Council Makes Affordable Housing Top Priority

By Jorge Casuso

Agreeing with testimony that compared the city's affordable housing crisis to the devastating effects of a second earthquake, the City Council Tuesday night earmarked at least $44.3 million for new affordable units and directed staff to find more money as soon as possible.

City staff said that an additional $9.2 million could be available -- $7.5 in the form of a federal loan and $1.7 million as a result of the city's latest bond rating, which city officials learned would remain among the highest in the nation shortly before the meeting. The unexpected $1.7 million was fittingly announced by retiring City Manager John Jalili, who is widely credited for the city's robust budget.

Housing officials said that as much as $25 million more could be garnered for affordable housing, which will receive $44.3 million from the city's Earthquake Recovery District Funds, which will likely total $95 million in the form of tax allocation bonds over the next five years.

Calls from affordable housing advocates to use funds earmarked for shoring up the Palisades Park bluffs, however, failed.

"There's been a second earthquake in Santa Monica, and it's not San Andreas' fault, it's Costa Hawkins fault," said Councilman Kevin McKeown, referring to a state rental law city officials blame for the affordable housing crisis. "We must accelerate the availability of funds for housing now."

Nearly two dozen speakers urged the city to act quickly to ameliorate the loss of 2,300 units affordable to low and moderate income tenants since the Costa Hawkins Housing Bill kicked into full gear Jan 1. The law gives landlords the right to charge what the market will bear for vacated rent-controlled units

"We are in a housing crisis, the worst in our history," said Rent Control Board member Dolores Press. "There is a second earthquake called Costa Hawkins. Press said that the law has unleashed "unrelenting, mean-spirited greed" that is "ending the diversity of our city."

The alarm was sounded by speaker after speaker and echoed by the council members.

"We must act quickly," said Victor Ludwig, who chairs the Commission on Older Americans' affordable housing task force. "We must dedicate 50 percent of all bond funding to affordable housing."

"Housing is the main event," said Councilman Richard Bloom. "It is what we need to emphasize."

Some speakers tried to call the council member's bluff by urging them to divert into the affordable housing pot funds earmarked to shore up the bluffs of Palisades Park.

"This is a period of great crisis and rapid loss of affordable housing," said former mayor Dennis Zane. "Use the bluffs money. The bluffs have been here for millions of years."

"You are under an obligation to follow the will of the people," said Michael Tarbet, a Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights strategist and affordable housing advocate. "Front end the money. Call the bluffs."

The council, however, opposed using any of the $14 million allocated to shore up the bluffs, whose erosion was accelerated by the El Nino storms two years ago.

"We're losing acres and acres of Palisades Park," said Councilman Robert Holbrook. "I'd hate for us to lose more."

In the end, the council voted 6-1 to make housing a top priority. (Councilman Paul Rosenstein opposed the measure, saying there was not enough input from the public. His effort to delay a vote failed to get a second.)

The vote sets a general policy. How the money will be used (buying existing buildings or constructing new units) and where the housing will go, for example, will be determined with input from the public.

"It's a road map to help us (visualize) the next five years," said Mayor Pam O'Connor. "The highest priority is for housing." But she added that the plan "is there to keep other things on our radar screen. We need to keep our eyes on the horizon."