Santa Monica does not have a housing crisis. The Southern Counties Association of Governments (SCAG) target for our City is 239 new units per year. This is a fair number that reflects our percentage of growth for the Southern California region. In the last three years we have approved an average of 253 new units per year. In addition we have another 1929 units (not counting 679 units in withdrawn projects) in the pipeline at various stages of approval processing. If only half of those projects go to term over the next three years we would have approved an average of another 321 units in the next three years or 1/3 more than our SCAG requirement. Simply stated we are already meeting more than our fair share of the region’s housing demand in addition to all the other benefits our small city provides to the region. In fact, Santa Monica’s population increase (2000-2010), which we can see everyday in our traffic overload, was over twice that of Los Angeles County (6.7% vs 3.1%).
While housing is very expensive in Santa Monica, as it is in all beach communities, our median incomes are 20-25% higher than LA County’s. Because of that, our city is actually more affordable to its residents than to the average citizen in LA County. For example, 56% of our property owners (1/4 of our population) pay more than 30% of their income for their housing, while 67% of the average Angelo homeowners pay that burden. Likewise 67% of our renters (3/4 of our population) pay that unreasonable burden, while 85% of Los Angeles County renters are similarly encumbered. Even though rent control is slowly being weakened, thanks primarily to our robust affordable housing program, which maintains 10-20% of the new units as deed restricted affordable units, affordability is still substantially protected in the future.
In a relatively wealthy city, we have made Santa Monica comparatively more affordable than Los Angeles County. And remember, this was done in the depths of a recession on some of the most expensive land on the Westside. The ability to maintain affordability of our housing stock through the combined efforts of the City Council and staff, of the Rent Control Board and of affordable housing providers like Community Corp and of affordability advocates like SMRR to name just a few, is an incredible achievement. We can all be proud of this achievement.
In short we can stop beating ourselves up about needing more and more housing and focus instead on the consequences of this abundant housing production, particularly as its burden escalates in the future. It is already colliding with our sustainability goals. We simply do not have the water for the 8,000 new residents who are to join us in the next 20 years. In fact we do not have enough water for our current homes and businesses since we import about a third of our water from collapsing sources such as the Sierra snow pack (the expected El Nino this year will not undo four years of drought). Most of the new housing is headed toward Downtown, which does not even have an elementary school, so those students will need to go across half the town to possibly McKinley. Only one in nine of our workers live and work in the City so we cannot substantially reduce our job/housing imbalance by building more housing, since 9 of the 10 new workers will still work outside of the City adding to our peak hour traffic crushes. And there is no certainty this ratio will likely improve with the advent of the light rail next year. It may actually get worse.
This housing production is not free. New residents require more schools, water, power, traffic upgrades, fire and police services. In countless ways this growth burdens our infrastructure which is already compromised and has limited expansion capability in a built out city. For example, where would you amass enough land for the next elementary school? Where would you build the desalinization plant when desalinization becomes a cost competitive (and ecologically sound) water source? Where would you move the City yards to when Memorial Park is expanded? These are not trivial problems when you consider, for example, that we have the least amount of open park space and are the second densest city in California for coastal cities of our comparable size. The limitations of space in our impacted City means that infrastructure upgrades become much more expensive and increase faster than the tax base to support them. Whenever our growth expands beyond our infrastructure’s capacity, in all senses of the word, all the residents end up paying a horrible civic price in cost (have you looked at your water bill lately), in time and in quality of life.
Unfortunately the trumped-up housing supply crisis in our City has become a Trojan horse to try to drive more unsustainable development into our City. The poster boy for this is the recently approved Santa Monica Plaza project which the City Council green lighted to the next approval level with an astonishing 12 stories and a pitiful fig leaf of only 48 affordable units. The evolving Downtown Specific Plan is also freighted with an unsustainable amount of development.
Cities cannot and should not expand infinitely. Only so much land, sunlight and water is available to our City. For example cities actually do run out of water: even big ones like Sao Paolo, Brazil. So in our built-out beachside City we cannot sustainably produce all the housing there is demand for in our region, nor should we try, since we are already providing more than our fair share of housing AND other vital regional services: recreation (beaches), job creation (silicone beach), transportation (airport and light rail), entertainment (3rd Street Promenade, the pier), health (two regional hospitals), education (Santa Monica College) and tourism (hotel industry).
Those other regional services are as equally regionally important as the housing we provide. However our most significant regional contribution is to be a low rise city where residents, visitors and tourists can relax and get relief from the urban pandemonium all around us. Relaxed living that’s our real mission statement in this region and this aligns with the interests of our residents.
When we compare ourselves to other beachside Cities we do more than our share in many categories. How many regional hospitals does does Malibu have? Does Redondo Beach have a 30,000 student junior college? Does Manhattan Beach have an airport? We do housing very well, but it is just a small part of our metropolitan role. Sustainability of all our regional contributions without burdening our residents should be our major focus, not any one at the expense of the others.
SMa.r.t. (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)