16 large-scale projects proposed in Santa Monica will dwarf nearly every other development in the city. These projects violate every zoning code, height restriction, and neighborhood norm. There is no way to stop them. Despite having closed the loophole that allowed these massive developments, the City Council voted on Tuesday to risk reopening it despite staff warnings.

The meteoric development boom bearing down on Santa Monica continues unabated with applications moving forward for 16 large projects that far exceed local building restrictions.

These projects, one exceeding the size, height and scope of the controversial Plaza project (4th, 5th/Arizona) and the highly contentious Bergamot Village project are now entirely outside local control. However, as plans are being drawn up to construct 4,656 new housing units, the Santa Monica City Council continues to roll the dice with its housing rules. This gamble, revising already approved housing plans, could expose the City to the wrath of state regulators who could give developers carte blanche to build as tall and as wide as they choose.

In recent weeks, the City Council discussed three ideas that could jeopardize local control over development. In two of the three instances, Council voted to ask state regulators if their ideas would in fact void local zoning rules. In the third case, a 4-3 majority voted to downsize potential housing developments on Main Street despite warnings that doing so could put the City in conflict with state required housing rules.

The Housing Element

The Housing Element is a plan made by local governments to figure out how many homes are needed and where they should be built.

The entire controversy stems from the city’s Housing Element and the requirement for the city to plan for housing growth.

Every eight years, California officials determine how much housing should be built to meet the needs of residents statewide. The total figure is allocated to regions who then assign a number to individual cities. Each city must then adopt policies and procedures that would allow developers to build the assigned total or face penalties.

In the current cycle, Santa Monica was assigned 8,874 new housing units, 69% of which must be at various affordable income levels. The new figures dwarf the previous allocation of 1,674 units. When Santa Monica officials failed to adopt plans that met the state’s requirements, they quickly learned the penalties for non-compliance were far more severe then in years past.

In past reporting, SMDP looked at how the failures came to pass.

  1. Local decision makers, including the City Council and several Commissioners, were ignorant of the challenge they faced, gravity of the report, and penalties for failure.
  2. After nearly a year of discussions, the initial plan was weakened.
  3. Staff presented explanations about the process, warnings and potential problems.
  4. Those warnings were either misunderstood, poorly communicated or outright ignored.
  5. The State of California rejected the city’s Housing Element.

At that point, local developers pounced on what is colloquially known as the Builder’s Remedy applying for 16 projects containing 4,562 housing units in buildings up to 18 stories tall.

The Builder’s Remedy

Housing laws have included the “Builder’s Remedy” since 1990. When a project is at least 20 percent affordable to low-income households or 100 percent affordable to moderate-income households, it can bypass city zoning codes and general plans.

The complex nature of the laws and a lack of enforcement mechanisms prevented the provision from being used for decades.

“Since 1980, California has had an ambitious planning framework on the books to make local governments accommodate their fair share of ‘regional housing need’ ‘for all income levels,’” said an analysis by a group of University of California experts (Christopher S. Elmendorf, Eric Biber, Paavo Monkkonen and Moira O’Neill) in a 2019 analysis of the law. “The framework relied, however, on a rickety and complicated conveyor belt for converting regional housing targets into actual production. Superintending the conveyor belt was an administrative entity, the Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD), whose rules had no legal effect, and whose judgments about the adequacy of a local government’s housing plan received virtually no deference from the courts.”

Historically, a non-compliant element had little impact on a city. The authors explain that several seemingly modest changes to laws over two years converged and radically strengthened HCD’s authority. The authors said the legislature increased HCD’s ability to require analysis of potential development sites, assess capacity for housing and honestly evaluate potential constraints. In addition, lawmakers enacted stricter compliance tests and stronger penalties for noncompliance.

“Put these (and a few other) pieces together, and it becomes apparent that administrative interventions that would have been beyond the pale just a few years ago are live options today,” the group said.

Fast forward a couple of years and Santa Monica became the testing ground for those now “live options.”

The Gamble

City Hall regained control of its zoning rules by adopting a compliant housing element; however, to maintain control, City Hall must adopt the state-approved policy and program changes. Since those discussions began in recent weeks, Council has asked the state to reduce some proposed upzonings of local commercial streets (such as Main and Montana) and to determine whether increasing affordable housing requirements from 15 to 20 percent would satisfy State requirements. Neither action undermined the Housing Element, but a vote at the March 21 Council meeting changed the rules in an unsafe way, according to staff.

Councilman Phil Brock proposed a cap on the amount of square footage that could be combined to create housing projects. His motion, backed by Lana Negrete, Christine Parra and Oscar de la Torre, reduced the maximum from 15,000 square feet to 11,000 square feet on Main Street. Staff said the revision could be enough to trigger a review if state officials consider it a restraint on the already approved Housing Element.

“I do want to firmly say that people came to Santa Monica. Because of the beach, because of the fresh air and because we weren’t a city of high rises,” said Brock. “We weren’t a city that crammed people in.”

The Projects

Whether future residents view 380 one-bedrooms, 20 two-bedrooms, and 5 three-bedroom apartments as “crammed in” will depend on their own opinion, but lack of compliance with state housing regulations has unquestionably resulted in highrise developments.

Developers have six months to file a formal application after securing their place in line with initial paperwork following a city’s non-compliance with the Housing Element rules. So far, formal applications have been received for 1215 19th St, 1238 7th St, 1420 20th St, 1433 Euclid St, 1437 6th St, 1443 Lincoln Blvd, 1518-1524 7th St, 1557 7th St, 1925 Broadway and 601 Colorado Ave.

Two of the ten projects with applications are six-stories (the smallest has 34 units), two are 11, one is 12, one is 15, two are 16 and two are 18 (the largest has 405 units). The pending projects are between 10 and 15 stories high. The new apartment buildings that line Lincoln Blvd are 5-6 stories tall.

Despite the City’s inability to stop projects, there’s no guarantee any of the proposals will succeed given the standard economic constraints related to construction. But developers have almost complete discretion on whether to proceed. A few nearby cities have sued the state, but their legal standing is uncertain, and the State has also sued non-complying cities.

There is no feedback from state officials regarding Santa Monica’s recent efforts nor can penalties be predicted if they reject the recent downsizing on Main Street, leaving residents wondering if the gamble will pay off.

For a deeper dive on how we got here, listen to our accompanying podcast. Find it wherever you listen to podcasts


Matthew Hall has a Masters Degree in International Journalism from City University in London and has been Editor-in-Chief of SMDP since 2014. Prior to working at SMDP he managed a chain of weekly papers...