Let's talk about how rich cities are trying to dodge their legally-required housing quotas.

Santa Monica, by Mike Gonzalez on Wikipedia

For this post, I'll talk about how rich cities in greater LA are trying to bullshit their way out of building new housing. This is going to be a deep dive into how the sausage gets made.


Right now, the state has new laws which requires cities to zone for, and build, enough housing to meet a state quota. If your don't zone enough, the state can void your zoning, appoint a judge to run the zoning process, and generally sue you into oblivion. If your city doesn't build enough, developers can show up with a big pile of money and build anything that otherwise meets the law.

The quotas are designed to put new homes in neighborhoods with good schools, near jobs and transit. That is, new homes should go in places you'd want to live, if could afford it. So, it means 9,000 new apartments in Santa Monica; 3,000 in Beverly Hills, and 23,000 in Irvine. In the Bay Area, it's 8,000 apartments for Berkeley; 6,000 for Palo Alto; 4,500 for Cupertino. In many places, this is more housing than they've built in the last 50 years.

Some cities are making a good faith effort to meet quota. Berkeley voted to allow small apartment buildings citywide. Sacramento went above and beyond, allowing small apartments citywide, and big apartments near train stations.

But there's lots of places that want to play games, and I'm going to show you how they do it.


We're going to go to one of my favorite places in the world: Santa Monica.

In the last election, the never-change-anything crowd won a City Council majority. They want to go back to the bad old days when no one ever built anything and prices kept skyrocketing. This way, the existing rent-controlled tenants get to keep their old apartments, politically connected developers can box out the competition, and rich homeowners get to keep their insanely high property values. In other words, if you didn't buy a place or get rent control in 1990, you're out of luck.

But the state quota is still there, and the city is legally required to develop a plan to build 9000 new homes in the next 8 years, or else. And, so, they drafted an exhaustive plan, filled with complex acronyms and bureaucratic jargon. If you try to read it, it'll give you a headache. And this is deliberate, because Santa Monica's plan is to fail and hope that no one notices.

I'll illustrate how this plays out.

As part of the plan, the City must identify land where new apartments are likely to be built. One of those pieces of land is an empty lot at 12th and Wilshire. The City says that there's currently a permit to build 13 apartments there, so they counted the building toward their quota.

There's only one problem: the City lied. 1211 12th St isn't listed on the city's list of active development projects. And there's at least a half-dozen proposed apartment buildings on the city's plan that don't exist on the City's website of active developments.

This kind of gamesmanship is all over Santa Monica's housing plan. The City says that they'll tear down the renowned Bergamot Arts Center to build apartments. (Spoiler alert: they won't - it caused a furor in 2015.) The City says that they want to try to build apartments on land owned by UCLA, and the school district, and the electric company - not that the City ever asked whether any of these institutions were interested in using their land for apartments. UCLA certainly doesn't have any plans to do it - and they're building new apartments like gangbusters these days.

The City also says that they'll require large amounts of new rent-controlled housing to be built with every new apartment building - up to 20%. This requirement is a trojan horse, because it allows Santa Monica to keep its liberal street cred, but it also simultaneously makes it way more difficult to build new apartments. (The City's own analysis says that, too!)

This is a feature, not a bug.

And, to top it all off, the City says that they couldn't possibly allow rowhouses or apartment buildings in areas zoned for suburban-style homes because the cost of land is too high to build affordable housing. This is, of course, stupid. The City's quota requires them to double how much market-rate housing they build. And, let's be real here: people build apartment buildings because the land is valuable. And if you cross the street from Santa Monica into Venice Beach, you see what might happen if Santa Monica allowed rowhouses or apartment buildings: they're tearing down old crappy bungalows built in 1920 and replacing them with three rowhouses.

Loosen the zoning even further to what you see near the Expo stations today, and you get full-sized apartment buildings. Rich Santa Monica homeowners fear both.

The City Council knows how to meet the quota, but refuses to do it.

The City's draft plan actually identifies the three components of what a serious attempt to build new housing would look like.

First, you'd build apartments on particular lots that they've identified as development sites.

These largely follow the old streetcar routes to Downtown LA. Second, you'd allow small apartment buildings in all parts of the city. Third, you'd allow large apartment buildings within a half-mile of Expo Line light rail stations.

Doing all three gives you a realistic chance of meeting your quota.

But the Santa Monica City Council isn't interested in following the law. They were elected to turn back the clock, after all. So, they've done what they think they can get away with: assume that the specific developments in category 1 will be enough, and game the numbers to reach ~9000 apartments.

So, what's the best way to deal with this stuff?

Well, the best way is through politics and organizing. It means electing city councilmen who are interested in ending the housing crisis and pressuring them to do better. It also means paying attention to this kind of chicanery when it happens and putting the city councilmen on notice. Because cities like Santa Monica fear Sacramento assuming direct control. And fear can keep the local councils in line.

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