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Santa Monica Faces “Complicated Challenge” with Affordable Housing Deficit

Santa Monica Real Estate Company, Roque and Mark

Pacific Park, Santa Monica Pier

Harding Larmore Kutcher & Kozal, LLP  law firm
Harding, Larmore
Kutcher & Kozal, LLP

Convention and Visitors Bureau Santa Monica

By Jonathan Friedman
Staff Writer

August 27, 2015 -- City Council members reached no conclusions on how to increase the availability of affordable housing in Santa Monica during a study session dedicated to the subject on Tuesday. 

But council members said final decisions were not expected to be made this week because quick solutions were not possible for what City Manager Rick Cole called “a complicated challenge.”

Mayor Kevin McKeown asked City staff to create a matrix showing the various impacts of different methods for creating affordable housing, including raising money through various tax options and bonds, as well as the shifting of City spending priorities.

“We need to make a comprehensive decision on all of these together,” McKeown said. “No one solution is going to suffice.”

Andy Agle, director of housing and economic development, provided the council with various statistics showing there is an affordable housing deficit.

There are approximately 23,000 households in Santa Monica earning $75,000 or less per year, which is the amount that would qualify a four-person household as low- or moderate-income. But there are only 16,000 apartment units with a rent amount deemed affordable.

Agle said this means many households are what he called rent-burdened or severely rent-burdened.

“It’s causing them to have to make choices about other things, including essentials like food and education,” he said.

The problem only gets worse because each year for the past five years, Santa Monica has lost 400 to 550 long-term, rent-controlled units to market rates. 

And with the State dissolving Santa Monica’s Redevelopment Agency in 2012, the City lost the money it had used to produce up to 95 percent of new affordable housing.

With the City facing a difficult issue, McKeown asked City Manager Cole what he believed was possible.

Cole responded, “The most significant achievable but very ambitious goal is simply maintaining the share of affordability that we have today, which means actively replacing the units we lose by a wide range of strategies”

Among these strategies are adaptive reuse projects, deed restrictions for affordable units as well as partnerships with affordable housing programs and others.

Councilmember Pam O’Connor said adaptive reuse is a good way to create more affordable housing, but development is also needed.

“What we’re talking about here is let’s build in appropriate locations for the needs of our community and at those affordability levels that will help us continue to have a diverse and inclusive Santa Monica,” she said.

“We need to be careful not to demonize development,” O’Connor added. “Sometimes new building production will be able to supply affordable housing. Other times the (solution) will be rehabilitation."

The council heard from more than 20 public speakers, most speaking about the need for more affordable housing. But not everybody said it was a top issue.

Tricia Crane, vice chair of Santa Monica Northeast Neighbors, said her organization collected 400 responses to a survey about local priorities, and nobody named affordable housing in their top three.

“We have water problems,” she said. “We have over-development crushing us. We’re choking on traffic, and we don’t understand how this is the priority for our council.”

Crane added that many people agreed with her, but were afraid to speak at the council meeting because they were being demonized as “anti-affordable housing,” which she said was not an accurate description. 

She called the session “a rigged event” dominated by public speakers who would agree with the council.

This led to a heated exchange between Crane and Mayor Pro Tem Tony Vazquez, who accused her of not getting information from a large enough sample size to determine if that’s how a majority of the population felt.

McKeown jumped into the back and forth and pressed Crane for her solution on how to deal with the affordable housing deficit. She responded that there were no simple solutions.

The mayor said, “Over the 40 years I’ve lived here, the population of Santa Monica has grown by less than one half of 1 percent per year. And that is below the birth rate. We’re not even housing our own kids." 

He concluded, "So when we say we need to create affordable housing, the need is probably near infinite.”

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