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SM.a.r.t. Column: A Path Forward for Santa Monica: Part I

To quickly summarize, California grapples with an ongoing housing crisis spurred by state implementation of over 100 policies and mandates aimed at increasing the supply of ‘affordable’ housing. While these efforts may seem beneficial at first glance, a closer look has revealed a more complex picture. In Santa Monica, residents have raised concerns about the effectiveness, potential drawbacks, and impact of these mandates on the character and affordability of existing neighborhoods. 

The state’s affordable housing policies, such as the laws for Housing Element, and the Density Bonus have sparked debate among local communities who view these policies as part of a larger scheme to increase profits for corporate developers and investors under the guise of affordability. While failing to address the root causes of the housing crisis. The concern is that these mandates may not sufficiently benefit the lowest-income residents and can lead to gentrification and displacement. 

The fact is, it is actually very expensive to be poor. Low-income people typically have bad diets, cannot afford to eat well, dental care is negligent to none, and many lack health insurance. Also, it is more essential for a low-income household to own a car than one by an affluent household, particularly regarding finding and keeping work, getting to and from school, or even accessing better health and daycare options. The way we make decisions for low-income persons are no longer adequate to solve the challenges facing them. It is a titanic size problem, like the challenges of population migration and economic inequality. 

Consider the ancient Greek myths which defined the ‘Titans’ as gods who represented Nature’s unchallenged power. Over time those myths and gods were absorbed to be more resonate with daily life in Western culture. Now we learn, in the 21st century, about power brokers in politics, the markets, and land speculators who similarly are confident in their power not being contested. Hence, a new era arises when it is necessary to counteract difficult-to-reverse decisions against less fortunate persons. Decisions that are often made by legislators on behalf of corporate allies. To combat this we need everyday practical thinking. What possible reason were we born in this place at this time if not to accept that we are here to participate in the betterment of our communities? 

To effectively address housing needs and ensure equitable outcomes,  Santa Monica citizens must adopt a multi-faceted, data-driven, and community-engaged approach. The process to participate would begin with establishing robust data collection and monitoring systems to track the actual outcomes of policies in Santa Monica that seem to encourage higher buildings with less attention to community impacts. By examining changes in housing costs, displacement rates, demographic shifts, impacts on low-income residents, and land purchases by foreign speculators, the city can gain a clearer understanding of the situation and make informed decisions about policy adjustments.

Meaningful community engagement would follow with diverse stakeholders, including low-income residents, renters, and community organizations. By gathering input and on-the-ground impacts from those most affected by these policies, Santa Monica can ensure that adjustments remain responsive to the community’s needs and concerns.

We may begin relationships with smaller developers more willing to consider local in-fill projects that better serve the community. 

These initial steps may naturally lead to commissioning independent policy evaluation studies to rigorously analyze the costs, benefits, and tradeoffs of the state mandates as implemented in Santa Monica. These studies can provide valuable recommendations for policy refinements that strike a balance between increasing housing supply and protecting vulnerable communities.

To further protect vulnerable communities, Santa Monica can be the paradigm and enact or strengthen local tenant protection policies, such as resisting landlord rent increases, ensuring just cause eviction, and providing relocation assistance. Developing and funding proactive anti-displacement strategies, like community land trusts, homeowner assistance programs, and targeted affordable housing preservation efforts with changes in the tax codes. 

On that line, a reduced capital gains tax on earnings from investment in affordable housing fashioned after the Federal tax-free exchange rule can help mitigate the risks of displacement. Exploring alternative tax breaks for affordable housing models and carefully reviewing and adjusting local inclusionary zoning requirements can also help strike a balance between increasing overall housing supply and ensuring affordability for the lowest-income households.

By working together, staying informed, and exploring all available legal options, California’s coastal communities can fight to protect their unique character, quality of life, and the environment from the state’s misguided housing mandates that fail to address affordable housing needs genuinely.

(See Part II in the SM Mirror soon)

Jack Hillbrand AIA, Architect
for SMa.r.t.
Send comments to santamonicasmart@gmail.com

Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow
Dan Jansenson, Architect & Building and Fire-Life Safety Commission; Robert H. Taylor AIA, Architect; Thane Roberts, Architect; Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA, Architect; Samuel Tolkin Architect & Planning Commissioner; Michael Jolly, AIR-CRE; Marie Standing, Resident; Jack Hillbrand AIA, Architect

For previous articles see www.santamonicaarch.wordpress.com/writing

in Opinion
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