No LUVE in Santa Monica: The Problem with Real Estate Referenda

Last week, the United Kingdom voted, via referendum, to leave the European Union, harming its economy and much of its political system in the process. It has now become clear that the victory for "Leave" in the United Kingdom was based largely on fear mongering and nativism, as a group of mostly white and older voters sought to limit the influx of diverse immigrants into their country. The costs to the British economy have been significant, as the pound has collapsed and France has overtaken the United Kingdom as the world's fifth largest economy. Similarly nativist motives underlie an extreme anti-growth ballot initiative facing voters in Santa Monica, California in November. The Land Use Voter Empowerment Initiative (LUVE) would effectively shut down development in Santa Monica, a city of over 93,000 people, by requiring voter approval for nearly every development project greater than 32 feet in height (two stories). Voters in Los Angeles will be facing another anti-development ballot initiative, the Coalition 2 Preserve LA's Neighborhood Integrity Initiative (NII), in March. Together, these initiatives could effectively close an entire region already in the midst of a severe housing crisis to young and diverse newcomers and push out lower-income residents in the process via referenda.

One problem with the British referendum was the widespread amount of low-information voting on the incredibly complex issue of EU membership. After Brexit, Google searches in the United Kingdom such as "What does it mean to leave the EU?" and "What is the EU" sharply increased, revealing widespread confusion in the British electorate over this issue. Still, the British referendum had the merit of focusing on the relatively simple question of "remain" or "leave." The same cannot be said for LUVE, which would require low-information voters to make complex decisions about land use policy and development in Santa Monica. Residocracy, the anti-development group that filed LUVE, argues there is no need for experienced and highly educated planning staff, Planning Commissioners and elected City Councilmembers to construct a coherent development strategy for Santa Monica. Instead, the group wants voters to have the final say by only permitting projects to go forward on an ad-hoc basis.

The use of referenda is especially inappropriate in this case given the complexity of zoning issues and urban planning. Research into direct democracy from Switzerland suggests that voters with less education are more likely to reject complex propositions or not vote at all; it is difficult for most voters to calculate the benefits and costs to them of complex propositions like general plans, specific plans and development proposals. In the case of LUVE, is the average voter expected to review construction plans and read through thousands of pages of CEQA documents in order to come to an informed decision?

Another concern is campaign finance; despite Residocracy's claim that LUVE would "get special interests out of City Hall," the initiative threatens to turn Santa Monica's politics into a never-ending campaign of developer-dominated elections, with more money being poured into the political system than ever. Local politics are especially susceptible to big money. Take the example of the notorious Koch brothers--the Koch funded super-PAC Americans for Prosperity (AFP) defeated two referenda to raise money for a new public library building in Plainfield, Illinois, and successfully fought a proposal to raise taxes to fund the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in Ohio. These successes at the local level stand in stark contrast to the Koch's failures to get extremist libertarian candidates elected at the national level. Progressive opponents of the Koch brothers' heavy-handed interventions should be especially skeptical about the LUVE initiative; this regressive initiative would bias development in Santa Monica towards a few big development projects, where the developers could effectively buy elections, jeopardizing necessary mid-size and small housing developments.

Beyond the procedural inappropriateness of real estate referenda, the LUVE initiative would negatively affect affordability in Santa Monica by squeezing supply at a time of already high rental prices. This concern with affordability was mentioned by the social justice organization Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE), which opposes the LUVE initiative because it would produce "additional barriers to housing, ethnic diversity, and economic justice." In contrast to this call for greater affordability, Residocracy founder Armen Melkonians believes "we don't need additional housing." Ultimately, reduced affordability means a Santa Monica that is unavailable to a younger and more diverse group of aspiring residents.

The most important cleavage in politics today may not be between left and right but rather between closed and open. British "Leave" campaigners successfully played on the fear of immigrants to win their referendum, and Trump out-maneuvered more experienced candidates in the Republican primary by emphasizing his opposition to Mexican and Muslim outsiders. After the British voted to leave, Donald Trump tweeted "They took their country back, just like we will take America back." It does not take much imagination to see the parallels between this rhetoric and that of LUVE supporters, with Residocracy Advisory Board member Tricia Crane saying, "It's time for residents to take back our city and LUVE will make this possible." Santa Monicans should not follow the British in chasing an illusory past, nor should they follow Trump's example by pursuing the reactionary politics of exclusion. Similar proposals to the LUVE initiative have been defeated in Berkeley and Boulder; Santa Monica should follow these cities in rejecting backward-looking no-growth politics.