Will Santa Monica's affordable housing goals backfire?

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Can Santa Monica be a model for other cities in terms of provision of affordable housing? Or did it just shoot itself in the foot?

An LA Times article last week posed the question, can Santa Monica be a model for other cities in terms of provision of affordable housing in our very costly region?

A 4-3 vote at the Santa Monica City Council last night suggests it might be a model for misguided good intentions, for letting the perfect be the enemy of the good, and, maybe, for revealing themselves to be against rather than for the construction of affordable housing.

The "model" referred to by LA Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne was a proposal to provide an impressive level of affordable housing in a highly expensive city.

It emerged from what City Manager Rick Cole described as a "grand bargain" between competing slow and pro growth factions over the city's Downtown Community Plan.

This is a plan for growth in the 0.38 mile area between Lincoln Boulevard, the 10 Freeway, Ocean Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard that Santa Monicans have been fighting over for six years and led to the anti-growth Measure LV going on the ballot last year, because some locals were so incensed by the burgeoning density and growing congestion in downtown.

With Measure LV defeated, elected officials and planners thought they could now go ahead and pass its Downtown Community Plan.

They modified the size of some of the larger projects locals had objected to -- including one designed by Frank Gehry, another by Rem Koolhaas -- and made some other concessions. They also incorporated zoning for 15-20 percent inclusionary housing in market rate developments.

Then earlier this month some city councilors proposed aiming for a higher percentage of "affordable" units in some larger market-rate housing projects: between 20 and 30 percent.

They said they would sweeten the pot for developers by speeding up the approvals process and eliminating minimum parking requirements.

But that "grand bargain" and worthy goal of 30 percent affordable units turned out to be a huge sticking point that came to a head at the meeting held this week to approve the Plan.

It turns out most experts consider it a doozy -- on the grounds that land and construction costs are so high for developers in Santa Monica that the projects won't pencil out and they won't build at all.

As Santa Monica Forward, a pro-housing group, succinctly put it, 30 percent of Nothing is Nothing.

For the past two weeks a stream of developers, land-use lawyers, affordable housing experts, planners, housing activists, and local residents simply needing an affordable place to live has tried to persuade elected officials not to go this route.

Leslie Lambert is an affordable housing expert who is on the City's Planning Commission but spoke for herself at the council meeting. She told DnA, "The construction costs used in this analysis are ludicrous. They're half what it costs to build housing. My opinion is that it's saying OK to people who don't want to see development downtown."

At the council meeting last night 37 speakers turned out to make this point. Only a handful defended it.

Even the long sought-for relief from the burden of providing on-site parking -- also considered an obstacle to achieving more sustainable land-use planning -- did not mollify critics.

They pointed out that San Francisco recently had to reduce its inclusionary housing percentage to 18 percent down from 25 percent, on the grounds the higher number had failed, and development of housing had slowed.

Despite all this expert testimony, councilmembers voted 4 to 3 to approve the Downtown Community Plan with the 30 percent inclusionary zoning.

Following the vote, one of the no votes -- City Councilmember Pam O'Connor -- told her colleagues, "The Downtown Community Plan is no longer an affordable housing plan. The message is, don't build here."

Photo: Buildings in Santa Monica, California, seen from the beach. (Eric Fredericks)