Construction of new housing in West Hollywood, a city plagued like others in California by a shortage of housing and high rents, was the focus of last night’s lengthy City Council meeting.
The primary subjects on the agenda included eliminating the requirement that a new building’s size be equal to at least 90% of what’s allowed on a lot in a particular zoning district to requiring that 20% of the units in all new housing projects of 11 units or more be designated as affordable.
Ultimately, Council members agreed that effectively addressing one of the biggest issues — the height of apartment and condo buildings — would require revisiting the city’s General Plan, which all city zoning and development laws must comply with.
One of most discussed items last night was a proposal to eliminate the existing requirement that a new apartment or condo building be at least 90% as large as what is permitted in the R3 and R4 multi-family residential districts. The proposal was brought forth by the city’s Community Development Department to address concerns by some residents that new apartment buildings were too big, generated too much traffic and didn’t fit with the neighborhoods they were built in.
The R3 districts allow construction of multi-family buildings of two, three or four stories from 25 to 45 feet in height. One unit can be built for each 1,210 square feet of lot size. The R4 districts permit more dense development with three-story buildings that are 35 feet high and four story buildings up to 45 feet tall and require one unit for each 872 square feet of lot size.
The number of apartments permitted on a particular site is calculated by dividing the square footage of the project site by the maximum square footage allowed for the apartments in that district. The base (pre-bonus) number of units permitted on a particular site is calculated by dividing the square footage of the project site by 872 square feet on an R4 site (i.e., 50 units per acre) or 1,210 square feet on an R3 site (i.e., 36 units per acre).
While new construction in the R3 and R4 districts is limited to three or four stories in height, a developer can add an additional story if necessary to meet the current requirement that the number of units equals at least 90% of those allowed for a site in that particular district.
Another reason for a developer to add an extra story to a building may be to meet the city’s requirement that a project of 11 or more units make 20% of them affordable to low-income people. State law also permits a developer to add more market-rate units if he includes affordable units for low-income people. Thus a 20-unit building would be required to add four affordable units under city law and then could add an additional four market-rate units under state law, for a total of 27. Those provisions in city and state law are a major reason developers sometimes request making a building one story higher than the zoning ordinance ordinarily would permit.
A developer who provides the required number of affordable units also could request a reduction in the city’s requirement for a building’s setback from the street or provision of open space for residents rather than an increase in the building’s height. Another options is for a developer to contribute what is called an “in lieu’ fee to the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund rather than add the affordable units.
If a developer demolishes existing units, as part of the new project he will have to replace them with at least the same number demolished, unless that number exceeds zoning rules for the district.
“The elimination of the 90% density requirement will allow developers to select the number of units to develop on a site, with more flexibility in the range of units,” said a report to the Council from the Community Development Department. “This will allow developers more flexibility when designing projects to fit the neighborhood. Elimination of the 90% density requirement will also allow redevelopment of complex sites that cannot accommodate parking for higher density projects.”
As an example, Rachel Dimond, a city senior planner, told the Council that a project on a site in a residential zone where a maximum of 10 units is allowed would have to build nine under the existing 90% density requirement. However, if the density requirement were eliminated, the developer would be free to build no more than the number of units replaced on the site. Under the existing density requirement, the developer would have to build at least nine units and add another affordable unit or contribute to the Affordable Housing Trust Fund.
The Community Development Department also proposed to reduce the likelihood that a developer will take advantage of the state height bonus by moving mention of it from the top of a list in the city’s zoning ordinance.
“In the current zoning ordinance, the extra story is the first concession listed, thus highlighting this as the primary option to developers,” said the Community Development Department memo. “As a result, staff recommends amending the concessions list to remove the listing of height and roll it into the ‘other concessions’ category. This would allow the city to highlight setback and open space concessions as the first available options to developers, which are likely to have a lesser impact on established neighborhoods.”
Those seeking “other concessions” also would have to go before a public hearing at the Planning Commission, which would give local residents an opportunity to comment on the proposed height of the building.
The proposed changes also would require that a developer prove that adding the extra height produces “identifiable and actual cost reductions to provide for affordable housing costs or for rents for the affordable units.”
The proposal also would speed up the approval process for developers not seeking “other concessions.”
Currently, any project with more than four units in the R1, R2 and R3 districts has to go before the Planning Commission for approval, as do projects with nine or more units in R4 zones and condominium projects and any project where the developer is seeking a special concession such as an additional floor or setback from the street.
Projects reviewed by the Planning Commission must first be presented at a neighborhood meeting. They then go before the city’s Urban Design Subcommittee and then to the Planning Commission. That process can take as much as 60 days and usually requires the presence of architects and lawyers paid by the developer.
The proposal would allow the city’s planning staff to review and approve condominium projects and those with seven or more units in R3 zones and 11 or more units in R4 zones. Those seeking only a change in setback or open-space requirements for an apartment building also could get a project approved quickly by City Hall staffers without public meetings or hearings.
Dimond told the City Council that other alternatives to address concerns about building height are to require that the top floor of a building be no larger than 75% of the floor below it.
The City Council also was asked to revise the city’s zoning code to make it consistent with a new state law brought forth by state Rep. Richard Bloom. That law allows the city to require a developer of a project of 11 or more units to make some percentage of them affordable for very-low, low-, or moderate-income people.
West Hollywood currently requires developers of projects with 10 or more units to make 20% of them affordable. Developers of buildings with fewer than 10 units can add one affordable unit or make a payment into the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund. However, in 2014 the City Council, to comply with a court decision involving the Costa-Hawkins Act, amended the requirement to allow developers of buildings of any size the option of making a payment to the city’s housing trust fund instead.
Peter Noonan, the city’s rent stabilization manager, told the Council that that has resulted in 953 units in buildings that only contain affordable apartments such as those managed by the West Hollywood Community Housing Corporation or the Los Angeles County Housing Authority. Another 479 affordable units have been built or are in the process in buildings whose other units are market rate.
“Reinstating the onsite affordable housing requirement ensures affordability as new condominium and apartment development occurs,” Noonan said in an earlier memo to the Council. “Most multi-unit residential development in West Hollywood consists of projects with 10 or fewer units. Developers of these projects most often opt to pay the in-lieu fee instead of provide affordable units.
“In fact, since the inclusionary program was adopted in 1986, 70% of completed projects have paid the affordable housing in-lieu housing fee, and currently 77% of projects under review will pay the in-lieu fee. This means historically only 30% of market-rate residential projects have included affordable units. While currently, only 23% of proposed projects under review will contain affordable units.”
The memo notes that including affordable housing in a project makes it quickly available to be rented. But it takes much longer for the city to make use of money in the affordable housing fund. “First, fees paid must accumulate in the fund. Next, a non-profit housing provider must locate a new affordable housing site and develop the project. Further, using the in-lieu fee most often places additional requirements for tenancy on the units because the in-lieu fee must be combined with other funding sources from the county and the state in order to construct the 100% affordable housing project.
In its semi-annual report to the City Council, the West Hollywood Community Housing Corporation echoed concerns raised by Noonan. “The most critical issues facing development of new ground-up or rehabilitated affordable housing projects in West Hollywood are the lack of appropriately sized available properties, and escalating construction costs,” it said.
Noonan noted in his comments to the City Council that funding affordable housing with in lieu fees effectively puts the City of West Hollywood in competition with developers in a city with little available land for new construction.
In his memo, Noonan also noted that “county and state funding restricts tenancy to specific demographic populations, such as seniors or disabled households, transitional aged youth, veterans or homeless persons. Housing specifically serving these vulnerable populations is important; however, developing affordable housing serving all demographic populations in the West Hollywood community is important as well. Projects providing on-site affordable units would be eligible for the state density bonus and associated incentives, but they are not required.”
The council approved both measures with some modifications. It asked the City Hall staff look at options for reducing the size of top floor of a multi-story building. It also agreed that both condominium and apartment buildings below a certain size should be reviewed and approved by the Community Development Department director rather than go before the Planning Commission. And it agreed to give the director the power to waive the requirement to replace all existing housing units on a lot in unusual circumstances.
Councilmember John D’Amico pushed for an increase in the fees developers pay in lieu of adding affordable housing, saying they should be close to the cost of the units they don’t build. Councilmember Lauren Meister also suggested the city consider changing the requirement for adding affordable housing units to make it apply to buildings with 15 to 19 units rather than those with 11 or more.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story erred in stating that the maximum average unit size in the R3 district is 1,500 square feet and in the R4 district it is 1,200 square feet. In fact, the base (pre-bonus) number of units permitted on a particular site is calculated by dividing the square footage of the project site by 872 square feet on an R4 site (i.e., 50 units per acre) or 1,210 square feet on an R3 site (i.e., 36 units per acre). The story has been corrected to reflect that.