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Divided Council Approves Plan to Meet State's Affordable Housing Mandate

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By Jorge Casuso

April 6, 2021 -- A split City Council voted last week to approve a plan that paves the way for building more than 6,000 new affordable housing units, including in exclusive single family neighborhoods.

The plan approved last Tuesday on a 4 to 3 vote largely relies on building 100 percent affordable housing projects on City land and in an overlay zone that would allow four-story buildings in most parts of the City.

The overlay would exempt Ocean Park and the Pico Neighborhood, which have a history of redlining and environmental injustice.

The Council also directed staff to "explore options to densify areas that historically excluded diverse populations and affordable housing."

The approved motion -- which also allows single-family homeowners to add affordable units on their lots -- was opposed by the three challengers elected to the Council in November.

"I don't want to saddle people with a four-story building" in a single family neighborhood, said Councilmember Phil Brock.

Councilmember Christine Parra agreed, noting that she and her husband had used their savings to buy a singly-family home in order to have privacy and a yard to raise a family.

"I think we're penalizing (single-family homeowners) for the segregation that has happened in the past, and I don't think that's fair," Parra said.

Councilmember Oscar de la Torre, who had supported a previous version of the motion, changed his vote without explanation.

Councilmember Kristin McCowan said she welcomed the chance to include more housing on her family's 5,200 square foot lot with a single-family home in the Pico Neighborhood.

She and her brother, McCowan said, recently explored the possibility of having "five different households" on the propety -- three auxiliary housing units and two three-bedroom, two bath apartments.

The overlay, she said, "doesn't mean we can't have a single-family home. We're not saying take it away.

"There's just so much opportunity out there," said McCowan, the first Black woman to serve on the Council. "It just hurts my heart when I know where we've been, and I know how good it can still be."

Several Council members who backed the plan worried it might not be enough to build the 8,895 new units in eight years mandated by the State.

Of those, 6,168 must be affordable-- -- triple the number of affordable units the city has added in the past quarter century ("Council Begins Exploring Ways to Triple Santa Monica's Affordable Housing," March 26, 2021)..

Councilmember Gleam Davis worried santa Monica would fall short of its State-mandated quota by not relying more on market rate housing, which is required by Santa Monica law to include at least 20 percent affordable units.

"If we tie staff's hands so completely, they can't do a compliant Housing Element" that meets the State's mandate, Davis said.

Councilmember Kevin McKeown -- who calculates it would take building 30,000 market-rate units to meet Santa Monica's affordable housing quota -- cautioned the overlay would do little to create affordable housing.

That's especially the case in single-family lots North of Montana that can fetch $3.25 million with a teardown.

"We need to be willing to relook at R1 (single family) zoning," he said. "I don't think the overlay means anything in R1."

McKeown, who had opposed an earlier failed motion he likened to handing staff "two nails and a screwdriver," made the final motion that won narrow approval.

The motion tweaked the wording asking staff to explore ways "to increase equitable and affordable housing access, including but not limited to voluntary lot splits/duplexes with affordability covenants."

Mayor Sue Himmelrich and Council members Davis and McCowan backed McKeown's final motion.

Once adopted by the City Council on or before October 2020, the Housing Element "will guide housing production and preservation in Santa Monica for the next eight years," staff said.

"The City could face potential penalties for not adopting a compliant Housing Element that demonstrates that the (housing allocations) can be accommodated," staff said.

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