An ordinance that will exempt certain affordable housing projects from Development Review by the Planning Commission was approved 5-2 at its first reading by the Santa Monica City Council at its meeting Tuesday, January 9th.

The ordinance will make permanent the provisions contained in an interim ordinance adopted in November 2002, which expires Sunday, March 11th.

The exemption will reduce the time required for planning processing and applicant costs for affordable housing developments, city officials say.

The ordinance was originally intended to “encourage the expedited production and review of affordable housing projects to expand housing opportunities and promote a diverse and inclusive city,” city officials say.

The ordinance includes text amendments to exempt certain 100-percent-affordable housing projects (including some mixed-use housing projects) of not more than 50 units from Development Review by the Planning Commission in the multifamily districts and the Conditional Use Permit requirement in the Main Street (CM), Special Office (C5) and Industrial Conservation (M1) districts, said Eileen Fogarty, director of planning and community development for the city.

On December 1st, the Planning Commission unanimously recommended that the City Council adopt this ordinance.

City staff expressed approval for adopting the ordinance as is.

The ordinance is expected to take effect 30 days after its second reading, at the council’s next meeting.

Thirty-eight people spoke on the ordinance, sending the council meeting into the early hours of the morning.

Some Santa Monica residents are not happy with the ordinance — like Wendie Olshan, a 34-year Santa Monica resident.

She said she believes that, since the public’s money will be spent on a project, the public should have input.

“The city wants to exempt these builders from fees that private developers are forced to pay,” she said.

Olshan also said she thinks the ordinance will affect parking, traffic and neighborhoods, and will be a burden to local schools, whose populations might increase.

Santa Monica resident Scott Kelso is also unhappy with the ordinance.

“The adoption of the temporary ordinance should not be renewed, let alone made permanent,” said Kelso. “If anything, there should be additional scrutiny with the use of public funds.”

Kelso said he views the exemption as allowing “entitlement, favoritism; and an unleveled playing field.”

Others favored the ordinance and said that removing the review process for affordable housing is beneficial.

“I strongly endorse Santa Monica’s city policies to promote affordable housing for low and moderate income families,” said Margaret Mills, 37-year Santa Monica resident.

Her endorsement, she said, comes from the fact that her son is an autistic adult. When he was in special education classes, she said she always wondered whether he would be able to work and live independently.

“And now, at the age of 45, he works as a courtesy clerk for a local grocery company and he lives independently in a safe, decent, well-managed studio apartment in downtown Santa Monica,” Mills said. “He earns about $12,000 a year and he pays his own rent.”

Mills is active in promoting affordable housing in Santa Monica and she says she knows there are many workers who can’t afford to buy or rent apartments in the city.

“So I’m hoping that you will move ahead to make the interim ordinance permanent and give these workers decent places to live,” Mills said.

After members of the public spoke, councilmembers discussed the ordinance.

Councilman Kevin McKeown encouraged the public to “look at the big picture on public process.”

“There is much public process involved,” he said of the ordinance. “Little is lost. Much is gained by continuing the exemptions for affordable housing.”

McKeown said that affordable housing projects are generally built by nonprofit organizations, and that “they use funding sources that are difficult to consolidate and hold together through this long process of getting a project approved.”

“Delays on affordable projects tend to stop the project, where a similar market-rate project sails on because the money is more stable,” he said. “So in a city like Santa Monica, with scarce and very expensive land, we would be giving even more preference to high-end housing and all but preclude affordable housing production if we didn’t put this policy in place. And this policy has already been in place for years.”

“I’ll support it because I think we need the affordable housing,” said Mayor Pro Tem Herb Katz. “I’m a believer in it. I don’t think it’s going to cause a lot of damage. I think it’s well worth doing.”

Councilmembers Bob Holbrook and Bobby Shriver voted against the ordinance.

“I think this is a tough issue,” Shriver said. “I’m going to vote against it, even though I recognize that affordable housing is a statewide crisis of immense proportions and it’s a received value of this community.”

Shriver said he wanted to see another solution to affordable housing production in the city.

“It bothers me that we could have these large projects and the public cannot get a review,” said Holbrook. “They can weigh in at the beginning, and there is no reason why the developer has to listen to the public. I just think 50-unit projects are just too big to exempt from the public review process.”

Councilman Kevin Genser disagreed.

“Nothing that is before us would eliminate public review,” he said. “And nothing before us would eliminate discretionary review of these projects. What this does is permit projects to go ahead that are in conformance with the zoning code.

“It’s not really changing anything that has been in place for four to five years. I think this has proved to be a good policy for the city and I think it’s a good policy to continue.”

Some members of the community have expressed an interest in having some opportunity for input and favor a public review process.

“The very important issue that we heard from many members in the community has to do with meaningful community input, knowing what is going on in their community and having some ability to affect their future,” Fogarty said.

A process called the Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE) will be evaluating opportunities for more public input throughout all stages of planning and development in Santa Monica.

The Land Use and Circulation Element will “ensure that meaningful public involvement will be incorporated in the development review process,” said a staff report.

Fogarty also said that she hopes to return within the next four to six months with other ways to involve the community in this process.

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