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Santa Monica Scrambles to Meet Housing Targets Other Cities Are Opposing

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By Jorge Casuso

March 9, 2020 -- As Santa Monica revs up to meet its State mandate to add nearly 9,000 new housing units over eight years, other cities have taken a much more cautious, if not contentious, approach.

The City Council on Tuesday is expected to become the first Southern California city to proactively take steps to meet its goal by approving an emergency interim ordinance.

City officials hope the action will spur developers to reach the mandated 8,874 units, more than two thirds of them affordable, by streamlining the permitting process ("Council Could Immediately Streamline Permit Process to Spur Housing Development," March 5, 2020).

"We do not know of any other city that is jumping in that aggressively at this point," officials at the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) told the Lookout. "As far as we are aware, Santa Monica is unique."

The Council's action is a radical departure from that taken by other cities that have been pushing back against the Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA) targets set by SCAG.

Irvine and Newport Beach, among others, didn't wait until the final numbers were approved by the SCAG Board last Thursday to challenge their targets.

“It is a methodology that allowed no transparency, no public vetting or discourse," Newport Beach Council member Diane Dixon told the Voice of Orange County shortly after the Council voted in January.

"It was just mandated in a very dictatorial fashion by non-elected individuals,” Dixon said.

SCAG officials said the City has recently taken a "more constructive approach" by forming a Housing Element Advocacy Committee to work with neighboring cities.

But the approach is "not anything on the level of what Santa Monica is doing," SCAG officials said. "They are not as shovel ready as Santa Monica."

Many cities are still weighing their options, which include filing appeals not only challenging their own targets, but those of other cities.

Beverly Hills Mayor John Mirisch believes appealing the numbers to the SCAG Board is a waste of time, since "no appeals have been sustained on a regional basis."

Instead, the housing targets should be challenged in court, perhaps as part of a class action lawsuit, Mirisch said.

"We're getting a raw deal," he said. "We've stayed very stable" in population, which he adds is the very definiton of "sustainable."

"We don't want Sacramento dictating what our lifestyle choices should be," Mirisch said. "This is a smokescreen to create upzoning that Wall Street, big tech and developers want."

The SCAG regional numbers, he said, are "ridiculous."

"I don't look at it as an opportunity. I look at it as something punitive."

It is unclear what sanctions the State would impose on cities that fail to meet their targets.

In January 2019, Gov. Gavin Newsom threatened to withhold State transportation funds from nonconforming cities, and in June, he threatened to fine them as much as $600,000 a month.

But no punitive measures have been approved. Meanwhile cities are banding together to challenge the RHNA process.

Last September, the South Bay Cities Council of Governments (SBCCOG) recommended that the State reform the process to work more collaboratively with cities and require that new housing developments "perform sustainably."

"City zoning practices are being held solely responsible as scapegoats," the group wrote in a 12-page letter to SCAG dated September 12.

"Builders’ business practices, consumer preferences, the regional economy performance, uncertain futures including possible recession, and state policies are all part of the problem," SBCCOG wrote.

Santa Monica didn't wait for the final numbers, which SCAG officials said were tweaked to take into account the latest transportation data.

Instead, it acted one month after SCAG used an alternative methodology in November that doubled the preliminary quotas for Santa Monica and other cities that have access to high quality transit, jobs and a healthy development community.

At a study session in December, the Council accepted the daunting task set by the state, paving the way for Tuesday' emergency ordinance ("Santa Monica Takes Initial Step to Dramatically Boost Housing Production," December 13, 2019).

"If we don't do this, the State will do it for us," Councilmember Gleam Davis said during the four-hour-long study session. "It's coming whether we like it or not."

Slow-growth activists disagree. They are drafting a letter urging the Council to appeal the city's housing target.

Attempting to meet the numbers "begs the question, 'How much can you build and keep the infrastructure functioning," said Diana Gordon, who heads the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC).

"The methodology that was carted out at the last minute didn't in any way study the environmental impacts," Gordon said.

"The methodology and numbers are in conflict with what can be done in Santa Monica."

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