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New Council Breaks With Past Housing Policies

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By Jorge Casuso

February 10, 2021 -- Embarking in a new direction, the Santa Monica City Council voted early Wednesday morning to oppose two housing bills sponsored by liberal lawmakers in Sacramento that would pave the way for more housing.

Spurred by three newly elected members, the actions marked a stark break from previous councils, which addressed a statewide housing shortage by making it easier to build.

The Council first voted 5 to 1 to oppose Senate Bill 9, which would allow all single-family parcels to be split, with each half holding one main house and as many as two auxiliary units.

Echoing similar concerns, it also voted 5 to 1 to oppose Senate Bill 10, which would allow as many as 10 units to be built on a single-family parcel, also by administrative approval.

Neither bill has an affordable mandate and both would overide local control over zoning codes and eliminate public input, the three Council members said.

"Not only would this destroy the remaining (single family)neighborhoods," said Councilmember Phil Brock, "but we're not adding more affordability but more profitability."

The new Councilmembers argued that the two bills would encourage land speculators and developers to replace single family homes in less expensive parts of town with dense, high-end multifamily buildings.

"I oppose the bill 110 percent because there is no affordability component," said Councilmember Christine Parra, referring to SB 9. "The areas that will be redeveloped will be in the Pico Neighborhood not Montana.

"We need to preserve the neighborhoods that will be more adversely affected," Parra said.

Councilmember Oscar de la Torre agreed. "This will be felt in middle-class and working-class zones," he said. "The Pico Neighborhood would be a target for developers."

Councilmember Gleam Davis, who cast the lone dissenting vote, said SB 9 would "support more affordable family housing throughout Santa Monica.

"We all live in a building built by developers," Davis said. "The notion of saying this is a windfall for developers is just a subterfuge for saying, 'I don't want to build more housing.'"

Opposing the bills, she said, would tarnish Santa Monica's reputation as a statewide housing leader.

"That kind of breaks my heart cause that's the end of a long history of Santa Monica being seen as pro housing up in Sacramento," Davis said.

"If we go down the road of 'no,' we'll be dumped into the 'no' group."

Councilmember Kevin McKeown agreed and successfully added amendments to both motion to oppose the bills "as written."

"The moment we say we oppose a bill, we are out of the negotiations on where that bill goes from now on," McKeown said.

De la Torre countered that Santa Monica's reputation would add weight to the Council's opposition.

"It gets people's attention," he said. "This puts us at the bargaining table. I don't think it takes us out of the bargaining table."

McKeown and Mayor pro tem Kristin McCowan, who ran the meeting after Mayor Sue Himmelrich recused herself from the items, joined the three new Councilmembers in voting to oppose the bills as written.

McCowan noted the City's position could change when the bills are amended as they work their way up the legislative process.

McKeown said he didn't believe the bills "will destroy neighborhoods," but he expressed concerns they didn't include affordable housing provisions and eliminated public input.

SB 10, he said, could overide Measure LC, a 2014 voter-approved measure that bars new development projects at Santa Monica Airport after it closes in 2028.

The bill would allow a majority of councilmembers to override any voter approved local initiative regarding land use.

"The problem I have with this is measure LC," said McKeown. "I assured people that when the airport closed there would be no (new development) without going back to the voters.

"I can't go back on that promise," McKeown said.

The two 5 to 1 votes send a clear signal that the new Council members plan to oppose a state mandate eagerly embraced by the previous council that requires the City to add nearly 9,000 units, two-thirds of them affordable, by 2028.

The previous Council paved the way early last year by streamlining the permitting process ("Santa Monica Scrambles to Meet Housing Targets Other Cities Are Opposing," March 9, 2020).

"This was precipitated by the City Council's lack of opposition" to the mandated housing targets, Brock said.

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