While every Councilmember had issues with the revisions to Santa Monica’s state mandated plan to demonstrate capacity for almost 9,000 new units of housing by 2029, they begrudgingly approved the draft in a six to one revote.
Under the state’s Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA), Santa Monica has been tasked with paving the way for the construction of 8,895 new units, of which 6,168 are required to be affordable. Every municipality in California has been given a RHNA allocation and is required to submit its plan to enable this development, known as a Housing Element, for approval from the Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD).
Santa Monica originally submitted its Housing Element in October 2021 and in February 2022, it was rejected by HCD. The City is now deemed out of compliance and is therefore currently ineligible for state funding for a variety of programs and at risk of incurring penalties, including the loss of local control over approval of certain housing projects.
The time crunch to resubmit a revised element and regain compliance put pressure on City Councilmembers to approve the revisions despite their outspoken concern over several aspects of the plan.
During a June 21 meeting, Council initially failed to pass the revisions in a 5-2 vote, with Councilmembers Kristen McCowan and Mayor Sue Himmelrich being the two yes votes.
Councilmember Phil Brock said that the RHNA allocation given to Santa Monica is too high and unreasonable given the fact that the state is not providing funding for cities to meet their mandated housing requirements.
Councilmember Oscar de la Torre wanted the element to do more to protect existing low-income residents from displacement as a result of new market rate housing.
Councilmember Lana Negrete also had fears about displacement, wanted more time to analyze projects, and did not like the identification of the Bergamot Center as a potential housing site with a 707 unit capacity. Councilmembers Christine Parra and Kristen McCowan were also concerned about identification of the Bergamot Center and the impact such a large-scale development would have on the nearby Pico neighborhood, however McCowan still voted in favor of the Housing Element revisions during the first vote.
Councilmember Gleam Davis also voted no, but unlike other Councilmembers did not oppose the development goals of the element, but instead felt that they didn’t go far enough in certain areas. In particular, Davis said she would like staff to return with a plan for limited upzoning in areas currently zoned for single family homes in order to create more multifamily housing.
Following the initial failed vote, Himmelrich impressed upon her colleagues the urgency of approving the draft revisions now, emphasizing the little ability the City has to resist its RHNA allocation, the consequences of being out of compliance, and the fact that these discussions have been going on for around two and a half years and cannot be delayed further.
“I am appalled by the state’s approach to this whole process and I still believe that they shouldn’t be allowed to do this and that there should be controls on this and there probably ought to be a lawsuit, but I also am going to move that we asked staff to submit the draft redline revisions to HCD,” said Himmelrich.
Councilmember Phil Brock asked the City to do more to fight the City’s RHNA allocation.
“What I’m concerned with… is that we are just acquiescing and not simultaneously saying this is unfair and I think we have to stand up for the residents of the city and our city,” said Brock. “So I’m happy to change my vote, if indeed staff and our City Manager and everyone will say that we will also do our best to join with other cities if there is any possible road forward to have HCD reconsider the requirements.”
City Manager David White said that the City had exhausted its reasonable avenues of fighting its allocation. According to White, the City has engaged with state representatives, lobbyists, and submitted letters to Sacramento outlining its reasons for opposing the allocation.
“From our perspective, we don’t really have any other avenues to express or advocate against what’s happening in the RHNA process,” said White. “We have tried very, very hard to express our strong position and concern with the Housing Element, but we’re running out of ammunition in that regard.
In the subsequent re-vote all Councilmembers voted in favor of submitting the draft revisions to HCD, except for Gleam Davis.
“I don’t think we have to sue, I think what we do have to do…is we have to send staff back to address the concerns that caused us to vote no. Now for some that may be insurmountable, but for me it’s not,” said Davis.
The revisions will now be submitted to HCD for a 120 day review period after which point the City will be notified if it has regained compliance.
The revisions to the Housing Element focused on HCD’s concerns around the City’s realistic ability to accommodate its RHNA allocation, in particular its allocation for low-income affordable housing.
The City’s RHNA allocation calls for 6,168 affordable units of which 1,880 are for lower-income affordable housing.
The City cannot control how many units, affordable or market rate, developers choose to build on a certain site. As a result, HCD said that the City’s inventory of possible housing sites did not take into consideration the possibility for 100 percent commercial or 100 percent market rate projects to be constructed on these sites.
The City therefore has amended its Housing Element to show capacity for around 13,000 units to address this potential shortfall. And, in order to address the likely shortfall in affordable housing, the City has identified more City owned sites for the production of affordable units.
This includes 104 units on the site of Parking Structure 3, 130 units in three Wilshire parking lots, 362 units in the space currently occupied by banks at 4th and Arizona, 577 units in Main Street Parking Lots, and 707 units at the Bergamot Arts Center. Currently, all of these projects are hypothetical with the exception of Parking Structure 3, which is in the process of being converted to affordable housing.