The City Council wants new locally funded rent subsidies to be an option when considering affordable housing protections.
At their May 10 meeting, the council approved a request from Mayor Pro Tem Ted Winterer and Councilmembers Sue Himmelrich and Kevin McKeown that staff explore expanding affordable housing policies to include a local rent-subsidy program that would target severely rent burdened low-income renters currently living in rent-controlled apartments.
Himmelrich said the request is a response to data presented by the Housing Commission that shows about 4,300 Santa Monica households exist well below the poverty line with annual incomes of less than $20,000 per year.
“Most of them are seniors living on fixed income on social security who are paying more than 50 percent of that $15-20,000 dollars towards their rent,” she said. “They are generally long term residents of the city. You can imagine that they have nothing left and one of the best ways you can avoid displacing people is to help them stay in place so I think that’s why we brought this forward.”
McKeown said the city has used limited rent subsidies in the past but described the request as a bold move that goes beyond the council’s current housing programs.
“But this is kind of a major shift in policy based on a change in what has happened in Santa Monica housing and the economy,” he said. “We have long depended, as our housing policy, on the subsidized production of deed restricted affordable housing and what has happened is the cost of that has gone up and up. And our feeling had long been if we did it as rent subsidies, that while the money would go to pay the rent this month, there’d be nothing left afterwards.”
However, he said that if the City didn’t act quickly, the city would lose some of its diversity and he said the Council had specifically identified preserving the current community as one of its top priorities.
“We will have to continue to find ways to build deed restricted affordable housing but we’re going to have to reach our hands out to the people that are currently at risk,” he said.
In response to the request, City Manager Rick Cole said the direction would be best incorporated into some of the city’s ongoing projects. He said the city had too many “fire drills” that involved reassigning staff to new tasks before existing priorities are met.
“Lets try to use the strategic goals framework,” he said. “Lets include this as a very important and valuable potential tool but lets bring it forward in the context of a range of tools in a schedule that allows us not to have to push things to the back burner. We have a stove, it has four burners, we can’t put 12 pots on the four burners so lets put this in the affordability stew and we’ll bring that back to you but lets not create a whole new pot and expect that this project will move ahead of all the other projects we’re trying to bring.”
Cole said the results of a study examining a potential sales tax increase showed residents supported increased spending for housing aid and said 67 percent of the survey respondents specifically approved of a rent subsidy.
Shawn Landres, Chair of the city’s Social Services Commission, was the lone speaker to make it to the midnight discussion. He said the specific concept of rent subsidies is worthy but said it should be part of a larger discussion about the needs of at-risk residents.
“I strongly support this direction although I do understand it to be something that could happen in the context of the broader strategic directive,” he said.
Both Himmelrich and McKeown said their goal wasn’t to create a new project, but rather to signal the council was now willing to consider an option that was previously ignored.
“We’re trying to emphasis this is a new tool we want to put in the tool kit that wasn’t there before and without us saying it, it won’t happen,” said Himmelrich.