By Ileana Wachtel
Sacramento lawmakers on July 27 will begin voting on controversial land-use and housing bills that rushed through initial approvals, and which critics say promote unaffordability during the worst housing crisis in state history. One thing is clear: the legislature this summer could alter the character of Santa Monica forever.
Single-family zoning would be banned, forcing Santa Monica and all cities to permit four market-rate homes where one stands now. Any street could see 10-unit market-rate buildings erected “by right” by developers who pay a fee instead of including affordable units.
Corner stores could be replaced with tall apartment buildings. Units affordable to low-income people would be dramatically reduced, in a startling weakening of California’s longtime “Density Bonus” law.
Nancy Coleman, Chair of the North of Montana Association (NOMA), said, “The need for housing in Los Angeles and Santa Monica is not more market-rate housing but affordable. These bills offer no provisions for affordable housing. They move against what Santa Monica has wanted for years: to be an economically diverse community.”
State Sen. President Pro Tem Toni Atkins and Bay Area state Senator Scott Wiener created three core bills: Senate Bill 1120, Senate Bill 995, and Senate Bill 902. A fourth bill, AB 725, is coauthored by state Assemblymember Buffy Wicks (D-Oakland) and Wiener.
Three of these bills were rushed through their Senate Housing Committee approvals in June, chaired by Wiener, while public attention was focused on the protests and pandemic. The Wicks and Wiener bill is a sleeper bill that is left over from last year. Yet the bills would overrun Santa Monica’s community planning.
In March of this year, the Santa Monica City Council approved an interim emergency ordinance, relaxing zoning amendments for large housing projects to meet the State-mandated requirements of building nearly 9,000 new housing units, two-thirds of which must be affordable. These bills could disrupt that plan while providing no relief to the affordability crisis.
SB 1120, which ends single-family zoning in California, would let developers buy up lots as small as 2,400 sq. ft. with one home and subdivide it into two 1,200 sq. ft. lots and then build 2 homes on each lot. Garages and yards are not required. In Santa Monica’s single family neighborhoods–four McMansions —banned by a 2019 city law— could replace that one house. Lower-income single-family neighborhoods such as the Pico neighborhood could see further gentrification. Speculators, developers, and home rental corporations such as The Irvine Company could buy family-owned homes, demolish them and build four market-rate rental homes or units.
Oscar de la Torre, Chair, Pico Neighborhood Association, said, “We hope that the current housing crisis is not being utilized to incentivize development of market-rate and moderate rate housing that will result in continued gentrification and resident displacement.”
A second bill, SB 995, would “fast-track” large apartment projects by prohibiting environmental or other local review while slashing the state’s current affordable housing requirements for such projects — a poke in the eye to coastal cities like Santa Monica who value environmental and design standards and have fought for affordable units.
Instead, in SB 995, the legislature would cut the current requirement for the number of affordable units included in “fast track” projects from 49% of the project to 15%, a reduction in legislative support for affordable housing that the bill’s critics say is unprecedented.
Until now, a “fast track” building escaped environmental review in California by being near transit. In this legislative watering down of existing law, the buildings need not be near any transit.
The third bill, Wiener’s SB 902, allows a simple majority on any city council to overturn voter-approved citizen initiatives that protect open space, canyons, shorelines, urban boundaries, and other land, overriding a 108-year-old California voter right.
At the same time, the bill allows a majority on a city council to rezone “any parcel” on a developed street to build a 10-unit market-rate project. Wiener’s central goal in his defeated SB 50 was to allow 10-unit market-rate buildings on almost all California residential streets. In this version, SB 902 would hand that power to whoever is elected to local city councils. This would undermine citizen input and diminish the democratic process.
This year, Gov. Gavin Newsom, in his state of the State address, said he wants more housing construction, “especially near transit and downtowns.” SB 1120, SB 995 and SB 902 all fail to fulfill Newsom’s desire to see housing near transit and downtowns.
Word about these bills is spreading. SB 902, for example, is attracting a broad range of opponents, from South Los Angeles to the Westside, who have sent opposition letters noting that among other serious problems, SB 902 would taint city council races with developer money seeking a majority to enact Wiener’s “10-units everywhere” law.
The fourth highly potent bill, AB 725, co-authored by Wicks and Wiener could also shift density to single-family neighborhoods allowing duplexes and multi-family areas in the 600 cities that have not met their housing targets set by Southern California Association of Governments’ Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA) program. Hitting Santa Monica’s 9,000 housing target is a heavy-lift; the city currently approves 200 units per year, about 40 of which are affordable.
“These are the most dangerous bills coming out of Sacramento. They are basically gentrification bills that are a death threat to Santa Monica, which is a low-rise city,” Mario Fonda Bonardi, City of Santa Monica Planning Commissioner and architect, said. He added, “These lawmakers are giving away land to developers, which is not theirs. The state should not be telling the city what to do.”
Ileana Wachtel is a communications specialist, working at the national and local level focusing on electoral politics, land-use, and environmental issues. She is the former communications director at Coalition to Preserve LA, where she focused on housing, homeless and environmental sustainability.