After several months of community engagement and discussions, Santa Monica City Council agreed to send its draft Housing Element to the California Department of Housing and Community Development for review.

Since 1969, California has required that all local governments adequately plan to meet the housing needs of everyone in the community by completing a Housing Element update every eight years. In order to comply with state requirements this cycle, the City must build 8,895 units — 69% of these must be affordable.

Some Planning Commissioners and Councilmembers have said the RHNA allocations are too burdensome, but with an October deadline looming they thought it was best to continue forward with finding ways to incentivize the development of affordable housing production.

The resulting draft Housing Element details a number of ways the City could do so in the next eight years, but Councilmember Gleam Davis noted a large number of programs require changes to the LUCE or Downtown Community Plan.

This would require a supermajority of five votes from council, which could be hard to attain in light of Councilmember Kevin McKeown’s retirement. And without the votes, staff said there is a risk of not having a compliant housing element, which is one of the reasons why Davis opposed a motion that sought to send the draft to HCD.

She didn’t feel the need to explain all of her reasons since she voiced her perceived problems with the element one-by-one during the meeting Tuesday. But Davis did note this week that she feels the Housing Element doesn’t comply with AFFH requirements since any concrete and intentional steps to address exclusionary zoning were removed from the draft element. The longtime Councilmember also took issue with the exclusion of the 100% affordable housing overlay as well as the possible rezoning of certain R1 neighborhoods.

“I know we got a lot of emails; I got a lot of emails from friends about it and I know it’s a super-sensitive issue, but I think that we are being asked by the state to take this opportunity to address decades of intentional discrimination, and the only way we’re going to address that is with intentional inclusion. And in all honesty, I just think that a statement saying that somewhere down the road we’ll explore some options to do something is insufficient,” Davis said. “So, I do have a genuine concern about whether or not this meets the AFFH requirements. I also think, quite honestly, it jeopardizes potential federal funding down the road. We now know that the Biden administration is going to tie federal funds for things like affordable housing, which we all say we want, to cities that demonstrate that they are taking affirmative steps to address the legacy of exclusionary zoning. And, again, I don’t think this does that.”

Davis added the City has put enough restraints on potential housing that she believes the city will not reach its RHNA numbers.

“My last point is that I think this housing element is incredibly dependent on us being able to get to five votes to make significant changes to the LUCE and the Downtown Community Plan. And I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to do that, but I have to be honest and say I’m doubtful. And so, I think creating a housing element that’s dependent on an unlikely scenario, or that we risk falling out of compliance because we won’t be able to get five votes, is a dangerous position to be in.”

Mayor Sue Himmelrich disagreed with Davis during the meeting but said in an interview a few hours later that the goal of any elected body is to host a diverse range of opinions.

“And the diversity of our council served us pretty well last night. Look, there was a lot of discussion but in the end, we settled on prioritizing public housing on public land. We tried to disincentivize market rate and commercial development. We tried to set up innovative programs at all kinds of levels. And we tried to create a compliant housing element and I think we did,” Himmelrich added, detailing how she has long held the belief that the public land should be used for public purposes, specifically for community housing and parks. “Before, I don’t think we treated our city land as the important resource it is. But this is an important step because this housing element removes land cost issues from our discussions.”

The mayor recognized there is still much to be done in regards to furthering fair housing in Santa Monica but she thanked staff and city leaders for their efforts in recent months.

“We’ve been leaders in this. We’ve been doing it longer than the state required we’d do it,” Himmelrich said. “And look, I’m not saying we aren’t a racist town or we don’t have a racist past. But I am saying that we keep trying to advance these issues to create a more diverse Santa Monica.”

The next step in the Housing Element process is for the California Department of Housing and Community Development to review and comment on the draft update. The comments will return to City Council for a final review. Adoption of the mandated document is expected to happen before Oct. 15, 2021.

Brennon@smdp.com