A Case of Legislative Undersight

September 30, 2020

Dear Editor,

When it’s clear that your car is headed for a cliff, it’s time to change direction. The State of California doesn’t seem to believe that, and Santa Monica is in the passenger seat.

In the face of record drought conditions (with Lake Powell approaching dead zone status) and insufficient power-generation capabilities to serve the current population (in part because of reduced hydropower from places like Lake Powell), cities like Santa Monica have imposed restrictions on water use, and the State has asked residents to reduce their demand for electricity.

Despite this, the State has made no course correction in its housing plans. It still intends to create -- by mandate in city after city – millions of new residences. With two to three residents in each household, that’s, potentially, tens of millions of new people; people who won’t have sufficient water or power.

The predominant law governing the new housing (Senate Bill 330) contains references throughout it about the creation of affordable housing, since it’s the cost of housing that imposes the greatest burden on state residents.

Yet in cities like Santa Monica, which is required under the State’s mandate to provide 8900 new units, developers are focused on market-rate apartments, not units that meet the budgets of “very low, low, and moderate income” households -- the intended beneficiaries of the law.

Instead, developers are leveraging the absolute minimum requirements for affordable units -- 10 percent -- to qualify for “density bonuses” that permit as much as a 50 percent expansion in the size of projects, 90 percent of whose units will be priced at market rates.

Provisions in other sections of the State Government Code allow developers to override local zoning to increase the height of the buildings, in spite of local restrictions that permit 2-3 story additions only when a project consists exclusively -- 100 percent -- of affordable units. So the justification for 65’ high buildings in Lincoln Center -- ten feet above the zoning maximum -- is a decision only the developer can love.

More confounding is the provision that all of these variances can be obtained by the developers without any input from or constraints by current residents ("News Analysis -- Gelson's Proposed Project Is a Done Deal Under State Law," February 23, 2022).

Communities have, in essence, no redress. The State has come down firmly on the side of commercial, profit-driven businesses that have no obligation to ensure that residents will have the water and power they’ll need. Even with solar power capabilities incorporated into all new construction, as the law demands, the technology is currently unable to meet the electricity needs of all the tenants in projects that have hundreds of apartments.

The situation is, like objections to programs designed to limit or reverse climate change, a case of legislative undersight. Elected officials don’t want to offend the people who contribute the most to their campaign coffers, so they won’t take steps to benefit constituents if, by doing so, they alienate their biggest financial supporters. It is, to some degree, legalized graft. Santa Monica’s refusal to contest these decisions is cowardly.

In “Revenge for Honour,” George Chapman wrote in 1653 that “The law is an ass,” an assessment that was enduring enough to be repeated by Dickens two hundred years later in “Oliver Twist.” That, of course, puts the creators of the law in the same genus: strong enough to keep going but not smart enough not to.

Peter Altschuler
Santa Monica

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