In an effort to promote fair access to housing in neighborhoods across Santa Monica, Planning Commissioners discussed the possible rezoning of specific neighborhoods in the city last week.

The topic arose during a discussion of the city’s Housing Element, which includes a myriad of proposals that seek to increase the number of housing units available in the region.

One proposal is the creation of a program that would allow up to 3 units to be constructed in R1-zoned parcels in the areas of 7th and 14th Streets between Montana Avenue and San Vicente Boulevard and 26th Street between Wilshire and San Vicente Boulevard.

Commissioner Mario Fonda-Bonardi was one of the first to criticize the proposition when the Planning Commission met last week to hammer out the details of the state-mandated document.

The longtime SMRR member noted how hundreds of residents called in to state how unpopular the change would be.

“And again, I don’t think it furthers affordability and furthers diversity, and I think we can get there by other means. In addition, we might be preempted by SB 9,” Fonda-Bonardi said as he criticized the gesture for being little more than symbolic. “So, we don’t need to stick that knife in our own back. I think we should let the R1 zones be the R1 zones. And finally, they do provide a great number of the trees in our city … so they do a lot of good stuff for us and we don’t need to mess with something that’s not broken.”

Commissioner Nina Fresco disagreed.

“I feel like this has to do with a much bigger thing — if you can imagine something bigger than providing affordable housing; it has to do with learning about privilege, and how it affects each and every one of us for ourselves and understanding what tools of segregation and racism linger in our code so that they end up having negative effects on our community in other ways,” Fresco said, noting she doesn’t know anyone in Santa Monica who’s racist but the City definitely has a very classist society.

“Staff proposed a very modest change of three units, and, honestly, I don’t even think it’s that likely to have that much of an effect but I think we have to get used to the idea that our laws shouldn’t be protecting privilege. I think we need to start separating those things, so I know it’s very esoteric for a Housing Element, but I just feel like it’s critically important at this time in the world to start making really big moves,” Fresco added.

Like Fonda-Bonardi, Commissioner Leslie Lambert felt a rezoning would do little to affect change in the city.

“I guess I’m one of those white privileged R1 homeowners who could never afford to buy my house today. And I have given a lot of thought to this and if I thought for a minute that building two or three units in R1 would actually increase access or in any way affect affordability, then I would probably favor it,” Lambert said, but feasibility studies show it’s not a realistic approach.

“And it’s not with the bloodshed that would ensue if we did it,” Lambert added, moving to explain how kids and residents from different walks of life are already integrated on a daily basis at school and in other areas of the city.

Commissioner Ellis Raskin said nobody denies that Santa Monica’s zoning is the product of a racist past.

“All that being said, I’m not prepared to support this at this time. I don’t think that this is going to make a meaningful contribution numerically to where we need to get to. And for that matter, the demographic in our city that’s at the single greatest risk of displacement is working-class families who rent single-family homes,” Raskin said. “I don’t think that there’s been enough analysis as to how we’re going to address that serious concern, and to Commissioner Fonda-Bonardi’s point, we haven’t seen the environmental impacts of this; we don’t know how this is going to impact our tree canopy. And for those reasons, I’m not prepared to support this today.”

Commission Chair Shawn Landres said that he’d like to see the city approve a law that would allow three similarly sized units one lot.

“So I think we need to find a way over the next year or so to develop that ordinance that we started talking about earlier tonight. It’s clear that we’re not going to get there by June 15 for Council,” he said, “but I think the work needs to start now.”

Fonda-Bonardi said the move to rezone a neighborhood would be a slippery slope.

“What you’re doing is, again, maximizing opportunities for speculative development that will happen slowly but it will change the nature of the neighborhood,” Fonda-Bonardi said. “I think we should steer away from this; this is something that has to be handled socially.”

Landres said it’s important to distinguish between equity and access and affordability.

“I’m not trying to solve an affordability problem. I want to be really clear about that … I’m talking about providing a pathway to multiple units on current single-family zoned sites but I’m not ready to do it for June 15,” Landres said. “We’re not there yet, but I don’t think we can leave this untouched. I think history demands that we start this conversation.”