By Ileana Wachtel

State Assemblymember Richard Bloom could be working on creating more affordable housing in Santa Monica. Instead, when the California legislature returns from recess July 27, Bloom will be advocating for dense luxury housing, attacks on single-family zoning, and developer loopholes to avoid building affordable housing.

With media focused on the pandemic and protests, there’s no coverage of the payoffs to developers in Sacramento, where Senate President Pro Tem President Toni Atkins, married to a developer, has been exerting pressure on lawmakers to fall in line with her agenda of reviving the primary elements of Bay Area state Senator Scott Wiener’s defeated SB 50, which would have banned single-family zoning in California.

Nine housing bills, including four by Atkins, Wiener, and Bay Area legislators, aim to slash affordable housing amidst a desperate need, wipe out single-family zoning via SB 1120, and reward luxury housing developers via SB 902 and SB 995. Bloom has joined their ranks by authoring bills that could worsen Santa Monica’s affordability crisis.

Bloom’s bills, AB 1279 and AB 3107 are being criticized by housing experts, including Embarcadero Institute in Palo Alto and Denny Zane, former Mayor of Santa Monica and Founder & Co-Chair, Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights.

Across Santa Monica, AB 1279 would allow tall 50-unit or 120-unit market-rate projects if certain affordability requirements are met. The bill will target development on dozens of single-family arterial streets and Santa Monica’s business districts, both of which would be dubbed “Opportunity Areas” by an obscure committee — a year after the bill becomes law.

A developer can avoid adding affordable units entirely by building10-unit market-rate apartment complexes and paying a modest “in-lieu” fee. Buildings with 50 units or less, however, must provide 11% affordable units or the local affordable requirement, whichever is higher – a nod at preserving Santa Monica’s affordable housing requirement.

Buildings with no more than 120 units have a steeper requirement of 50% affordable housing —25% for lower income and 25% for very low income. Skeptics believe these buildings would be exceedingly rare for any developer to build, given the high cost of construction and the need for subsidies to make the math pencil out.

A year after the bill becomes law, it’s believed a state committee would identify “opportunity areas,” using the California Tax Credit Allocation Committee’s maps. Local City Councils will have no input over whether a neighborhood will be deemed an “opportunity area.” This top-down process leaves communities in the dark and at the mercy of the state.

Zina Josephs, president of Friends of Sunset Park, said, “It’s a gift to developers that would ignore our local zoning, increase the density in our already densely populated city, and with little benefit. All of this would be done with no public hearing, to which I strongly object.”

Bloom claims his idea is worthy, “by spurring housing production where we need it most—bringing people closer to transit, businesses, and jobs. This is one simple step in the right direction to providing safe, affordable housing to all.”

Yet the most attractive options for a developer, the 10-unit market-rate apartments, and 50-unit market-rate projects contain few affordable units and need not be near a transit stop or near jobs. Instead, Bloom’s bill would up zone wide swaths of hundreds of cities, including Santa Monica, that didn’t reach the state’s unrealistic housing targets. In fact, some 600 cities will fail to meet the state’s growth dictates set by the Regional Housing Needs Assessment or “RHNA” program.

City Planning Commissioner and architect Mario Fonda Bonardi said, “The state should not be telling the city what to do with its land. Bloom should know better. Not only is Richard Bloom not helping us at all, our own City Council is not speaking up.”

The second highly controversial bill by Bloom, AB 3107, co-authored by Phil Ting of San Francisco, would let developers erect tall buildings on any commercial property in Santa Monica, replacing a corner store, neighborhood café, or retail shop without a single public hearing.

The building’s height would be randomly determined by the tallest residential or commercial zoning allowed within a half-mile. This giveaway will also attract speculators, as would his AB 1279. It requires the developer to offer just 20% affordable units in these developments.

Denny Zane pointedly said, “AB 3107 started out as a good idea. It initially only enabled development of multi-family housing in mixed-use projects on commercially zoned sites and included a 20% affordable housing inclusionary requirement.” He added, “That initial version of the bill could make a major contribution to new housing development around the entire state, with little if any displacement of renters or disruption of neighborhoods. It should have stopped there. But, unfortunately, absolutely unnecessary language was added to enable new mixed-use projects to have the “highest allowed height for a commercial or residential use within one-half mile of the site.”

Zane explained that if a city’s code permitted a 130 ft. tall commercial building, which is the limited height for a building in Downtown Santa Monica, on a site within a half-mile, a new mixed-use project permitted by this statute could have similar scale no matter what the current development standards on the specific site were. “This makes AB 3107 wholly objectionable and will generate enormous opposition.”

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.