Tonight, the Santa Monica City Council is scheduled to hear a request from Councilmembers Phil Brock, Christine Parra, and Oscar de la Torre to hire outside counsel to consult on the city’s options to stop more than a dozen housing projects that have been filed with the city under a state law known as “The Builder’s Remedy.”
When a city like Santa Monica is out of compliance with state law due to a lack of an approved Housing Element – which we were until very recently – developers have a by-right option to file for projects if they commit to setting aside at least 20 percent of all produced units as affordable. And this city council just spent a year and a half resisting the number of units the State Housing and Community Development (HCD) Department is requiring the city to plan for by 2029 under the latest housing cycle and it’s assigned Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA). In the last Housing element cycle — the Fifth Cycle — the city had to produce an average of 209 housing units a year between 2013 and 2021. However, for this Sixth Cycle, HCD is requiring the city to zone for a bolder average of 1,109 units a year through 2029. It is admittedly not going to be an easy task.
Nevertheless, in meeting after meeting, the council dithered over various attempts to bring Santa Monica in compliance with state requirements. Housing Elements were proposed to the state and continued to come back with notes from HCD requiring changes to gain approval. And while there is blame to go around the political circle, no team of NIMBY’s (“Not in My Backyard”) and nativists is more to blame for the city’s lack of ambition to house people than Brock, Parra, and de la Torre. This, despite numerous warnings to the council that the city would lose millions in grants and other assistance to build affordable housing had we dedicated ourselves to it. This, despite warnings that clauses like the Builder’s Remedy could take effect if the city remained out of compliance with the state’s mandate.
But they didn’t care. They were determined to please their constituency of bitter NIMBY’s that use phrases like “not everybody deserves to live in Santa Monica,” as if deserving has anything to do with it. Their constituency is a loud, vocal bunch who take to Facebook to endlessly rant and make no distinction between the more noble housing development and the more suspect commercial development. They call groups like Santa Monicans for Renter’s Rights (SMRR) “pro-development” simply for supporting more affordable housing, which this city of rent-burdened residents desperately needs. These are the same people who actually think an increase in property crime was due to the evils of bringing the much-needed Expo Line to Santa Monica. Nevermind the fact that no one is witnessing riders leaving Santa Monica with bags of jewelry or carrying big screen TVs under their arms. Because, you know, the Expo is such a quick getaway!!
So now, all of a sudden, Brock, Parra, and de la Torre are shocked! Shocked they will tell you, that there are consequences for their insistence that Santa Monica be declared a finished product, devoid of room for anyone else or anyone new. And so they are going to go through a performative exercise of asking the city attorney for an outside second opinion, which will cost taxpayers a great deal, in order to show their cranky constituency that they are trying to do something to stop housing development…that’s required…by the state. Never mind that they blew it. Nevermind that their game of chicken with the state HCD has resulted in several high-rise projects that we all would have rather have more control over. We certainly don’t want 15-story apartment buildings and neither, likely, does SMRR! But by not giving themselves the strength of an approved Housing Element in a timely fashion, this “Change” led council subjected themselves to the very thing they claim to oppose.
Now their minions are getting into the act. Their ally, Armen Melkonians, is running for city council this year on, among other things, a promise of stopping the major housing development administratively approved for the Gelson’s lot on Lincoln Blvd. The project is certainly questionable in size and scope and seems a bit out of place. But it’s housing that still allows for the commercial uses currently on site. They are just against building anything, anywhere, anytime. In response to Melkonians claims he will stop the development, Councilmember Gleam Davis cleverly Tweeted, “If he knows how to get around State law, he should share his secret now and not make campaign promises he likely can’t keep.” She’s right. Because what will likely happen if a new, more conservative city council takes office after November 8 is that they will go all in on stopping developments like the Gelson’s project. Then the state will likely get involved, sue the city for blocking needed housing construction, and Santa Monica taxpayers will pay through the nose for legal fees on something that ends up getting built anyway.
We’re sorry, Phil, that Santa Monica isn’t what you remember from the 1950s and 60s when exclusionary housing and development policies literally drove neighborhoods of color out of the city. And we’re sorry to see Oscar de la Torre devolve from a once stalwart SMRR elected leader into an increasingly bitter ventriloquist puppet of Phil’s, and that now regularly blames SMRR for everything wrong with the city. And guess what? After expending expensive efforts to stop any and all affordable housing development, their next target for 2023 is the system of rent control enjoyed by and benefitting Santa Monicans for the last 43 years. They want to “discuss changes to it.” Why? Because their landlord supporters have asked them to.
These “Change” councilmembers and candidates don’t care that Santa Monica, as a major employer, has the same responsibility other westside cities do in creating more opportunity for more people to live a bit closer to work. That means we have to build housing. They seem content to let Santa Monica become a walled-off community only suited for natives and the wealthier population we have now. And they seem perfectly happy to spend endless amounts of taxpayer dollars, and expend large amounts of energy, to fight a losing battle with the state, all to keep their NIMBY pals happy. Not only is this a costly position, but it is also just bad policy. If we are going to maintain and expand our rich diversity of people and cultures, we must build more housing – especially affordable housing – and protect the stability and security that rent control provides.
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