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Planning Board Hears From Rent Control Expert:

Last Wednesday, the City’s Planning Commission heard a presentation on the status of rent control and affordable housing from Mary Ann Yurkonis, the City’s Rent Control Administrator.

Yurkonis’ presentation was given with the City’s revision of its Land Use and Circulation Elements of its General Plan as a backdrop.

The land use element delineates the distribution of different types of buildings (housing, business, industry, open space, etc.) while the circulation element sets out the location of existing and proposed roads, highways, and other modes of transportation. The zoning ordinance translates the land use element’s goals and objectives into standards and procedures. They were last updated in 1984.

Yurkonis opened her presentation by saying, “The state of affordable housing and rent control in this City has undergone some fairly serious erosion…[so] it will be more difficult to maintain the economic diversity of Santa Monica” over the next 20 years.

The law that made the “biggest hit on affordable housing in Santa Monica” is the Costa Hawkins Vacancy Decontrol law that mandates that when a rent control unit becomes vacant its owner can raise its rent to market rate.

Implementation of vacancy decontrol led to approximately 47 percent of the City’s 27,500 rent-controlled units in Santa Monica being decontrolled and rented at market rate. In addition, 13,000 units that were once affordable to “low and very low income people” are no longer available.

Typically, a one-bedroom apartment that rented for $715 a month before vacancy decontrol now rents for $1,322 a month and a two-bedroom apartment now rents for $1,674, which, rule of thumb, requires an annual income of $70,000.

Yurkonis said her office had noted a number of significant trends. “Once a unit turns over (and becomes de-controlled) it is more likely to turn over again…[and] seniors rarely leave their rent controlled units unless they can no longer live alone…[and] once a tenant is in a rent controlled unit for more than 7 years they will probably stay for 17 years.”

Another law that has had a significant impact is the Ellis Act, which permits an owner to withdraw his property from the rental market. “Ellising” has resulted in the removal of 16,000 units from the rental market in Santa Monica. Some owners have converted their property to commercial uses, while others have redeveloped their properties, in many cases, into condominiums.

Recently, there has been an “upsurge of Ellis withdrawals” for redevelopment, particularly condos. Yurkonis said that, in many instances, when buildings containing rent-controlled units are demolished they are replaced with buildings with more units which results in an “intensification of use.” She noted that her office has calculated that 461 units that were lost when buildings were demolished have been replaced with buildings that house 861 units.

Finally, the TORCA (Tenant Ownership Rights Charter Amendment) removed approximately 3,100 rent controlled units in Santa Monica because 1,300- units were converted to condominiums and 1,800 became owner occupied.

Yurkonis suggested that if the City “wants to maintain its economic diversity when it considers future growth it should be cognizant of the fact that residential development almost always comes at a cost – the demolition of existing habitable housing units. Therefore, when the City considers incentives and disincentives for various types of development, it should weigh the benefit to the community of approving new residential development that results in the smallest number of habitable units being demolished. If a proposed project is coming at the cost of demolishing a large number of habitable units, that’s a factor that should be taken into account with an affordable housing fee that would reflect the loss to the community of the existing housing.”

Yurkonis also recommended that the City “consider the question of second units or accessory units in the single family dwelling areas … to accommodate an elderly parent” or adult children.Commission Chair Jay Johnson mentioned in support of Yurkonis’ first suggestion that the Commission had given direction at a prior meeting to the consultant working on the land use update to “pay particular attention to strategies to preserve existing affordable housing.”

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