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Hedges, Housing, Buses

By Frank Gruber

The City Council agenda for tomorrow night includes three items that are each interesting enough alone to justify a column. The big one is fences and hedges, but the council will also be evaluating the City's affordable housing production plan and reviewing the design of bus shelters for the Rapid 3 bus service the Big Blue Bus will inaugurate on Lincoln Boulevard in June.

I will try to give my thoughts as efficiently as possible.

* * *

The more the City delved into the wants of everyone in the city, as opposed to the wants of everyone who was angry about the enforcement of the fence and hedge rules, the more residents the City found who like the rules much the way they are. (Staff report)

But opinions are polarized, which became apparent to me at the March 9 public workshop on fences and hedges. City staff randomly divided about 60 participants into eight groups and then asked them to pretend they were the City Council. You would have thought that the random division would have lead to compromise proposals, but most of the groups came up with all-or-nothing solutions from either the "regulate" or "don't regulate" side.

Something about fences drives people to extremes; it's helpful to remember that when Robert Frost had his neighbor say "good fences make good neighbors," Frost was skeptical.

But I feel moderate. I walk a lot and like the open look that comes from open front yards, but I've lived in houses that were next to taller buildings. My views reflect my experiences, and they are:

1. Unless we want to change the building code, there should be no change to allowable heights for fences and walls -- otherwise, why not let people build their houses to the front property line?

2. Nor does it make sense to require front yard setbacks, which are intrinsic to sacred and sanctified R1 zoning, if a property owner can enclose the setback with a hedge.

Pretty front yard in Ocean Park (Photos by Frank Gruber)

3. Someone invented drapes for a reason and a tree in a front yard is a beautiful thing.

4. If you can build a two-story building, there is no great logic to prevent you from growing a hedge along your side yard to the same height, provided that the plant material is not obnoxious. Even more so, if your neighbors build taller buildings that overlook your property, why shouldn't you have the right to grow a hedge tall enough to block their view of you?

5. Whatever happens with front yard hedges, no one should have the right to overhang the sidewalk, and the City should enforce this on its own.

Hedge overhanging a sidewalk

6. The City employs an arborist who could create a list of acceptable hedge plantings, and who could also advise property owners on trees to plant to replace hedges.

7. "Grandparenting" current violations, encouraging deals between neighbors and limiting the right to complain to next-door neighbors are policies that create more problems than they solve. Some neighbors are bullies or just irrational. The front yard setback rules exist to benefit passersby as much as whoever lives next door. Enforcement should not depend on how nice someone is.

8. One size does not fit all and the City could have different rules for different neighborhoods. But the rules in each neighborhood need to be clear so the City -- not the neighbors -- can enforce them fairly.

* * *

In 1990 Santa Monica voters passed Prop. R, which requires that 30 percent of the City's new multi-family housing be "dedicated" affordable to low and moderate income households.

The effectiveness of the law is open to debate: since 1990, 40 percent of new multi-family housing has been affordable, but hardly any housing (affordable or market-rate) was built prior to 1998.

1998 was when the City removed the on-site requirement for affordable housing and allowed developers to pay an in-lieu fee instead; since then, housing production has increased substantially, but the flipside of that is a concern that the strong market for market-rate housing will outrun production of dedicated affordable housing.

The City Council asked staff to evaluate the current program for producing affordable housing. Staff hired consultants who performed an economic analysis, and in their report, they float various ideas to encourage the building of more affordable units. (Staff report)

A number of the suggestions involve quintessential land use issues like density bonuses, parking requirements, permit fees, and permit streamlining. One wonders why the City Council is considering this question outside either the current update process for the land use element of the general plan or the next update of the housing element.

The most controversial issue, whenever the Council considers it, will be how much of an in-lieu fee to charge developers who do not build affordable units themselves. The consultants' economic analysis purports to justify (for the purpose of satisfying legal requirements) tripling the fee for apartments (from $6.14/sq. ft. to $19.42) and doubling the fee for condominiums (from $11.01 to $22.96).

What this means is that a fundamental part of the City's affordable housing program is to tax developers (and ultimately the buyers and renters) of market-rate multi-family housing to build needed low and moderate income housing, and the Council is considering drastic increases to the tax.

I would hope that everyone agrees that a modern society is not successful unless everyone has decent housing at an affordable price. Ideally, a society would accomplish this by making sure that everyone receives enough pay to afford housing. This depends on wages being high enough and the cost of housing being low enough.

Every modern society, however, has found it has to subsidize housing because in the real, as opposed to ideal, world, the labor market expands more easily than the housing market. This is especially true in Southern California in 2005.

The need to subsidize housing is a direct consequence of restrictive land use policies and the low wages caused by an oversupply of workers; if you want an image of the problem, visualize a gardener making seven dollars an hour cutting the lawn of a million dollar house in an R1 zone.

But it's not only the gardener who needs a subsidy. Nearly all residential construction, particularly single-family homes on virgin land, receive government subsidies in the form of infrastructure, financing, and tax deductions.

The issue is not the subsidy, but who should pay; it seems to me, when the goal is increasing the supply of housing (to lower housing prices for all), that it is counterproductive to lay the tax on new construction.

The legal and economic justification for the in lieu fee is that new residents in market-rate multi-family housing (oddly the fee is not charged on single-family homes) require services that low-wage workers perform. But the same can be said for people who buy into existing homes in Santa Monica; as prices go up, the new, wealthier residents use more services.

According to the staff report, the proposed increase in the fee for condos would bring the fee to 4.4 percent of the condo's price. This is a significant hit for someone buying the condo; but in the aggregate, given the number of new condos that are built each year, the fee does not generate a lot of subsidy.

On the other hand, a fee that was a much smaller percentage, but levied on a much bigger number -- say the total value of real estate sales in the city -- would yield more money for affordable housing and would, at the same time, be more fair.

* * *

The Big Blue Bus's new "Rapid" service on Lincoln, between downtown and LAX and the Green Line, will be a wonderful thing, but like most transit planning in the region, the plan doesn't go far enough. Tomorrow night the City Council is only looking at the design of bus shelters, but the council should also encourage the BBB to take its plan farther.

The Rapid 3 will provide faster service for several reasons. Not counting three stops in downtown Santa Monica, the Rapid 3 will have only 11 stops from Pico to the Green Line terminus. Like Rapid buses running in Los Angeles, the Rapid 3 will have traffic signal priority, and may in the future run at least partly in bus-only lanes.

As currently planned, the bus will run weekdays during peak morning and afternoon hours. The regular number 3 bus will also run every fifteen minutes. The two buses combined will run eight times an hour, as opposed the current schedule of six regular 3's an hour.

Sounds great, right? More buses and better service for beleaguered transit riders and a real alternative for many motorists. But there is one problem.

Back in March transportation experts told a joint City Council and Planning Commission meeting that to increase bus ridership it was crucial to have headways -- the time between buses on a route -- of no more than ten minutes, so that the average wait would be five minutes or less.

Although the combined headways for the Rapid 3 and the regular 3 will be only seven and a half minutes, the headway for each service will be fifteen. For a person who must use the regular 3, this represents a diminution of service, and the average wait for a Rapid 3 will be seven and a half minutes.

After approving the bus shelter design, the Council should direct the BBB to seek funding to increase rush hour service for both the Rapid and the regular 3 to six buses an hour, so that headways for each bus would be ten minutes and one bus or the other would run every five minutes.

The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Lookout.
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