By Gus Herrera
In an attempt to solve a common problem with an uncommon solution, the City of Pasadena has gotten one step closer to creating an ordinance that would allow for the conversion of hotels and motels to affordable housing.
Recently, the Planning Commission provided the Department of Planning and Community Development with valuable input as their staff works to prepare a text amendment to the city’s zoning code.
“The real goal behind this ordinance is to create more opportunities to provide housing for the homeless through the repurposing of hotels and motels in the city,” said Andre Sahakian, case manager.
Although no specific sites have been formally identified for potential conversion, David Reyes, director of planning and community development, hinted to the commission that opportunity might have played a role in the genesis of this move.
“This was specifically initiated by the city manager,” said Reyes, “my guess is it was in response to potentially being able to purchase some properties.”
William Huang, director of housing, also revealed to the commission that his department has been “working with a non-profit developer to look at a couple of properties,” but assured them that nothing is under contract yet.
Although staff’s report noted that “all sites throughout the city that have an existing hotel or motel, including those that are legally non-conforming, would be eligible for conversion to affordable housing,” it is highly unlikely that a majority of the city’s 65 existing hotels/motels would be targeted for conversion, especially large, successful luxury hotels.
The more realistic targets will likely be those locations which “are not well maintained and have nuisance activity occurring.” Thus, there seems to be a strong sense that these conversions might effectively kill two birds with one stone – while Pasadena stands to gain much-needed affordable units, staff also hopes that “as a result of the change in use and better management, nuisance properties can be abated and undesirable activity will decrease.”
“This is our opportunity to respond to … what we all know to be a critical need,” said Commissioner Patricia Keane, “we could be dealing with buildings that, for all intents and purposes, look identical or ideally better than they do today … and, likely, if it’s a motel that’s frequented with any regularity, [there] would actually be lesser impacts for the surrounding area.”
But, even if the city doesn’t have any specific locations in mind at the moment, Huang reminded everyone during the workshop that it’s important to have the tools in place “that would facilitate these types of developments,” especially considering the difficulty of constructing affordable housing projects from scratch.
“One of the reasons, within the affordable housing industry, why these motel conversion ordinances are viewed as important,” said Huang, “is because it takes so long to develop a brand-new development. The benefit of a motel conversion is that it could save a significant amount of time.”
The notion of saving time played a large role throughout the Planning Commission’s discussion, particularly regarding just how streamlined the conversion process should be. Other California cities have adopted their own versions of the conversion process – the City of Los Angeles approved a highly-streamlined interim ordinance that allows conversion on a ministerial basis (i.e. without any discretionary land use approvals), while the City of Anaheim has employed a much more public process that requires a conditional use permit.
From the commission’s discussion, it seems Pasadena will favor a more streamlined process, partly out of a sense of urgency.
According to the current housing element, “43 percent of owners and 51 percent of renters overpay for housing in the City of Pasadena.” Furthermore, this year’s homeless count revealed that 347 of the 677 homeless individuals counted are unsheltered and the current “unmet need for permanent supportive housing in Pasadena is approximately 150 units.”
Therefore, several commissioners advocated for staff to develop a more efficient process.
“I would be in favor of relatively streamlined process because of the needs that we’ve talked about,” said Commissioner Tim Wendler.
“We have a number of homeless people in Pasadena who are unsheltered, but it is an achievable solution now, we could actually make significant process,” said Keane, “my inclination is to support an even more streamlined process.”
Despite general support for a streamlined process, some commissioners suggested that staff incorporate some ways for residents to provide input on the potential impacts conversions may have on their neighborhoods. Others proposed requiring a conditional use permit for sites that do not meet certain thresholds related to size, number of units, and the type of affordable housing proposed (i.e. permanent supportive housing, transitional housing, or traditional affordable housing).
The planning department will continue to develop the ordinance and is expected to return to the Planning Commission before anything goes before the City Council for approval.