At long last, Santa Monica’s housing element is set to reach final approval.

The latest update on the months-long saga came out earlier this month, after the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD), wrote a letter to Santa Monica’s planning manager on Sept. 6 stating that the revised draft would be in compliance with state regulations.

Two formal steps remain before the 6th Cycle (2021-2029) Housing Element is finally put to bed: planning commission and city council approval. The first of those steps is set for this week, as the final draft comes before the seven-member planning commission on Wednesday, Sept. 21.

Each city in California is mandated to produce an acceptable Housing Element once every decade, outlining development guidelines to allow for an increase in residential housing units to hit state-mandated minimums as well as other state standards (such as low-income housing availability).

Santa Monica’s Housing Element saga began in February, when HCD rejected the initial 6th Cycle plan on the grounds that city-identified housing sites were infeasible. That first plan, submitted nearly one year ago in October 2021, identified 8,895 potential new housing units, of which 6,168 would be affordable. City staff believed the plan met Santa Monica’s Regional Housing Needs Allocation, or RHNA.

But HCD rejected the plan on several grounds, including that the City was too optimistic with its projected new housing units; in response, the Final Draft Revised Housing Element identifies 13,000 units of potential housing to meet the RHNA.

“Because the zoning does not exclude the probability of commercial development happening … we don’t have a prohibition on commercial development,” Planning Manager Jing Yeo explained to the Planning Commission when it last saw the Draft Revised Housing Element in June. “But that was something that was accounted for in the SSI, so there was a 15% across-the-board haircut. And that was one of the things that bumped up our overall capacity to make up for that loss.” 

In other words, HCD believed the first Housing Element relied on an unrealistic outlook on the number of residential units likely to be constructed in mixed-use zones where it is permitted to develop non-residential uses. So, in response, staff bumped up floor-area ratio and building height maximums in several districts to accommodate more density, specifically “in commercial l boulevards north of the I-10 freeway (Wilshire, Santa Monica Boulevard, Broadway, Colorado, Olympic), Bergamot, and Downtown in exchange for lesser development standards in Pico neighborhood and neighborhood commercial areas such as Montana Avenue, Main Street, and Ocean Park Boulevard.”

The 185-page Final Draft Revised Housing Element states that the City of Santa Monica has identified “the capacity to accommodate at least 13,600 units providing a 53 percent buffer above the City’s RHNA of 8,895 units,” later adding that, “The buffer accounts for the likelihood that not all identified SSI sites may be necessarily developed by a property owner for housing. The land inventory includes capacity for 521 extremely low, 2,819 very low income, 2,703 low income, and 1,901 moderate income units.”

Planning Commission will begin its hearing on the subject on Sept. 21 and the final draft must be approved by state officials by Oct. 15 or the city could lose the ability to enforce some zoning laws.