Santa Monica City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to allow all affordable housing projects and many market-rate projects to go through a rapid approval process as the city prepares to meet a state requirement to zone for 8,800 units of housing over the next decade, drawing ire from community groups who say the city should be fighting the mandate.
Affordable and market-rate projects less than 60 feet tall that comply with existing zoning will be approved by city staff without going through Planning Commission hearings, which city officials say will make housing production faster and cheaper. All projects will continue to undergo design review at public Architectural Review Board hearings.
The emergency ordinance City Council approved, which went into effect Tuesday night, includes restrictions on corporate housing and a requirement that developers hold a community meeting to gather input on a project before submitting an application to the city.
Officials said streamlining the approval process for housing will help the city build the 8,800 units Santa Monica will be allocated under the Southern California Association of Governments’ Regional Housing Needs Assessment. RHNA will require Southern California cities to build more than 1.3 million units during the state’s next eight-year housing cycle to ease the regional housing crisis, with more units allocated to cities like Santa Monica with abundant jobs and transit.
“Streamlining certain approvals leaves the zoning unchanged but will make it easier and faster to get housing built and occupied, particularly 100% affordable housing,” Mayor Kevin McKeown said in a statement. “Our state is suffering from a housing crisis, and Santa Monica is committed to being part of the solution.”
Between 2021 and 2029, Santa Monica will have to approve 1,100 units per year, 750 of which must be affordable, to accommodate a total of 6,000 affordable units and just under 3,000 market rate units. The city currently approves 200 units per year, about 40 of which are affordable.
Planning Director Jing Yeo said the lengthy Planning Commission process stymies affordable housing because the tax credit process that funds affordable housing sets strict deadlines by which projects must be approved.
“A discretionary process places time delays and uncertainty on 100% affordable housing,” Yeo said.
Planning Commission Chair Leslie Lambert said the commission, which recommended last month that City Council adopt the ordinance, has had no real power to deny or make changes to market-rate housing that complies with existing zoning since the state government reformed the Housing Accountability Act in 2017.
Requiring such projects to go to the Planning Commission adds unnecessary time and expense, Lambert said. She said she thinks Architectural Review Board hearings will be sufficient to address community concerns about specific projects.
“It takes a developer one to three years to get to us, and then we cannot do anything,” she said. “It basically makes it more expensive to build housing.”
A group of six neighborhood organizations and three community groups sent a letter to city officials ahead of Tuesday’s vote urging Santa Monica to appeal the RHNA allocation. The letter was signed by organizations representing the North of Montana, Mid-City, Northeast, Wilshire Montana, Sunset Park and Pico neighborhoods, as well as slow-growth groups Santa Monica Coalition for a Liveable City, Residocracy and Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow.
Several cities in Orange County are appealing RHNA on the basis that SCAG calculated the allocations without public input and consideration of cities’ infrastructure and geographical limitations, the letter said.
The groups said building enough housing to meet Santa Monica’s RHNA target would result in a population increase that would strain the capacity of public services and generate crushing traffic. The population growth would also make it impossible for the city to achieve its sustainability goals for water and energy use and greenhouse gas emissions, the groups said.
Instead, the groups said the state should let Santa Monica continue producing affordable housing in the quantities it has produced in the past and ask nearby communities that have produced less affordable housing to ramp up development.
“We deserve to be commended for creating more affordable housing than prior RHNA allotments required … and retain our local control over how best to build affordable housing over the next housing cycle as we balance reasonable growth and environmental challenges,” the letter said.
Councilmember Sue Himmelrich said she does not support appealing RHNA because of the stipulation that 69% of the units built must be affordable for low- and moderate-income households.
“We can build more market-rate housing in our sleep, but I want to see more affordable housing built so the people working in this town and one whose backs we built this town — our minimum wage hotel and restaurants workers — don’t have to travel for two hours back and forth to see their children,” Himmelrich said.
Councilmember Ted Winterer said the state will cut off funding and potentially impose financial penalties if Santa Monica doesn’t meet the RHNA target.
“There’s great momentum at the state level to potentially take away local control in the interest of propagating housing,” he said. “We just have to acknowledge this is a new world we live in and while it might be discomfiting for us to figure out to accommodate these new units, it’s the direction the state is moving in.”
The concern shared by policymakers, slow-growth groups and pro-housing organizations is how to fund 6,000 affordable units over the next decade. Streamlining the approval process for nonprofit affordable developers will only get Santa Monica so far, Himmelrich said.
“I do agree with people who say Governor Newsom’s proclamation that we need to build (hundreds of thousands) of affordable homes in Southern California is an unfunded mandate,” she said. “We need to get some ongoing funding from the state.”
Planning Commision Chair Lambert said making market-rate housing easier and cheaper to build will produce more affordable housing because Santa Monica requires developers to include affordable units in market-rate projects.
“Given the incredibly large affordable housing requirement we have under the new RHNA, I think we should looking at market-rate developers to contribute to that number,” she said. “Neither the city nor the state has the money to build all the units required under RHNA — that’s insane.”