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Council Gives Affordable Housing Exemption Final Approval

By Olin Ericksen
Staff Writer

January 24 -- Despite a deep community rift, the City Council Tuesday night hammered home longstanding exemptions to fast-track affordable housing projects in Santa Monica.

The law approved by a 4 to 2 vote on second reading makes permanent an ordinance that exempts from development review 100 percent affordable housing projects with fewer than 50 units in residential areas. It also exempts such housing from permit approval in certain commercial and industrial areas.

The Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights (SMRR) majority on the council and some civic leaders argued the changes are necessary to address an affordable housing crisis in an increasingly upscale beachfront city, while opponents countered the preferential treatment was unfair and skirted public process.

In a sign of how much public interest the issue has generated, some three dozen speakers testified at the January 9 council meeting when the law was approved on first reading.

In addition, some 20 letters were sent to the council in the last three months -- 11 against and eight in favor of the change.

"I and my neighbors concur with others who have spoken against this and vehemently oppose this exemption," wrote Laura Thixton, a resident of Pearl Street, in a December letter to City officials.

From anxiety over the low-income families who could occupy the projects, to traffic concerns and fears that the law will curtail public input, several residents agreed with Thixton's views.

"While affordable housing projects can bring a valuable community benefit, that does not mitigate or outweigh the impacts that 50 unit residential projects can have on surrounding homes, condos and residences," wrote Joel Brand, a board member of the the Ocean Park Association.

"It goes without saying that there are many, many single family homes in the districts zoned as multi-family," Brand wrote.

Others in the community, including two former mayors, went on record in favor of making the exemptions permanent to boost affordable housing in Santa Monica.

“This rule will enable affordable housing projects to avoid time-delaying lawsuits that can kill such a project," wrote former mayor Jim Conn.

Former Mayor Dennis Zane also spoke at the January 9 meeting saying he was for the change.

Others argued that a more extensive public process should be sacrificed to help meet the dire need for affordable housing.

"Although the benefits of such reviews are well known and often lead to better projects, there is in our entire metropolitan area a housing crisis of such magnitude and urgency, that anything that slows down the production of housing must be eliminated," wrote Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA.

The Southern California Association of Governments, Fonda-Bonardi said, puts the current shortage of affordable housing units at 400,000, with Santa Monica’s share being some 2,600 units.

"We should take positive step in the area of greatest need and exempt affordable housing from the unnecessary delays of Discretionary Review," he wrote.

Opponents of the exemption said their views were reinforced two months ago, when an effort to build a home for the mentally ill in a residential neighborhood in Sunset Park was defeated after stiff opposition.

Several community members said such projects prompted them to oppose the permanent exemption.






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