Sending Santa Monica’s Affordable Housing to Palmdale Is a Toxic Mix of Climate Denialism and Classism

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Urban sprawl is the leading cause of air pollution, greenhouse gasses, wildfires, and other contributors to the global warming that is likely to end civilization as we know it. People who live in remote suburbs drive many more miles, costing personal time, money, and most critically polluting the air and causing deaths by traffic crashes. Last year, Councilmembers Phil Brock and Lana Negrete’s met with leadership in the City of Palmdale to discuss a proposal where Santa Monica would pay Palmdale to build housing for people who would prefer to live in Santa Monica. This proposal is a perfect local example of how limited-scope local thinking destroys the planet and makes it harder for people to live fulfilling lives without being stuck in traffic or giving most of their paycheck to a landlord.

There are many reasons why the state and regional governments have allocated more housing to Santa Monica than to Palmdale:

Traffic and Traffic Congestion.  In 2020, The Metropolitan Planning Organization for Southern California adopted a  legally-required comprehensive Regional Transportation Plan and Sustainable Communities Strategy.  This includes a 52-page report on congestion management. Congestion management without dynamic road pricing is tough work, because it relies on balancing travel activity, daily travel patterns, and travel locations.  According to a vehicle miles travel tool published by the respected transportation consulting firm Fehr & Peers, those living in Palmdale drive more than twice as much (32.2 daily miles per resident) as those living in Santa Monica (14.0 miles per resident).  All of that extra travel activity means more challenges to congestion management without dynamic road pricing (which has largely failed).  Given that the paradigm for the last 50 years has been building more housing in high-vehicle miles traveled (VMT) regions like Palmdale rather than low-VMT, high jobs and opportunity areas like Santa Monica, this would be more of the same with predictable results for traffic congestion.

Those who are curious about why the federal, state, and regional government are pushing for additional housing in high-opportunity cities like Santa Monica should read the adopted regional plan.

Smog. The Los Angeles air basin was one of the country’s first to experience extreme levels of smog due to transportation activity.  California’s early action on smog led the state to be the only state granted authority to regulate vehicle emissions separately from the federal government.  

In addition to substantially reducing certain types of smog, this helped the state build research and regulatory capacity to take the nation’s lead on climate change.  However, in addition to localized concentrations of particulates, the Los Angeles region still has high levels of ground-level ozone, which is harmful for people, animals, and plants. In addition to harming all of our health, EPA’s non-attainment status means that California is continually in jeopardy of losing federal funding for transportation.  As such, a cottage industry of air quality consultants and engineers has developed to attempt to demonstrate to the federal government that the Los Angeles region has an effective strategy to bring ozone levels down below federal standards.  Actions that create more vehicle miles traveled than anticipated by sending housing from Santa Monica to Palmdale would require extensive supplemental analysis and strategy development to convince the federal government that the region is still on track to improve air quality and should still get its transportation dollars and possible lawsuits from the public-interest law groups that keep a close eye on regional air quality.   

Greenhouse Gas Emissions. Since 2012, cities and counties in the Los Angeles region have needed to demonstrate how, as part of an integrated plan for transportation and development, they would reduce per-person vehicle miles traveled and resulting greenhouse gas emissions from cars and small trucks.  The Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act changed California’s approach to regional planning for housing and transportation.  But it didn’t seem to reduce California’s greenhouse gas emissions from cars and small trucks.

In 2017, Santa Monica’s state Senator Ben Allen authored a law that required the state to assess how well this planning strategy was working.  And the state has found that it’s not working that well, chiefly because planned housing was not being built in high-opportunity, low-VMT sections of California’s metropolitan regions. The 2018 and 2022 progress reports to the legislature on sustainable communities implementation have motivated those legislators concerned about climate change’s past, current, and future impacts to pursue more aggressive statutes for housing and active transportation. Housing affordability and accountability have also been strong motivators of this legislative action. 

Fair Housing Compliance. Santa Moncia had grown enough to have a diverse population before cities began to use zoning as a regulatory tool to physically segregate incompatible land uses. Zoning quickly became used as a tool to physically segregate people by class and race, later joined by federally-subsidized housing finance and federally-subsidized freeways.

To address the effects of regulation and federal subsidy in creating racial segregation in cities, the US Congress introduced the Fair Housing Act as part of a package of Civil Rights Legislation in 1968. In 2018, a new California law significantly strengthened the state’s commitment to furthering and enforcing fair housing (an approach known as affirmatively furthering fair housing).

It doesn’t take more than a few Google-assisted internet minutes to discover that building housing in Palmdale instead of Santa Monica does not further fair housing. Palmdale is 40.7% white with a median income of $70,858 and a 15.8% poverty rate. Santa Monica is 70.8% white with a median income of $99,847 and 10.6% poverty rate.

Regional Housing Needs Compliance. First mandated in 1982, the Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA or ReeNa) has evolved over time to be used to address traffic and traffic congestion, smog, and greenhouse gas emissions in addition to building more housing in high-opportunity, low-VMT areas with higher housing costs.

Again, quick Google-assisted internet research demonstrates how building housing in Palmdale instead of Santa Monica does nothing to add housing in areas with higher costs.  Palmdale’s median rent is $1,472 and owner-occupied housing value of $332,400 for the 64.7% of housing that is owner-occupied.  Santa Monica has a median rent of $2,055 and median housing value of $1.484 million for the 28.5% of units in the city that are owner-occupied. 

This discrepancy in housing costs between Santa Monica and Palmdale has been the case for decades. What has changed is that a a series recent laws has forced regions to make up for a backlog of needed housing in determining how much housing each jurisdiction should build, increased the requirements and stringency of review for city-submitted housing elements, and created additional enforcement and consequences for a city’s failure to accommodate new housing through zoning and other local laws. Because of this combination of laws that address everything from traffic and smog to fair housing, and while Santa Monica can pay Palmdale to build housing, Santa Monica can’t legally transfer its state-mandated housing obligations to Palmdale. This means that Santa Monica can pay Palmdale to build unit’s that count towards Palmdale’s own housing needs assessment, and Palmdale would be quite wise to accept every dollar that Santa Monica sends.

Housing Accountability. California is more than 40 years into a crisis created by under-supplying housing in high-opportunity areas.  In 1982, finding that “the lack of housing, including emergency shelter, is a critical statewide problem,” the state legislature passed the California Housing Accountability Act.  

As housing is still a crisis in California, the Act was strengthened in 2017. As a consequence, legal scholars believe a “builder’s remedy” now applies when California’s Department of Housing and Community Development determines that the city’s housing element is not compliant with state laws. Even if a city hasn’t implemented local zoning and regulations to allow for such development, the “builder’s remedy” allows developers to build housing with 20% of units set aside for lower-income households or 100% of units for moderate or middle income households.  

Because California’s Department of Housing and Community Development would see any agreement which attempts to reduce Santa Monica’s housing targets by sending housing to Palmdale as non-compliant with the Housing Accountability Act, this would trigger the builder’s remedy in Santa Monica. 

Government Funding and Fines. In addition Santa Monica sending its own housing funds to Palmdale without any corresponding reduction in the legally-required number of below-market units Santa Monica must accommodate, Santa Monica would also lose eligibility for millions in state and regional governmental grants for affordable housing, sustainable transportation, economic development, and sustainable infrastructure.  And on top of losing local and regional funding, Santa Monica would need to pay fines for a non-compliant housing element in addition to any legal fees, fines, and damages in any developer-initiated lawsuits. 

When the right thing becomes required

Building more housing in high-opportunity, low-VMT cities like Santa Monica has always been the right thing to do to reduce traffic congestion, smog, greenhouse gas emissions, racial and income inequality, and average housing costs. What’s changed in the past decade is that it’s not just right, it’s legally required. Attempts to avoid these new legal responsibilities to build housing, 

whether out of ignorance or indifference to these environmental, social, and economic impacts, have the same effects.  And the mounting evidence, some of which is linked above, should fight ignorance.

And because these housing requirements are rooted in the environmental and social responsibility ethos of progressive California, it’s quite unlikely that the state government and politicians will back off from these laws. And even under a political revolution, a Republican-dominated California state government and legislature would likely side with developers looking to profit from new housing developments (possibly without currently-required set-asides of affordable units) in Coastal California, home of disaffected liberal voters in this less plausible future scenario. So our City’s only two choices are to comply with the Housing Accountability Act and accommodate our RHNA-assigned housing, or to suffer the consequences of the “Builder’s Remedy”. Sending housing to Palmdale invokes the latter.

Lead image: Steve Shook via Flickr, https://www.flickr.com/photos/shookphotos/5670475739/in/photostream/

Juan Matute
Juan Matute
Juan writes a column and occasionally does technical stuff for Santa Monica Next.

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