Council approves zoning ordinance with affordable housing minimums

At Monday’s city council meeting, an ordinance was passed to amend multi-use development requirements to emphasize affordable housing. The new ordinance will require 15% of the total dwelling units in a mixed-use project to consist of affordable housing to receive increased density allowances.

The ordinance adds a ‘community benefit incentive’ provision into its zoning code, rewarding developers who accommodate affordable housing while adding other smaller provisions to improve the condition of living at these new developments. This includes incentives for projects near transit stations, limits on the ways projects can affect a building’s size, and restrictions on studios and microunits to maintain balanced housing.

As discussion on the ordinance opened up, councilmember Yasmine Imani-McMorrin asked for an increase in the cap from 15 to 20%, as well as a potential minimum of units for affordable housing for all developments. 

Sol Blumenfield — who serves as the city’s community development director — explained that the numbers came from the maximum amount determined to not have a dramatic effect on building size, or its ‘footprint.’

McMorrin was looking to increase the 15% affordable requirement and potentially the 15% moderate income for ownership as well, but staff recommended against more due to AB 1505, and the current numbers are supported by financial analysis. 

However, Vice Mayor Daniel Lee added that if other municipalities have set the minimums to higher amounts, they should be considered by the city as feasible despite previous studies and calculations. He pushed to increase the amount to 20%, stressing the urgency of the affordable housing need in the city that was noted by the previous council.

He also noted the issue with the workforce housing definition — currently set as 80-129% of area median income (AMI) — did not quite meet the requirements of ‘affordable.’ He also wondered whether or not microunits and studios — which have reached $3,000 a month and higher in rent in Culver City — would need to be affordable housing units. 

Blumenfeld responded that the microunit and studio provisions were more about density than affordability, and that they were not directly limited by whether or not it is affordable.

McMorrin also mentioned a fear that developers would simply forgo the density bonuses, but Kathe Head, who worked on the 2007 mixed use ordinance, said that such a minimum isn’t necessary because developers generally want the extra density.

Councilmember Goran Eriksson brought a completely different perspective on the topic, weighing the use of open space when considering new developments. He professed his belief that if open space in the city is taken away, there needs to be a form of replacement for it.

Fisch, who made comments about the ordinance on his Twitter page on Monday afternoon prior to the meeting, started his comments by evaluating some of the ideas regarding development of affordable housing floated at the meeting.

The first thing he decided to push back on was the 20% requirement suggested by McMorrin and Lee. Fisch pointed out both San Francisco and Santa Monica’s implementation of similar plans have resulted in very little development of new units, if at all. This is because under the 20% rule, developers will instead decide to forgo the density bonuses as McMorrin had feared.

The second big point Fisch made that he considered ‘unpopular’ was that inclusionary zoning policy like the one being discussed was not nearly as effective in creating affordable housing than actual affordable housing programs.

Finally, Fisch discussed the open space provision that Eriksson had briefly mentioned, noting that anytime a city designates public land for a certain use, something is being taken away from the public. Fisch supported Eriksson’s idea that the land should be replaced in a ‘1-to-1’ fashion, but floated the idea of an exception for 100% affordable housing projects.

With the ever changing landscape of life with the COVID-19 pandemic, a one year review period for this ordinance was eagerly approved by council as well, and the motion was passed unanimously.