They're Coming for Your Home and Your City: Our Analysis of Santa Monica's 1500-Page Housing Element Update
Santa Monica Planning Department releases their plans to put affordable housing everywhere, raise fees to pay for it, densify your neighborhood, and make you say you're happy about it
June 2, 2021
The City of Santa Monica's Planning Department has made available for public consumption its most current draft of the Housing Element of the General Plan. While this combination of words may cause your eyes to glaze over in boredom, the city staff's recommendations in this bulky document, over 1500 pages long, will significantly impact the quality of life in Santa Monica, including its density, environment, strain on infrastructure, cost of living, and finances. Since no one has the time to read 1500 pages, staff gets away with being transparent while assuring that nobody, including elected leaders, understands what they plan to do to the city.
But you are fortunate. I am here to explain it to you in less than 800 words.
The first thing you need to understand is that the Housing Element is just one of 7 required elements in a city's state-mandated General Plan. In the case of the Housing Element, which needs to be ratified by October, 2021, there are two main concerns (at least according to our Planning Department:
1. Find a way to shoehorn into an admittedly built-out city 8,895 more housing units, 69% of which need to be affordable. This number, 17% more than our current housing stock of 52,269 units, was allotted to Santa Monica by the Southern California Association of Governments and has force of law. However, the city only needs to zone for this, not build it.
2. Satisfy California AB686, which orders cities to "take meaningful actions in addition to combating discrimination that overcome patterns of segregation and foster inclusive communities free from barriers that restrict access to opportunity based on protective characteristics."
Regarding number 1, our planners have found a way to physically fit in the units. By counting currently pending units, city-owned lots, parking lots and structures, "under-utilized" sites, religious institution parking lots, and by allowing Accessory Dwelling Units, our city staff came up with space for 11,731 units.
The problem is figuring out how to finance the required affordable housing units, which for obvious reasons will not finance themselves. The strategy of asking a for-profit developer to contribute a certain percent of affordable units (or money for them) per market-rate unit built will not work in this situation since the ratio is more than 2 to 1 for affordable to market-rate. Much of the Update's 1500 pages is concerned with various hand-waving and hand-wringing regarding solving this insoluble problem.
But then, finally, on page 89 of the main 92-page document they admit that the city DOESN'T ACTUALLY HAVE TO ZONE FOR 8,895 UNITS. According to state code, "It is recognized that the total housing needs identified pursuant to [the number from SCAG] may exceed available resources and the community's ability to satisfy this need." The planners note that given the estimated $2.9 billion needed to build the city's allocation of affordable housing, it is "unrealistic that the City can achieve" its allotment. Instead, city planners come up with their own proposal for, instead, 5,363 units, 41% of which will be affordable. (Don't ask how they can achieve even that percent.)
The second concern of the Draft Housing Element, taking meaningful action against patterns of segregation, is more difficult to achieve, particularly given the vagueness of the task. But Santa Monica's socially conscious planners are up to the job of defining "meaningful actions" and making such actions as damaging as possible. The history of housing discrimination in Santa Monica ended before most people here were even born. No matter. According to progressive city staffers who want to change the world for the better, the effects of earlier redlining of neighborhoods lives on. Proof is that poor people (who often also happen to be particular minorities) still live in poor neighborhoods, and rich people (who less often belong to particular minorities but may belong to other minorities) still live in rich neighborhoods.
To combat this economic, and coincidentally racial, segregation, the planning staff recommend various stratagems to move poor people into rich neighborhoods. Presumably, (but by no means guaranteed), this would also involve minorities moving into neighborhoods now inhabited by non-minorities. These strategies involve making a city-wide 100% Affordable Housing Overlay. It would involve upzoning parts of the single-family-home neighborhoods north of Montana. It would involve downgrading almost every element of the city's Land Use and Circulation Element, including dumping the charge to "protect, conserve and enhance the City's diverse residential neighborhoods to promote and maintain a high quality of life for all residents."
Meanwhile, the City Manager asked for money to pay for two more city planners because enough damage has not been done by those on the payroll already.