Downtown Santa Monica to get hundreds of tiny apartments offered at market rate

By Gary Walker

This 43-unit apartment building planned for Fifth Street would be one of six that include SROs

Angelenos tend to associate single-room occupancy units, commonly called SROs, with Skid Row flophouses serving indigent or low-income individuals who share kitchen and bathroom space — a type of affordable housing that had all but faded into a relic of 20th-century urban planning.

A new-millennium reboot of the concept featuring tiny apartments with modern amenities in brand-new buildings could soon reshape the residential landscape of downtown Santa Monica.

Under terms of an agreement between Santa Monica city leaders and prominent developer WS Communities, six new apartment buildings slated for Fifth, Six and Seventh streets would create hundreds of new SRO-style units, the majority of them leased at market rate.

The projects are expected to contain a mixture of SROs, studios, one- and two-bedroom apartments, with 15% of the SROs designated as affordable housing and 20% of larger units set aside for low-income tenants. Santa Monica City Council members had previously banned apartments smaller than 375 square feet unless they were specifically designated as affordable housing.

The deal specifies that market-rate SROs must be leased to people, not corporations, according to legal representatives of the city. Policymakers hope that an infusion of smaller housing units at more attainable prices may help alleviate a shortage of housing options that working people can afford.

“The case for affordable housing is clear: we need more. And if SROs can help us achieve this end, great,” Santa Monica City Councilman Greg Morena said. “We have yet to see the ultimate residential value of SROs. As a concept it’s a great way to start your life in Santa Monica. As a family home, it certainly has limitations.”

Alicia Shepherd, the director of growth for Santa Monica-based commercial real estate firm Keller Williams Realty, said having a mix of housing options can alleviate stress on Santa Monica’s overburdened housing market.

“We’re in such a housing crunch, so we have to have a diverse type of housing for our changing tenant demographic. We’re not going to rent-control our way out of this housing crisis: We’re going to have to build our way out of it,” said Shepherd, adding that the current market might allow a landlord to charge $6 to $8 per square foot for a SRO unit.

SRO units planned for downtown Santa Monica would span at least 225 square feet, not including a bathroom and closet. According to the city attorney’s office, each SRO is required to have a separate bathroom (including toilet, shower and sink) as well as a cooking appliance, refrigerator and kitchen sink.

WS Communities, which through an attorney declined to comment on this story, has already built more than a dozen other projects in Santa Monica. The company initially submitted the six new apartment projects in March, but faced rejections from the city’s Planning Commission prior to the council banning market-rate SROs in May. City officials argued at the time that SROs are affordable housing by design and should be subject to market rate leases.

Cheryl Turner, a member of the FAME Santa Monica Redevelopment Corporation, said the city was not on firm legal ground in opposing market rate SROs.

“It can be argued that because there is a shortage of housing, especially affordable housing, any new housing adds to the available housing stock to help us fight homelessness,” she said. “California law preempted the city’s ordinance to the extent that it placed restrictions on the size and number of units within the proposed WS Communities’ housing project.”

Abundant Housing L.A. Policy Director Mark Valliantos said contemporary SROs are much different than their older counterparts and can be an important source of affordable housing.

“Los Angeles has lost thousands of these rooms over several decades, leaving low-income people who lived in them with no place else to live, which contributed to the homeless problem,” he said.  “It makes sense to have more types of housing that are affordable, including modern SROs.”