SMRR Leaders Earmark Earthquake Funds for Affordable Housing

By Jorge Casuso

Facing what city officials are calling a severe "housing crisis," the Santa Monica City Council Tuesday night is being urged to earmark nearly $31million generated by the Earthquake Redevelopment district to create low and moderate income housing.

"We want to put as much as we can towards affordable housing," said Councilman Kevin McKeown, one of three Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights council members who have met to help decide what to do with the funds. "We pushed staff further than we thought they would ever go. We have a crisis in Santa Monica in low and affordable units like we've never seen."

The council, which will meet Tuesday night as the city's Redevelopment Agency, must decide how to allocate the balance of the approximately $120 million generated by the Earthquake Recovery Redevelopment Project Area when it issues a series of tax allocation bonds.

More than $89 million already has been approved for capital improvement projects such as the Pico Streetscape Project, crosswalks on Pico Boulevard, the Municipal Pool, the Fourth Street Parking Project, the Virginia Avenue Park Expansion and seismic retrofit of the public parking structures. In addition, the council voted last month to use $53 million to purchase 11.3 acres of RAND property.

With approximately $30.9 of the funds uncommitted, the council is anticipating a lobbying effort by proponents of more affordable housing and more park land, as well as education officials, who face a $3 million to $4 million budget shortfall.

"Some of the money could go for education, open space," McKeown told members of SMRR during their annual membership convention Sunday. "But if we don't speak for affordable housing, who will? Our challenge is to get housing money now."

Rent Control Board officials have estimated the city could lose as many as 3,000 affordable units by the end of the year as a result of a new state law that allows landlords to charge what the market will bear for vacated rent-controlled units.

With projections showing that half of the city's affordable housing units could be lost within five years, rent board officials are urging that all the housing earmarked for the RAND property be affordable to low and moderate income tenants. (The RAND property the city is purchasing stretches from near Pico Boulevard to Colorado Avenue and Main Street to Ocean Avenue.)

"The whole housing element at RAND should be affordable," Rent Board Commissioner Alan Toy told the SMRR membership. "We want the heart (of the city) to be for families and people of all colors and incomes and persuasions. We do not need to build as a city market rate housing."

"The City should purchase everything they can put their hands on today," Rent Board Commissioner Bruria Finkel told the crowd, "because tomorrow, it can be double" the price.

"Buy. Buy for the public," she said. "Make it happen for us, because this city will become Newport (Beach) or Carmel."

Councilman Ken Genser warned that although the earthquake monies are substantial, "we shouldn't have false expectations."

"We are a relatively wealthy city," Genser said, "but we have a lot of demands."