Santa Monicans today understand there is a titanic struggle going on for the heart and soul of their City. And it’s not the first time this has happened.
The battle manifests itself in infinite ways from the shortage of affordable housing, to the drought, to relentless gridlock, to the collapse of the City’s budget, to scary public pension overhangs, to institutional racism, to deadly air pollution, and to countless other friction points. This battle has not abated during the pandemic, which worsened all pre-existing problems such as, for example, the collapse of our retail activity because Amazon was already completely killing local businesses. Add to this the life and death struggle of our homeless crisis and crime increases, and we have a City struggling both for its life and its identity.
These problems are individually solvable with massive targeted efforts. Unfortunately, they are now simultaneously accelerating during a period of decreasing resources and declining political credibility and, even worse, they are starting to interact in a vicious circle. For example the intractable homeless and crime crisis are now crushing our 3rd Street Promenade’s recovery (along with too high rents) and sabotaging our tourist industry bounce back.
These problems have been brewing historically in our fractious City for a long time which has led to shifting power blocs forming over time to try to solve them while simultaneously remaining in power by controlling the Council and the Boards and Commissions. Organizations such as Forward, the Chamber of Commerce, Santa Monicans for Renter’s Rights (SMRR), the Hotel Workers Union, the Landlord’s Association, the Democratic Club, The Police and Fire unions, and others all jockey to extract value for their members in either higher (or lower) rents, higher wages, more sales/profits, better social conditions, more political monopoly, or greater return on investment. The more politically successful groups are better at extracting money (higher rent, more profits, more return on their investment) so that they can plow it back into getting votes for their candidates elected to continue their extractive activities. This is the establishment’s normal politics in a capitalist society.
But now a large shadow is visibly stalking our fair City as it does the entire planet. This shadow does not care about votes or sales or profit. This shadow in its most extreme form is ecological collapse, and makes our “normal” political contests, as intense as they appear to us today, just trivial delusions. Intense droughts already gripping our state means no water for residents, sea level rise already triggered means no beaches for tourists, global warming already happening means insufficient power and brown outs. You know the situation and can see the consequences for your own life. Everyone, particularly the youth, even when they don’t know all the details of the unfolding collapse, senses this impending disaster and know that there is no credible path forward without both a real shift in priorities and in leadership.
At this time there is no political organization in our City capable of meeting this existential challenge either because they are too small, or too frightened to challenge the dominant paradigms (eg. everything is solved by densifying the City), or too busy furthering its members’ extractive activities, or because they cynically understand the party will soon be over and they are racing to extract as much as possible before the whole show comes crashing down. In other words the inconvenient truth is not that we face gigantic ecological problems, we do, but that the City’s political establishment is simply incapable of the task it faces. For example, our School District which extracted about $1.3 billion, yes billions not even counting interest, in construction bonds over 12 years from your generous wallets, has not built a single net zero school building and only gets 25% of its power from sustainable local sources. This massive squandering of public funds, only shows how unprepared we are for the future.
Total failure is not preordained, but we keep acting like we have the luxury to “get to it later” by missing the very opportunities to stop this run away train today. For example our City has had a very stable population for decades, which is wonderful because it allows for example our deficient water and power sustainability supplies to catch up to our existing demand. Yet the City invited California’s current irrational requirement that we raise our population hence our resource demand by 20% in 8 years. We live in a sunny climate perfect for solar photovoltaic collectors, but do not have a City wide solar access ordinance. Hard as it is to believe three weeks ago, the City Council even tried to stop a new 62 car charging station because its lot might be used for housing. In other words an imaginary problem, expanding the City’s population, was initially given precedence over a real urgent problem, electrifying our cars.
So what can be done? Fortunately we have two perfect historical examples right here in our own City when the populace, resisting the extractive establishment, responded to a massive threat to its survival as a gracious seaside town. In the early ‘70s the City Council actually voted to tear down our iconic Pier and build an offshore island! The populace rose up, saved our Pier and dumped the misguided Council in the subsequent election. The lesson here is that Councils do make mistakes and they need to be corrected by the people.
Finally, in the late ‘70s, our City of then 80% renters, faced a massive development explosion. There was a building demolition boom of historic proportions, particularly by outside developers with the outrageous rent hikes, tenet harassment and an eviction avalanche. This is exactly what Sacramento is now demanding for our next 8 years when we supposedly have tear up the whole City to permit 8895 new units when the real need is about 1100 units. At that time the populace again rose up and created rent control to stabilize their City against this catastrophic wealth extraction. They did it by creating a coalition of 4 organizations: Santa Monica Democratic Club, Santa Monica Fair Housing Alliance, Committee for Fair Rent, and the Campaign for Economic Democracy (Tom Hayden et al.). This 1979 coalition was called Santa Monicans for Renter’s Rights (SMRR), which steered the City through 16 years of rent stability until Sacramento, again usurping local control just like today, started dismantling rent control with vacancy decontrol in 1995.
A quarter of a century later, our built out City (the 4th densest costal town and in the top 3% of densest California cities ) has become completely gentrified with about 30 percent of the households being rent burdened (paying more than 30% of their income for housing) in spite of the best efforts of the Rent Control Board and affordable housing providers such as Community Corp.
Regardless of how you feel about rent control or SMRR, the important lesson here is that a big coalition is needed to save a city whether from bulldozers then or from ecological collapse today. Recently we have had some nascent coalitions forming from some neighborhood associations to Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City, to Residocracy, to Santa Monicans for Change, among others, that have tried, with varying success, to wean the City from cancerous growth and put it on a sustainable foundation. There is a surprising parallel between the struggles of these emerging sustainable advocates today and the early creation of SMRR which succeeded, against formidable odds (eg being outspent 5 to1). Like SMRR’s founders decades ago, these sustainability actors do not agree on everything but can learn from SMRR’s early success by unifying disparate groups. They have not yet joined into a single unified political force, in fact they don’t even have a name yet, but they all understand the urgency of the threat to us all regardless of their starting political alignment.
Simply put, we have run out of time for fake problems (not enough residents) and fake solutions (build baby build). Because there are real limits to growth, new residents can only be added sustainably, by not compromising the sustainability resources, of all kinds, needed for the existing residents. We need a new Coalition today to prioritize sustainability (long term perpetual performance) and resilience (the ability to withstand sharp shocks to the system such as earthquakes tsunamis and pandemics).
The old paradigm of optimizing extractive activities, which has been the City’s mantra for decades is going to have to take second place to ecological survival for the foreseeable future: or there will be no future for our City. It will take a massive new Coalition to create that future.
By Mario Fonda-Bonardi for SMart Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow
Thane Roberts, Architect, Robert H. Taylor AIA, Ron Goldman FAIA, Architect, Dan Jansenson, Architect, Building and Fire-Life Safety Commission, Samuel Tolkin Architect, Mario Fonda-Bonardi, AIA, Planning Commissioner,
Marc Verville CPA Inactive
For previous articles see www.santamonicaarch.wordpress.com/writing