To Build or Not to Build?
When it comes to development and home-lessness, the prognosis for Santa Monica remains uncertain
By Beige Luciano-Adams
As California’s Legislature braces for a Trump presidency, the tangled trifecta of development, affordable housing and homelessness continues to occupy minds in Santa Monica.
Business and affordable housing advocates, ever capricious comrades, expressed a collective sigh of relief at the demise of development-restricting Measure LV in November — until Santa Monica decided last month to explore voter approval or a super majority as a safety latch for large developments.
“Some people think they won the battle, but I want to end the war,” said Councilmember Kevin McKeown, who got it from both sides during public input at a recent council meeting — including accusations of a hollow attempt to “pacify residents,” and perplexed concern the council would revive the issue after voters so soundly put it down.
Tara Barauskas, executive director of the nonprofit affordable housing development group Community Corporation of Santa Monica, was sanguine about Measure LV’s demise — and the passage of Measures GS and GSH, which she expects will generate $6 million to $8 million each year for affordable housing.
“The top two challenges here are community backlash, NIMBYism. The other is finances, because land is so expensive here and resources to build affordable housing are scarce,” she said.
Move LA Director Denny Zane, fresh off a major victory with the passage of the Measure M transportation tax, sees affordable housing as the indispensable companion to transit overhaul.
“Our intention in that regard is both to respond to the moral/humanitarian crisis of homelessness, but we also think civil effort needs to be made for affordable housing broadly — and that’s where we’re specifically wearing our transit and transportation hats,” Zane said.
Density around transit stations will do little good unless a large share of the housing is affordable, “because we’re talking primarily about low-income workforce as a large share of ridership,” he argued. “If you only do market-rate housing around stations, you’re more likely to displace riders than create them.”
And what might federal affordable housing programs look like with Trump’s pick, Dr. Ben Carson, manning HUD? Politicians reeling from that vision (about a week after Carson declared himself unqualified to run a federal agency) weren’t mincing words. Congressman Ted Lieu, who represents Westside communities including Santa Monica, called it “tragic” and implored the good doctor to withdraw.
Alan Greenlee, executive director of the Southern California Nonprofit Housing Association, was diplomatic: “Not inspiring.”
Many bristle at Carson’s brush-off of the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing initiative — the Obama administration’s effort to distribute affordable housing throughout different communities, not just poor ones — as “social engineering” and wonder what all that will mean for Los Angeles.
“We think all our communities have a role to play in the affordable housing issue. So we shouldn’t be building low-income housing in Watts; we should be building it in Westwood,” Greenlee said.
Meanwhile in Hollywood, smarting from a failed campaign to stop the Palladium Residences, AIDS Healthcare Foundation head Michael Weinstein managed to get his development blackout, “Measure S,” in front of Los Angeles city voters in March.
According to a broad opposition coalition, which includes L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, the moratorium on “mega developments” would in fact put the brakes on most development — affordable housing and housing for the homeless included — and cost the city billions in lost economic output.
Armen Melkonians, who concedes Residocracy will be “going into a little bit of reflection time” after the defeat of Measure LV, is a fan.
“We worked a little bit with the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative for our initiative. They’re requesting basically a two-year moratorium… in order to update the zoning plan. I think that’s a great thing, and every city should have development up-to-date in their General Plan.”
As for the projected negative fallout, Melkonians faults the premise.
“Overdevelopment actually creates more homeless problems. It displaces people in affordable units now. And units being built are becoming less affordable. So I don’t buy the argument that building will somehow house people in low-income levels.”
LV supporters may have felt some vindication on Dec. 6, when the city ordered a closer look at its contracts with NMS Properties — the developer behind some of the city’s most maligned new high-rent buildings — after a civil court judge found evidence of shady practices related to a development dispute.
Future development casualties aside, Santa Monica, like the rest of L.A. County, is dealing with an unprecedented crisis of already displaced and vulnerable people.
“Unfortunately right now one of the biggest issues is homelessness,” said Laurel Rosen, president of the Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce. Treading lightly, she added, “We’re … in the middle of lot of discussions.”
“One of the important parts of that,” she said, “is ‘how do businesses protect themselves? What is a business’ response in all that? How do they learn how to deescalate situations?’”
Casting business owners as the vulnerable party in this equation, however, may be a hard sell.
Meanwhile, Santa Monica city leaders are backing a solution from L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas: a quarter-cent sales tax generating an estimated $355 million per year to pay for homeless services. Look for it on the ballot in March.
At least everyone can agree on something: Residents will be displaced, either because developers aren’t incentivized to build enough affordable housing, or because they won’t be allowed to build at all.
Development critics appear to have an uphill battle in a region hell-bent on persevering through the sunset of uneven economic recovery — and before the dawn of a whole new world come Jan. 20. The impact for Santa Monica and its rancorous internal conflict remains to be seen.