February 24, 2020 - From the February, 2020 issue

Asm. Bloom on State Solutions for Streamlining Housing & Achieving Affordability

Following the close of the 2019 state legislative session, the Westside Urban Forum (WUF) convened for a conversation on California’s housing affordability crisis and state legislative efforts to increase housing production. Moderated by TPR’s own David Abel, Assemblymember Richard Bloom (pictured), and Tara Barauskas, Executive Director of Community Corporation of Santa Monica, dive into the barriers to building affordable housing and whether recent legislation streamlining local planning, zoning, and permitting processes— either incrementally or by “sledgehammer”— has resulted in increased affordability of the region’s new and existing housing supply. 


Richard Bloom

“Increasing market rate housing does not provide the kind of affordable housing that we need, at the lowest end of the spectrum. We need to fund that and find ways to lower costs.”—Richard Bloom

Assemblymember Bloom, begin sharing the legislative journey that you've taken from being a slow-growth neighborhood activist to a pro development Assemblymember in Sacramento. How has your point of view changed since becoming a state assemblymember?

I'm a lawyer, and lawyers wear hats depending on what their client's needs are. So for me, it was very natural when I was the head of Friends of Sunset Park to focus on issues at the local neighborhood level. We had very legitimate concerns in the neighborhood with a mini mall proposed for the corner of Cloverfield and Pico that was really, in my view, an inappropriate use for that site, which is now a park.

You put a different hat on when you're elected to local government representing the interest of the local communities with a view towards larger issues, and in Santa Monica that's particularly true. But even so, there are parochial issues that do sometimes take over the politics, and it can be very difficult to not play into that.

On my part, I began to focus on homelessness very early on in my tenure, back in 1999 in City Council. It became very clear to me that somebody needed to push back against the local ‘BANANA’ sentiment: build absolutely nothing anywhere near anyone. There was a fair amount of that in Santa Monica, and it became quite clear to me that there were some very loud and frequently obnoxious voices carrying that message. But I saw people who needed help, and it was the local government that had to step in and help them.

Fourteen years later, I switched my local government hat for a much broader focus on statewide issues, ran for state office, and have been working on the broader issues affecting housing and the housing market since I was elected.

Tara, as a nonprofit affordable housing developer in Santa Monica and the Westside, what are the implications of the good work that Richard is doing in the legislature for your affordable housing?

Tara Barauskas: As an affordable housing developer, we've seen an unprecedented amount of legislation coming through for affordable housing over the last five years, which has really been fantastic.

The reality is we're a nonprofit, but that doesn't mean we get any kind of discount on land, construction, architecture, or engineering. We're paying market rate for everything and sometimes more. Spreading fixed costs over more units is the simplest way, in my opinion, to bring down costs.

For example, I'm working on several projects in Santa Monica right now on which we will start construction next year. If I could take a $10 million land cost and build 75 units instead of 50 units, that automatically brings down costs. Going from a three-story building to a four-story building adds very incremental costs in terms of construction, but significantly reduces overall costs.

 I'm very excited that the state finally understands that there's a housing crisis and is mandating higher production levels, but I do think that they have an extremely important role to play in terms of paying for it. I know in Santa Monica conversations are already starting at the elected level, but even if we try every which way we can to raise enough money at the local level, it's not going to be enough for the amount of units that we're going to have to build.

It's absolutely critical that the state come up with some funding strategies—whether it's a new redevelopment 2.0 or something else—to help fill the gap to build units.

Assemblymember: What has state government done to assist local governments to achieve their housing goals? Has there been  infrastructure funding from the State Capitol to help communities create denser and healthier neighborhoods?

Richard Bloom: The loss of redevelopment was a loss for everyone, and it happened before my time in Sacramento. Wearing that local government hat, I actually lobbied against Governor Brown who was not a big fan of redevelopment and saw the recession as an opportunity to dissolve it. He had to cut the budget somewhere and redevelopment was one of the things he chose to cut. In the upcoming year, I will co-author a replacement for redevelopment that will focus on housing and doesn't allow some of the abuses that we saw in the past.

By the way, I think it's a mistake to have an us-versus-them mentality on these issues; it leads to more confrontation. Having the background that I do, I always take into perspective that not every objection to a project, or concern that's expressed from a neighborhood, is invalid because it seems to be NIMBY. Frankly, most projects improve through an iterative process where community input is gathered. The problem is when some folks try to stop every project from happening in every case.

Statewide, we don't get as much attention for the things that we do. For example, very few people knew the ADU legislation was happening. An even better example is my legislation reforming the RHNA laws. It was a dramatic change in our approach to how RHNA allocations are calculated.

In the past, cities were in the driver's seat determining what their RHNA allocation would be. Today, it’s based much more on objective criteria, and there's an ability to enforce at the statewide level. SCAG changed its position a couple of months ago, and we've got a higher RHNA allocation. Now that's filtering down to the individual cities who, in many cases, are shocked.

Assembly member Bloom, are you satisfied that the housing production that has taken place in the last few years as a result of state action has produced enough affordable housing?

Richard Bloom: Not even close.

Will building more market rate housing, then, result in more affordable housing?

Richard Bloom: I've never held that position. Increasing market rate housing is going to increase the supply of housing that is putting overall pressure on the existing housing supply. But market rate housing does not provide the kind of affordable housing that we need, at the lowest end of the spectrum. We need to fund that and find ways to lower costs, as we talked about earlier.

Tara, are you comfortable that more affordable housing is being built as a result of legislation at the state level?

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Tara Barauskas: Absolutely, and I think it's happening more quickly, thanks to all these streamlining bills. But we also need to look more at moderate income housing. We've got a donut effect starting where we're trying to focus on the extremely low end—and of course there's always lots of market rate—but there's not really much in the middle. A lot of that is because there aren't any funding mechanisms for nonprofits like us to build moderate income housing.

Looking at less traditional properties that could be developed with affordable housing, commercial is a really natural place to put affordable housing, especially mixed-use housing. Making commercially-zoned properties by-right for affordable housing; some cities have that, but many don't.

One thing we're taking a look at is developing affordable housing on church properties, but there are some little snags, some really technical things that are really getting in our way.

Another is surplus lands, maybe the state of California or counties can start to really get more aggressive about reutilizing properties. For example, something came up at a council meeting this week about the DMV site in Santa Monica that has a really big surface parking lot.

Richard Bloom: I think that’s a really good example of a niche area we can look to that is under-developed. Virtually every DMV has large, underutilized surface parking lots that could be located underground, allowing us to co-locate DMV offices with housing. That’s a place where the state can play a role.

Jane Blumenfeld and a crew of advocates are working with me to try and identify some other possibilities and recruiting community colleges to look at reforming the laws on co-housing to provide that as a better tool to developers.

I think there are also a lot of cases that may not capture the public's attention in either a controversial or non-controversial way the way that SB 35 has, but that are still very important, incremental steps to increasing the overall supply, particularly at the lower level. I think SB 35 is a good example of the sledgehammer; it's impactful, but people are not comfortable with it. Whereas, the ADU legislation is an incremental step that most people in residential neighborhoods welcomed 

Without investing more in local infrastructure to support new ADUs, eventually won’t they too become a neighborhood problem. In the audience, you have the city leadership of Culver City and Santa Monica; both must plan for new housing demand—arising from tens of thousands of new highly paid employees in their cities. What is the preferred solution today for offering more housing affordability on the Westside?

Richard Bloom: Both cities’ problem is very real, and it's our problem. We have layer upon layer of local regulation that, over many decades, has put constraints on reforming land-use planning in cities. For example, in my city of Santa Monica, Mayor O’Connor and myself worked on reforming land use planning, and the ultimate plan that we ended up with before I left the council included a good deal of development on the boulevard, not in residential communities. Development was adjacent to opportunity zones that were individual, large-scale properties.

Then, there was a changeover in the council. Not everything in the plan was wiped away, but opportunity zones and development on the boulevard outside of downtown Santa Monica was disallowed. My point is, even in Santa Monica, where there is more than your average amount of housing development, there was pushback. 

While there has been housing development in both cities, would it not be true that there’s been nowhere near the necessary number of affordable housing built in Santa Monica and  Culver City because more people with bid up the price of any additional housing that is built?

Richard Bloom: I agree with you. We live in a time when we have this interesting dichotomy between increasing the jobs base in the Westside with better, high-paying jobs that put pressure on a limited housing stock, which raises the price for everyone. Across the board, we have to adjust our housing policies. That means building more market rate housing, and it means building more affordable housing, which requires government intervention in as many ways as possible.

Tara Barauskas: We also have to think creatively because, as you mentioned, infrastructure is a challenge. On the Westside in general, there are huge problems with traffic congestion that really paints a negative lens on development.

People automatically assume that if you build, it's going to bring more traffic congestion, but actually the opposite is true for affordable housing. If you put affordable housing near jobs and transit, it's going to reduce congestion, and we need to get people to understand that. 

To conclude, what explains so few units of affordable housing built in the last decade in Downtown Los Angeles.  For example, tens of thousands of new market rate units have been built, but very, very few are affordability? And traffic congestion downtown, coupled with the elimination of parking requirements. many report, makes more than challenging.

Tara Barauskas: I think the reason that there hasn’t been an impact on traffic congestion is because the amount of affordable housing built is so much less than market rate. Building market rate housing is attractive, because it has a higher return.

One of the challenges we have is parking. There are a lot of policies now that are talking about either reducing or eliminating parking requirements, including in the city of Santa Monica. But the reality is there are still a lot of low income jobs that require a car. We're not at the point of no longer needing cars, and parking is an absolutely huge cost driver for affordable housing. While we're looking at reducing costs, we need to get creative about the way our cities are going to look and feel.

Transit infrastructure  needs to be improved so that people feel comfortable using it and have less dependence on cars. Maybe there are different strategies we can think of like shared parking, shared vehicles, or more shuttle systems. While housing is our main focus, these other intersecting issues that are critically important.

Richard Bloom: The issue around transportation is very tightly interwoven with housing. I take your point about Downtown Los Angeles. It's generally true that a lot of the market-rate developments that we've seen have been profit motivated at the high end of the marketplace, and that does not help affordability at the lower end.

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© 2020 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.