Santa Monica’s Housing Element governs the city’s approach to residential development and will be up for discussion this week. Photo courtesy of Century West Partners.

Some Santa Monica residents and city leaders feel the Southern California Association of Governments is asking the impossible by mandating the city to build 9,000 new units between 2021 and 2029, but City Council and local stakeholders gathered online recently to discuss the mandate as well as the City’s sixth Housing Element.

The Housing Element is basically a housing needs assessment that features updated demographic data, data on housing stock, identifying barriers to the production of housing — both for market-rate and affordable housing, Planning Director Jing Yeo previously said while she detailed how the document is one of the mandatory elements of Santa Monica’s General Plan. “We are also asked to evaluate the effectiveness and the progress of the housing element both the programs and production from the last eight years and a sort of key piece of all of this is identifying the sites that can accommodate all those housing needs. And all that kind of feeds into listing the goals, policies and actions that would allow the implementation of all of these policies.”

Currently, Santa Monica is mandated by the state of California to build almost double what the city would have been required to accommodate prior to last year’s Regional Housing Needs Assessment, which has many in the region upset. However, if Santa Monica wishes to avoid penalties and fines, the city must adopt the Housing Element Update by Oct. 15, 2021.

Yeo said she recognizes the mandated number of units is high, and recognized the frustration officials are hearing from the community.

“But this is a process that was created and mandated by the State, not the city, so we’re all trying to muddle through this together,” Yeo added. “But I think the intent here is to proceed in line with Santa Monica values in terms of supporting housing, supporting affordable housing — I think that’s precisely what we’re trying to do.”

Councilwoman Christine Parra said in December it’s very difficult for the state to make a local municipality do its bidding without giving it the proper financial support or considering how the changes will affect infrastructure and the residents in a city.

Parra believes this is why many cities throughout California have banded together to try to affect change so that they can have their allocations lowered, and the recently elected councilwoman is one of many in town who feel the RHNA numbers should be discussed further and possibly challenged.

“I really would like to see our city attorney send a letter to SCAG to ask them for a review of our RHNA numbers. And then I also would love to have staff research and assemble a report on the other California cities that are actively mounting legal challenges through the regional RHNA allocations,” Parra said.

But with an October 2021 deadline looming and this being one of the fastest planning processes ever undertaken, others on council feel a need to complete the required task as soon as possible.

“There’s been so much disagreement and speak of fake numbers and things about the different studies that have been made but that discussion is really kind of behind the curve on where we are in this process. To me, the important point right now is we’re being asked to build a whole lot of affordable housing,” Councilmember Kevin McKeown said.

And that is exactly what staff is trying to get at, according to city attorney George Cardona, who said, “under state law we have a mandate to prepare a Housing Element by October 21 that complies with the RHNA number as we have it.”

Staff added during a December meeting that council could give direction to challenge the numbers but local representatives were reminded to be mindful of how they allocate staff resources to the substantial tasks.

“Staff was very clear with us about the timeline and where we are in this whole process — and frankly, it’s not going to matter much what we think about the Embarcadero Institute’s report or any of these other reports because decisions have been made at the state level,” McKeown said, “so I’m not really excited by the suggestions that we back up and explore time streets that are going to turn out to be dead ends, because the process is moved beyond this.”

McKeown added, “I understand that as much as we all espouse our love for affordable housing, we have to acknowledge there are people in our community who feel that the RHNA numbers are real lemons. And what we have to do, I think, at this point — whether we think they’re lemons or not — is figure out what it’s going to take to make lemonade. And in this particular situation, the sugar we need to make that lemonade is money to subsidize the affordable housing, and we can’t ignore the magnitude of the challenge.”

Councilwoman Gleam Davis noted a lot of the people that were heard from during the meeting were people who are housing secure.

“The people we didn’t hear from tonight are the people who are living in terror of losing their housing,” or the homeless people who no longer have housing, she said. “But even the market rate stuff has to serve the people who live and work in Santa Monica… the nurse who works at St John’s, the bartender who serves you drinks when we’re all able to go back to our favorite restaurant…. the person who runs the local Dry Cleaners… Since housing is so expensive in Santa Monica, they live in Chino Hills; they live in Palmdale,” and they suffer through greenhouse gases and traffic to make their life work.

She described some critics of the state system as little more than some homeowners in Palo Alto who don’t like housing.

Davis said, “I think we all need to understand that we have a moral obligation to provide more housing — because by providing more housing, we will actually be able to make people’s lives better.”

Davis added, “I share everyone’s concern about how we’re going to find affordable housing, but the housing element — the purpose of it is not to figure out how to fund affordable housing; the purpose of it is to figure out how we’re going to accommodate affordable housing.”

Brock said Council also has a moral imperative to take care of the people who live here and to make sure they have a city that’s a comfortable place to live.

“That it is not the city that becomes ‘The Great Canyon of Lincoln’ so I’m going to take a different track,” Brock said during the council meeting. “I want affordable housing in the city, but if you live in Chino Hills and you’re commuting here and you’re still going to be commuting here after the effects of COVID are through — I’ll be pretty surprised. Because most of those people are now going to be telecommuting or finding jobs closer to where they live or moving out of Santa Monica to a space where they have more room.

He said he was all for more affordable housing but at the same time, the RHNA numbers are unrealistic for the town and they could destroy any sense of place.

Mayor Sue Himmelrich said, “I just think we have to be realistic so I think we need to prepare the Housing Element… I think that this may be a futile document because I think that it’s trying to impose, throughout the state, things that are absolutely impossible. And I know that we are not going to be able to raise $3.5 to $5 billion to build the affordable housing requirements that they’ve imposed upon us.”

Since the item was a study session, no action was taken by Council.