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Council Takes Major Step to Meet State-Mandated Housing Quota

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By Jorge Casuso

March 27, 2023 -- The City Council last week approved zoning changes to implement the City’s State-Certified Housing Element while attempting to preserve what is left of Santa Monica's seaside character.

The amendments to the City’s land use plans and zoning ordinance focus on meeting the State's mandate to plan to add 8,895 new housing units
-- some 6,200 of them affordable -- over the next eight years.

The changes further encourage development in mixed-use and non-residential zones and require that 15 percent of units in market rate developments be provided as deed-restricted affordable units.

“Ensuring the implementation of a compliant Housing Element paves the way for Santa Monica to address housing production,” Mayor Gleam Davis said in a statement issued after the meeting.

“We know that housing is critical to advancing community priorities including addressing homelessness, Davis said. "Santa Monica will continue to fulfill our State-mandated obligations while being thoughtful about housing affordability.”

The Council also took steps to meet the State's mandate without destroying the character of Santa Monica's low-slung neighborhood commercial districts ("Council Caught in a Tight Spot on Development," February 13, 2023).

It did so by incorporating lot consolidation limits for housing projects on portions of the strips in an effort "to balance existing commercial activity while ensuring that housing opportunities are available," City officials said.

Neighborhood residents, businesses and the Planning Commission had urged the Council to remove "upzoning" the districts on Main Street, Pico Boulevard, Montana Avenue and Ocean Park Boulevard from the Housing Element.

The City has been treading carefully after its failure to produce a compliant housing element on time opened the door to a sudden flood of development submissions last fall ("Housing Plan Delays Led to Loss of Local Control," October 14, 2022).

In the final two weeks before the State approved the City's plan, 16 proposals totaling 4,562 units, of which 941 are affordable, were filed ("City Officials Caught Off Guard by Flurry of Development Submissions," October 13, 2022).

The projects -- which bypass the City's zoning code and general plan and require minimal public input -- alone surpassed the quota of some 2,727 market rate units mandated by the State.

Noting that developers are eager to build in Santa Monica, Councilmember Phil Brock tried to boost the threshold for affordable units in market-rate buildings to 20 percent.

But his proposal failed amid fears the State would view the higher threshold as a barrier to development and use is as a reason not to approve the City's implementation plan.

The State-certified 6th Cycle Housing Element "streamlines the approval of housing projects through an administrative approval process and more efficient timelines," City officials said.

It also earmarks City-owned property for the development of affordable housing, updates zoning development standards and "removes barriers to support housing production across the City," officials said.

In addition, the plan "allows new housing in non-residential zones where housing is currently not permitted" and "provides opportunities for housing production on residentially zoned surface parking lots and community assembly sites to minimize displacement."

This month, the Council made a dent in its daunting challenge to plan to build an average of some 775 affordable units a year when it set aside three surface parking lots in the Mid-City Neighborhood for low-income housing.

The move paved the way for 100 percent affordable housing developments totaling 130 units on the three parcels near the UCLA Santa Monica Medical Center ("3 City Owned Parking Lots Earmarked for Affordable Housing," March 9, 2023).

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