate to zone for roughly 6,000 affordable units and 3,000 market-rate units between 2021 and 2029, putting new housing through a lengthy and expensive review process is no longer feasible, Planning Commission Chair Leslie Lambert said Wednesday before the commission voted to support expediting the process for 100% affordable housing and market-rate housing up to 60 feet tall that conforms to existing standards.
The recommendation to City Council would allow many housing projects to bypass the Planning Commission itself — a tradeoff that Lambert said she was willing to make in order to cut down on the cost of projects and the time it takes for them to open. Between 2010 and 2018, the city added about 1,000 market-rate units and 700 affordable units.
Lambert said the commission’s power to make changes to projects has been curtailed by the Housing Accountability Act, a 2017 state law that prevents cities from rejecting code-compliant housing development.
“The more it costs to build housing, the less affordable the units will be,” she said. “Our marginally useful involvement is not worth the cost.”
Slow-growth advocate Commissioner Mario Fonda-Bonardi cast the lone vote against the recommendation to allow city staff to process HAA-compliant development.
“We cannot rely on the developer’s wisdom to show up and have a perfect project,” he said.
The Commission also asked City Council to consider incorporating the city’s corporate housing ban and bike, pedestrian and sustainability plans in the standards applied to all housing projects. The commission recommended that developers be required to post plans online and ensure social services for units restricted to very low-income tenants.
Housing activists and developers who attended Wednesday’s meeting said exempting affordable and HAA-compliant housing projects — should City Council adopt the Planning Commission’s recommendation — is a crucial step toward meeting Santa Monica’s 9,000-unit Regional Housing Needs Assessment allocation.
Local progressive activist Jason Islas said the measure will help Santa Monica build enough housing to be affordable for future generations of residents.
“The effect won’t happen for 25 years, but that’s what courage and leadership is … planning for a future that meets the needs of a generation that isn’t here yet,” he said. “We are betraying our progressive values if we don’t open up this community to more people.”
Leonora Camner, a member of the Santa Monica Housing Commission and managing director of Abundant Housing LA, said solving the housing crisis will require easing barriers to both market-rate and affordable development. She also said meeting the affordable housing RHNA target will require an enormous amount of investment and new financing strategies.
“Pitting affordable and market-rate housing against each other is a false choice,” she said. “We need a lot more of both kinds of housing on a really major scale.”
Dave Rand, a land use attorney at who represents several local developers, said the city should also streamline the process for projects taller than 60 feet. Tier 3 projects, or buildings between 60 and 84 feet, must go through a minimum of seven public hearings in a two- to three-year process to receive a development agreement from the city.
“Those projects don’t happen because no one wants to submit to the DA process,” Rand said. “Create an easy, streamlined approach … and you will see developers come to the table.”