Housing Über Alles

The current Downtown Community Plan under consideration by the Planning Commission is a good start but could get better. It is single mindedly pro housing expecting to add about 2500 units (approximately 4000 new residents) in the next 13 years to 2030. In addition it reduces certain (not all) parking requirements to hopefully reduce traffic and create less reliance on the car as the primary transportation mode. Furthermore it provides major incentives to preserve many of the historical buildings which might otherwise be subject to demolition in the future. That said, it is not yet a great plan which was one of the City Manager’s Rick Cole’s stated objectives and what Santa Monicans expect of their downtown after the extended review and approval process.

When that long approval process started, the downtown area was supposed to absorb the half of the City’s 5000 new unit housing needs until 2030. Housing was supposed to be maximized through a tier system whereby developers could get extra height and density if they paid additional fees and added more affordable units than was required for simply conforming projects. But suddenly the rules of the “housing game” changed in three significant ways:

  1. In 2017 the State mandated that people could, by right, add an ADU (Accessory Dwelling Unit) to any lot with a single-family residence. These units could be up to 1,200 square feet, or big enough for a 3-bedroom apartment, significantly larger than the typical apartment currently being built downtown. This essentially rezoned the entire city to a 2-unit baseline eliminating the single-family zone as largest area in the city.

In 2016, Santa Monica had about 9,720 single family residences. It would not be surprising if 10 percent of those single family homes over the next 13 years took advantage of this new State law since no additional parking for the second unit was required if you are within 1/2 mile of public transit, which in Santa Monica’s case is the entire city. Faster, cheaper to build and rent, and more desirable than a typical downtown apartment, these so called ADU’s will propagate much faster than large multistory apartment projects. They provide many social benefits such as economically serving current students, returning students, Air BnB opportunities, live in maids, retiring family members, etc etc. It would not be surprising if their propagation was even faster, but about 972 units, or about 1/3 of our 13 year housing plan, could be met by the new ADUs.

  1. There has been a feeding frenzy of apartment approvals with about 850 new units being approved over the last two years. So only two years into the Downtown Plans’ life, we have already approved a third of our target housing. Although just approved, they still need to be built, but with the heroic effort needed to get those approvals, the developers are very likely to follow through to construction.
  2. Last November the generous citizens of Santa Monica imposed a ¼ percent sales tax increase which, combined with the affordable housing fees charged to new projects and possibly the late Redevelopment Agency’s loan repayments, will generate somewhere on the order of $16 million per year. This translates to about 32 units a year or 416 units till 2030. While the amount of money that is available fluctuates depending on the funding source, approximately half of the funds will be generated by the sales tax which is relatively stable each year and will continue to increase with inflation. All the funds thus earmarked for affordable housing provide fully affordable units as opposed to the relatively small number of affordable units that are required by the City’s affordable housing regulations in a typical market rate project. Note all these affordable units can be downtown or anywhere land becomes available.

With these three game changers, we will have over the next 13 years, realistically, about 2236 units in the pipeline. This already represents about 90 percent of the 2,500 units that were supposed to be produced downtown. In short, we are very close to meeting our regional housing goals and can look at our downtown differently than we originally did years ago when the Downtown Plan process started. Some may argue that the need for more housing is so great that even if we are already close to our regional goals, we should still produce as much as we can. The problem with this is that we cannot build our way to affordability. The end result would be to simply fill the downtown with more expensive units that would crush our already impacted downtown, endangering our sustainability goals and not really increasing the affordability for a full range of residents. In short the problem we face is not the number of units produced, but how many of them we can make truly affordable. Now any prediction spanning 13 years is subject to substantial volatility, so we can always debate the accuracy of any specific number, however the important thing is that their order of magnitude has significantly changed before the Plan is adopted so we have time to adjust it accordingly.

The path to affordability can be spread out over the whole city with ADUs and the sales tax increase rather than just piled on to the downtown. This means the Downtown Plan can be freed from the shackles of just optimizing for housing numbers. Other important goals can now be considered. For example we could easily reduce the allowed building heights by 10’ to create much more sustainable and resilient buildings, and more spacious appearing, safe and gracious streets. We could thus keep and enhance our downtown’s uniqueness while still meeting all our important housing goals. With such small shifts, we could make the Downtown Plan a truly great plan and not just a machine for housing production.

by SM.a.r.t. Santa Monica architects for a responsible tomorrow. Robert H. Taylor AIA, Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA planning Commissioner , Ron Goldman FAIA, Daniel Jansenson Architect, Thane Roberts AIA, Architect, Samuel Tolkin AIA, Phil Brock, Santa Monica Arts Commission.