After nearly six years, Santa Monica has a new plan that will govern land use in the city’s 230-acre downtown through 2030. While the City Council adopted most aspects of the plan unanimously, there was a clear schism on the question of housing policy.

The City Council narrowly approved a last-minute proposal that significantly increased the amount of affordable housing that the plan would require in every new housing project to an unprecedentedly high 20-to-30 percent range.

The Council narrowly adopted these standards for the Downtown Community Plan after they were introduced at the July 11 meeting.

The three Council members who opposed the last-minute change — Gleam Davis, Terry O’Day, and Pam O’Connor — worried that the stringent policy could have the unintended consequence of driving down housing production overall, including affordable housing, something the city can’t afford to do given the severity of the regional housing crisis.

Citing the city’s approach of phasing in its new living wage law, Davis called for a similar approach to the new, more stringent affordability requirements.

“I have a couple of concerns about the higher figures but I’m also a fan of being bold where we can be,” Davis said.

Next Sponsor

“Housing is so important here and the risk of not seeing housing built as they saw in San Francisco… I don’t want to be in that position,” she said, referring to a recent move by the city of San Francisco to roll a 25 percent inclusionary requirement back to 18 percent after project proposals dropped off in the face of the higher requirements.

Davis said she didn’t want to have to come back in six months and be wondering why, despite streamlining the development process, no one has filed new applications for projects. She also pointed out that while there may be some projects already in the pipeline that won’t be affected by the new standards, there’s no guarantee they will get built.

The question wasn’t whether there should be an affordable housing requirement, though. Originally, staff and the Planning Commission had recommended that all projects include a range of 15-to-20 percent affordable units but at the July 11 Council meeting, Councilmember Kevin McKeown floated a proposal to up those to the much more onerous requirements.

“What we heard almost unanimously in public testimony was that it’s impossible to build at that [higher inclusionary] level or it’s at least very difficult,” said O’Day, noting that if the higher inclusionary requirements drive down project proposals, it would reduce the overall amount of affordable housing that gets built. “We’re looking at the wrong metric. The metric here is to build affordable units, not to build percentage of a unit.”

Davis made a motion that the next 1,000 units for which building permits are pulled would have the lower requirement applied to them. After those permits were pulled, however, the higher affordability requirements would kick in. Davis’ motion failed 4-to-3.

At Tuesday’s meeting, McKeown, along with Councilmembers Sue Himmelrich and Tony Vazquez and Mayor Ted Winterer supported the higher requirements. McKeown argued that the higher percentages would get more affordable housing.

Other aspects of the plan proved less controversial, like the elimination of parking minimums. That doesn’t mean there will be no new parking built, but rather that there will no longer be a mandatory minimum of parking built at every new project.

This can be a big deal since the cost of parking adds significantly to the cost of construction, driving up rents across the region. Winterer cited the elimination of the parking requirements as a reason for increasing the affordability requirements.

After the higher standard was narrowly adopted, Davis made a motion to get a report from staff every six months on the status of new housing applications to see if, in fact, housing is being proposed. Her motion passed unanimously.

O’Connor called the new standards a signal to “not build here.” O’Day echoed her comments, saying he was voting “no” even though he believes strongly in providing deeply affordable housing. He referred to the “near-unanimous” testimony by people who build housing for a living that the higher standards would make it impossible or near impossible to build housing.

The whole meeting can be seen below and KCRW’s coverage of the decision can be heard here.