Sacramento Tries to Nuke Santa Monica (Again)

When it first appeared it was almost a joke, some kind of bizarre nightmare; a State senator from San Francisco recently introduced legislation to encourage new housing production throughout the state. SB-827 would do away with all zoning restrictions within a half-mile of a train station, a quarter-mile of a frequent bus route, and a half-mile of any intersection of frequent bus routes. Any housing built in those areas would be free of any local restrictions on height, size, parking requirements, floor area ratio, or number of units.

According to SB-827, any lot, no matter its zoning, could have apartment buildings of up to 85’ or eight stories built on it (lots less than 45’ wide could go up to six stories). This includes single-family residential lots, buildings on the state historic register, and properties containing two- or three-story apartment buildings similar to those containing most of Santa Monica’s rent-controlled units. It also includes the entirety of the city’s ocean-facing neighborhood along Ocean Boulevard. None would be spared. The text of the measure can be seen here:

A first glance at a map of Santa Monica shows that 95 percent of the city would be subject to this measure, if it passes. In other words, any Santa Monica lot wider than 45’ could have an eight story building on it by right: with no local objection permitted. As such it completely destroys the recently approved Downtown Specific Plan and demolishes totally our Land Use Circulation Element which is supposed to govern development of the entire city for 20 years. Such blanket legislation is identical to the recent poison pill foisted on us by State law that Environmental Impact Reports cannot consider traffic impacts if the projects are within a quarter mile of any transit stop. This State law makes questioning proposed traffic impacts of future projects, which is a major issue in Santa Monica, totally irrelevant and ineffective.

Such legislation coming out of Sacramento is typical of the arrogance of those who think that to every complex problem there is always a simple, easy, and quick solution. In this case the simple, easy, and quick solution to housing affordability issues is to abolish planning regulations and local control. More often than not these easy solutions are wrong. Remember Sacramento created Santa Monica’s housing affordability issue years ago by passing vacancy decontrol which neutered our rent control laws and moved at least half of Santa Monica’s rent controlled units from affordable to unaffordable market rates. Likewise whenever Sacramento gets involved in what are essentially local issues, it tells you that the special interests have failed to convince the natives that the simple minded solution being proposed has merit and now are trying to bring big brother’s force to bear by weaponizing State laws to legally trump local ordinances and preferences. In other words San Francisco’s Senator Weiner, who introduced the bill, has failed to convince his constituency, at the local level, to cover San Francisco with eight story buildings, so he’s now trying to sell this trojan horse to the entire state.

The reason why his sales pitch is gaining any traction is that a quantity and affordability panic has been created, and now suddenly any solution, even the most misguided ones must be adopted. Panic is a poor basis for public decisions: panic brought us Manzanar, created Senator Joseph Mc Carthy, and is now trying to “build a wall”.

The sober reality is that Santa Monica’s robust construction and affordable housing program is doing its part to solve the State’s housing shortfall.

  • Our city’s population is growing faster than the average for our metropolitan area.
  • We consistently meet and exceed all of Southern Counties Association of Government housing production quotas.
  • Using a liberal accessory dwelling unit code we have effectively eliminated all the R-1 districts and rezoned the entire city to allow two units, with some modest limitations, on any lot with an existing single family residence.
  • We extract modest but real affordable unit requirements from all major projects and require substantial affordable unit fees for other smaller projects.
  • The citizens have imposed on themselves a sales tax that will produce about 20 affordable units per year for every year in the foreseeable future.
  • In spite of Sacramento’s meddling, we still have a rent control ordinance and political backup protecting tenant’s rights.

In other words Santa Monica is doing more than its part, unlike some cities such as Beverly Hills, to provide both quantity and affordable housing. We are doing all these things on some of the priciest California coastal land, in a built-out city, in a time of exceptionally high construction costs. We are doing all this knowing Santa Monica cannot build its way to affordability since there is an infinite demand of wealthy people wanting to live here but a very limited amount of water, space and sunlight to power our green city. We could double the number of units in the city, make it look like Hong Kong or Honolulu, and there would still be an affordability crisis as new units always cost more than old units.

Santa Monica does not need to frantically respond to panic from Sacramento. SB-827 should die a quiet death and Senator Weiner should go back ruining his own city and leave all the other California cities to work out their own appropriate response to housing issues.


Mario Fonda-Bonardi, AIA, Planning Commissioner, for SMa.r.t.