Housing Element Update (2021 to 2029) - Frequently Asked Questions

General Housing Element Questions

What is the housing element?

All communities in California are required to have a Housing Element as part of their adopted General Plan. The Housing Element is the city’s guide for meeting the housing needs of all segments of Santa Monica’s population. California State law requires that Santa Monica prepare and update the Citywide Housing Element every 8 years.

What is included in a Housing Element?

The components of the Housing Element are largely dictated by the State and typically must include: 

  • A detailed analysis of the City’s demographic, economic and housing characteristics. 
  • A comprehensive analysis of the barriers to producing and preserving housing. 
  • A review of the City’s progress in implementing current housing policies and programs.
  • An identification of goals, objectives, and policies, in addition to a full list of programs that will implement the vision of the plan. 
  • A list of sites (aka the Suitable Sites Inventory) that could accommodate new housing, demonstrating the City’s ability to meet the quantified housing number established in the Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA). 

Because the Housing Element is updated frequently, the previous element provides a foundation for this update. This update gives us the opportunity to evaluate the previous element and determine which parts have been effective and which should be improved. 

Why is the Housing Element important?

The Housing Element is important because housing is critical to ensure economic prosperity and quality of life in our region.

In the past 30 years, the region has added many new jobs and attracted a number of  new residents, increasing the demand for housing. However, the pace of housing construction has not kept up with the increased housing demand. As a result, commutes have grown longer and our roads have become more congested. During the next 20 years, the only way the Los Angeles region can accomplish sustainable growth is to refocus its growth back toward the core of the region. This means redeveloping obsolete uses of land and vacant buildings and directing development closer to job centers and areas where transportation systems can support new growth.

What is the relationship of the housing element to other General Plan Elements?

The City of Santa Monica General Plan provides long-term guidance and policies for maintaining and improving the quality of life. The General Plan provides direction for the city’s growth and development. As a policy document, the General Plan serves as a guide to the adoption of laws necessary to execute its intent. Santa Monica’s General Plan consists of 7 elements: (1) Land Use and Circulation, (2) Conservation, (3) Housing, (4) Open Space, (5) Noise, (6) Safety, and (7) Historic Preservation. The Housing Element must be consistent with the other elements of the General Plan. It is anticipated that the City’s Land Use and Circulation Element will need to be updated.

The City’s current Housing Element was adopted by the Santa Monica City Council in December of 2013. The current Housing Element may be found on the City’s website at: https://www.smgov.net/Departments/PCD/Plans/2013-2021-Housing-Element/.

California State law requires that Santa Monica update the Citywide Housing Element every eight years. These frequent updates are required because housing is critical to ensure economic prosperity and quality of life in our region Updating the Housing Element presents a real opportunity for communities to be forward thinking and strategic in their overall planning process.

Why update the housing element?

Without a certified Element, the City would be ineligible for some of the state housing grants and funds it currently receives. Other state funds, including those used to maintain roads and utilities, also could be jeopardized. The City would also be vulnerable to lawsuits for not working proactively to meet its housing needs. Typical remedies for such lawsuits include court orders to meet state certification requirements and, in some cases, court ordered moratoriums on development. These lawsuits are expensive and can have adverse fiscal and economic effects.

What is the schedule for the current Housing Element Update?

As required by state law, the revised Housing Element must be certified by the Santa Monica City Council no later than October 2021, or the City of Santa Monica could lose eligibility for significant sources of funding currently provided by the State.

The City’s anticipated timeline and steps for revising the Housing Element can be found on the Project Timeline page.

RHNA Questions

What is RHNA?

RHNA stands for “Regional Housing Needs Assessment.” Every eight years, the State of California provides the number of housing units that should be accommodated in the Southern California region. The Southern California Regional Association of Governments (SCAG) takes that larger number and devises a methodology to allocate the units among local jurisdictions as well as unincorporated areas. As a part of the Housing Element, Santa Monica must demonstrate to the State that there is available capacity for the units allocated to the City. This year, the regional allocation, and therefore our city’s allocation, was significantly larger than it has been in past years. This large allocation was a result of the State responding to the housing crisis by considering both “projected need” (i.e., units we need to accommodate new residents) and “existing need” (i.e., units we need to alleviate challenges like overcrowding and homelessness). The allocation also takes affordability into account by identifying the percentage of units that are needed at each income level (very low, low, and moderate).

The exact RHNA allocation will be released by SCAG in the last quarter of 2020. The allocation figure is approximately 9,000 units, with 50% of these units being in the lower income levels.

Does RHNA require us to build housing?

Through the RHNA process, we must show that the City has the regulatory and land use policies to accommodate housing needs, but the actual development of housing is largely conducted by the private market. The Housing Element is required to demonstrate potential sites where housing can be accommodated. Identification of a site’s capacity does not guarantee that construction will occur on that site. If there are insufficient sites and capacity to meet the RHNA allocation, then the Housing Element is required to identify a rezoning program to create the required capacity. It is important to note that if we fall significantly behind on our RHNA targets, the City of Santa Monica could be deemed out of compliance and risk losing important sources of funding currently provided by the State.

How is a City’s RHNA determined?

This is a complex process that begins with the State of California. The State prepares projections about expected population growth in the state and then allocates a portion of the total state population growth to each region. Regional planning organizations in turn distribute the regional allocation among local jurisdictions. There are three primary objectives in allocating the units to local jurisdictions: increasing housing supply, affordability and housing type, encouraging infill and efficient development, and promoting a jobs/housing balance.

Southern California Association of Governments’ methodology for determining a city or county’s RHNA starts with the total regional determination provided by the California Department of Housing and Community Development and separates existing need from projected need. In determining the existing and projected need for the region, the methodology applies a three-step process to determine a jurisdiction’s RHNA allocation by income category. This process involves determining a jurisdiction’s projected housing need, existing housing need, and total housing need in order to determine four RHNA income categories. Further detail on how these figures are derived is outlined here.

What are the City’s RHNA numbers?

In the next 2021-2029 Housing Element Cycle, the City of Santa Monica’s RHNA allocation is 8,874 new housing units, 69% of which must be at various affordable income levels. The previously adopted Housing Element cycle covering the 2013-2021 period included a RHNA allocation of 1,674 units.  The increase in the City’s RHNA housing number is reflective of the State’s current housing crisis.

Affordable Housing Questions

What is affordable or below market rate housing; and what are the definitions of very low, low, moderate and above moderate income?

This is housing that is offered at a price lower than the market rate. This is usually possible because of government subsidies and other programs that help lower the price or rent of housing. Affordable housing is usually limited to individuals and families that fit into a specific income category (ranging anywhere from less than 30% of area median income to 120% of area median income).

Will these sites be developed with low income housing?

The RNHA process attempts to encourage development of housing at all income levels, with a focus on affordable housing. There is a presumed correlation between density (i.e. the number of housing units per acre) and affordability (i.e., housing built to higher densities is affordable to a greater segment of the population). However, it should be noted that RHNA process does not establish rental rates or sales prices. Ultimately, the type of housing built on these sites will depend on the housing market and local economy.

Why has Santa Monica been assigned a higher number of affordability than other cities in the region?

Statutory RHNA objectives look at jobs, housing balance, proximity to transit, and housing costs in determining this figure. As part of the Southern California Association of Governments’ analyses, in areas where housing cost is higher a larger number of affordable housing is needed to fill the gaps between the very low and very high incomes.

Is there a way to reduce the number of units that are allocated to the City of Santa Monica?

The City as well as other jurisdictions may appeal the allocation assigned to the City. On January 13, 2020 the California Department of Housing and Community Development completed its review of the draft methodology and found that it furthers the five statutory objects of RHNA and on March 4, 2020, the Southern California Association of Governments’ Regional Council voted to approve the Final RHNA Methodology. The appeal process will last through July of 2020.

Community Input Questions

What role does community input play in the Housing Element update?

A successful Housing Element is based on an inclusive process in which all residents have the chance to participate. State planning law requires that communities make diligent efforts to engage public participation that includes all stakeholders and income groups. The public process for the Housing Element Update will include various outreach events. Late in the process, the Planning Commission and City Council will conduct formal hearings to adopt the updated Housing Element. Written public comment regarding issues related to housing are always welcome. If you would like to be contacted regarding future meetings join our mailing list. If you have any questions about the Housing Element, email use at HousingUpdate@smgov.net

How can the public be involved in this process?

Check out the Upcoming Events page for opportunities to get involved in the planning process.

To date, what steps has the City taken to work towards the housing element update?

During study session on the December 10, 2019 City Council meeting, Council directed staff to work with Planning staff and City Attorney’s Office and based on the evening’s discussion as well as discussions at  Planning Commission, Housing Commission joint meetings, to provide three to five significant steps to move forward in work efforts related to housing policy in anticipation of the new RHNA numbers.

In response to Council’s direction, on March 10, 2020, staff evaluated areas where modifications to support housing production could be made relatively quickly. During this meeting, the Council adopted resolutions to amend the text of the Land Use and Circulation Element and the Bergamot Area Plan to authorize 100% affordable housing projects and Tier 2 housing projects compliant with the Housing Accountability Act (HAA) to be reviewed through an administrative approval process, to amend the text of the Downtown Community Plan to allow Tier 2 housing projects compliant with the HAA to be reviewed through an administrative approval process including the requirement for deed restrictions and community meetings, and to adopt an urgency interim zoning ordinance authorizing 100% affordable housing projects and Tier 2 housing projects compliant with the HAA to be reviewed through an administrative approval process including deed restriction and community meeting requirements.