Santa Monica’s failure to build enough affordable housing has once again jeopardized local control over new development but the current situation is far less severe than the previous debacle over the city’s Housing Element.
According to state regulators, Santa Monica did not build enough units in the very low, low and moderate income levels in recent years and that deficit now puts the city under a state law that allows anyone building a project with at least 50% affordable units to bypass design rules. However, the law’s additional requirements on developers make it generally undesirable as a regulatory option and local officials said that while they have to comply with the law, they do not think it will have an impact on local development.
Municipalities are required to plan for a State mandated quota of housing at various income levels. That plan, known as a Housing Element, is developed every eight years and Santa Monica recently moved from its 5th Housing Element into the 6th.
During the 5th cycle, the city only built 91% of its very low income quota, 58% of its low income quota and 18% of its moderate income quota. In that time it built 250% of the above moderate quota.
That disparity triggers a law known as SB35 allowing developers to skip all public hearings if they meet a variety of conditions. Santa Monica already has a streamlined approval process similar to SB35 but the two have different requirements. Santa Monica rules limit commercial use in a building to 25%, can’t be applied to lots larger than one acre and have more tenant protections.
In addition to the 50% affordable rule, SB35 requires developers to meet wage and workforce rules for larger projects which local officials said will discourage most builders from using the process.
Planning Commissioner Jim Ries said SB35 was unlikely to unleash a flood of new development because anyone who wanted to build a 50% affordable project would most likely just build it at 100% affordable and avail themselves of other bonuses and incentives. In addition, he said the cost to build projects under SB35 is a deterrent.
“My clients would do anything to stay away from it, because nobody … cares about the affordability, nobody wants the labor standards and labor standards only going to be increased in this next version,” he said.
While projects that did choose to use SB35 can avoid public hearings, they can be subject to “objective design standards” which are minimal rules governing elements of the project’s construction.
Riese said he still supported putting those standards in place as a failsafe in case the city did receive a project application.
“Affordable housing projects have always been extremely highly designed and hat’s why we see such nice projects throughout the area. But a lot of the reasons they do that is because the communities were so unreceptive to their projects because they were going to be bigger, taller, denser buildings,” he said. “I’m not going to guarantee that the level of architectural design for those projects is gonna stay the same because there’s a lot of costs in that design.”
SB35 is one of several mechanisms in State law that overrides local zoning rules to facilitate housing. Current developments that meet certain thresholds for affordable projects can apply for density bonuses that allow projects to increase in size by 50% and bypass local restrictions.
Santa Monica previously lost control of its development process when the first draft of its sixth housing element was rejected by state regulators for being too restrictive. The City regained control after amending its rules and settled a lawsuit with developers that withdrew most of the so called Builder’s Remedy projects from the pipeline in exchange for streamlined approval of a handful of specific large projects.
The City Council is set to discuss SB35 and the design standards at their Dec. 12 meeting.