Thousands of Apartments May Come to Santa Monica, Other LA Cities Under Little-Known Law

By Liam Dillon

Los Angeles Times October 24, 2022

Earlier this fall, a developer submitted plans for 4,500 apartments in Santa Monica — more new housing than the pricey, beachfront city has built in all of the previous decade.

And because of a little-used provision in state law that kicks in when cities fail to produce a housing plan to accommodate projected population growth, Santa Monica officials may be powerless to stop the construction.

The tactic now could be deployed by developers in more than 100 Southern California cities that are out of compliance with the state requirements. According to experts, it is most likely to be used in wealthier areas with little housing production and high potential profits.

The push for growth comes as Gov. Gavin Newsom and state legislators in recent years have passed laws eroding local controls over home-building, arguing that local resistance is a key reason behind California’s unprecedented housing shortage and high cost of living.

In response, developers are becoming increasingly willing to challenge city officials.

In Redondo Beach, a power plant owner has submitted plans for more than 2,200 housing units using the new tactic.

Dave Rand, an attorney advising Scott Walter, the developer of the Santa Monica projects, said he has fielded inquiries about the tactic in places like Beverly Hills, West Hollywood and Coronado.

“I’ve never had so many calls about any single subject in a shorter period of time,” Rand said. “It demonstrates how broken the system is in California, that people are so desperate to find an alternate pathway.”

Walter’s 4,500 apartments would be spread across 14 buildings, including a 15-story high-rise with 2,000 units that would be the tallest in Santa Monica outside the city’s downtown.

The plans have stunned local elected officials, with some worrying that the community will lose its distinctiveness.

Santa Monica Councilmember Phil Brock called the 15-story high-rise “beyond the pale” and an “unacceptable bar for the rest of the city.”

“Some of this growth will be destructive to the idea that Santa Monica somewhere along the line was supposed to be a beachside town,” Brock said. “As we blend into L.A., we’ll lose that character.”

He expects that he and his colleagues will try to block at least some of the projects.

At issue is a 30-year-old section of state law colloquially known as “the builder’s remedy.”

If the requirement to produce a housing plan every eight years is violated, developers can essentially propose building whatever they want, provided some of the housing is set aside for low- or middle-income families.

The builder’s remedy has long sat unused, said Chris Elmendorf, a law professor at UC Davis who has researched the provision.

In recent years, however, state legislators have beefed up laws to make the builder’s remedy more viable by increasing penalties for cities that reject development and blocking attempts to reduce density. State officials, including Newsom and Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta, also have more assertively enforced housing rules, creating a friendlier environment for those hoping to use them.

State Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley), who wrote some of the laws related to the builder’s remedy, said there should be consequences when cities don’t plan for sufficient growth.