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COUNCIL UPDATE: Council Extends Housing Moratorium to Explore Ways to Preserve Neighborhoods

By Jorge Casuso

Unable to fully digest two pounds of documents in three days, the City Council Tuesday night postponed taking full action on a series of measures to preserve the character of Santa Monica's residential neighborhoods.

To buy time to further explore the proposals and set up public meetings, the council is expected to extend for two months a moratorium on the demolition and construction of multi-family housing that is set to expire March 28.

"What this does is give us some breathing room to try and preserve the character people care about," said Mayor Ken Genser, who was chairing his first meeting after a three-week hospital stay.

Before postponing a final vote on several proposals, the council approved a citywide Construction Rate Program that allows only one multi-family housing project to be built within a 500-foot radius every 18 months in multi-family zones. The 45-day interim ordinance, which will likely be tweaked, exempts affordable housing and controls the design and site layout of condominium projects.

The council also unanimously rejected a measure to ease building size and parking restrictions to encourage more affordable housing after residents objected it would make neighborhoods even more densely populated.

"There has to simply be a better way to build affordable housing," said Giles Smith. "Making the lives of current residents worse is not the answer."

"This is atrocious," said Robin Waner, who chairs the Wilshire-Montana Neighborhood Coalition. "Now we're talking about raising heights, reducing setbacks. That goes against everything the moratorium was passed for. You're going in the wrong direction. You're going up when you should be going down."

After taking action on the measures, the council directed staff to further explore ways to stem what city officials fear is a growing wave of condo construction spurred by rising land and housing costs.

The proposals include the following:

3Extending citywide the North of Wishire building standards that limit height and address other neighborhood compatibility concerns.

3Hiking the fees developers must pay if they choose not to construct the required 30 percent low and moderate-income units on site. Staff is recommending that the council increase the current base fee of $7.13-per-square-foot of floor area for condominiums to $11.01.

3 Exempting empty lots, uninhabitable buildings and remodeling projects from the moratorium.

3 Exploring ways to preserve existing housing types such as courtyard buildings and bungalows that are "character giving."

3 Exploring ways to preserve affordable housing.

"We're not saying stop development," said Councilman Michael Feinstein, "but trying to direct it and harness it to preserve what we have. Nobody is trying to just say, 'Let's shut down development.'"

But Councilman Paul Rosenstein argued that the moratorium approved last May, as well as the proposed measures, are overkill and politically motivated.

"The moratorium was based on the assumption that there was this wild desire for redevelopment when the reality is that landlords are rehabbing their buildings to cash in on the housing market," Rosenstein said after the meeting.

Rosenstein said that the moratorium was spurred by two dozen new condominium projects in a city with 4,000 to 5,000 multi-family buildings. At that rate, Rosenstein argued, it would take 200 years to replace the housing.

"We need to stop wasting our time justifying a moratorium we can't justify," Rosenstein said. "Getting into a moratorium is easy, getting out of it in a way that shows the community we're doing something is much more difficult."

Despite the two-month extension, city staff warned the council that the measures it was contemplating were too complex to fully craft on such short notice.

"We're only going to be returning with minor modifications," said Suzanne Frick, the city's planning director. "We won't be able to make substantial changes within a two-month period. There's very little we could do."

Frick noted that the city is expected to adopt new development standards in one year to a year-and-a-half.

Community leaders welcomed the extra time to study the issue.

"You need adequate time, you need to extend your moratorium," said Michael Tarbet, a leader of Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights who specializes in housing issues. " You haven't been provided with sufficient information. You need time to look at the whole mix."

Lookout Staff writer Teresa Rochester contributed to this report.

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