Santa Monica City Hall (File photo)

City Hall could distribute $2 million to hundreds of low-income seniors to help pay their rent.

The City Council approved the Preserving Our Diversity pilot program in 2017 to set aside $200,000 to subsidize rent for long-term residents aged 62 and older who live in rent-controlled apartments. On Tuesday, the council will vote to expand the program from its initial 22 participants to up to 400 struggling seniors.

“The Preserving Our Diversity (POD) pilot program was launched to help seniors live with dignity by meeting their basic needs, in order to preserve the affordability of existing housing resources and sustain Santa Monica’s economic diversity by helping low-income seniors remain in the community,” housing program manager Jim Kemper wrote in a report.

More than half of seniors in California don’t have enough income to afford basic expenses and the Los Angeles area is seeing a spike in homelessness among people older than 65. Santa Monica launched the POD program after a survey of elderly residents revealed that many were forgoing meals and medical care to afford rent.

The program allows the city to keep vulnerable residents housed at a fraction of what it costs to build affordable housing. It takes $450,000 and $650,000 for the Community Corporation of Santa Monica, the city’s largest provider of affordable housing, to build a single new unit.

The pilot program began in November 2017 and concluded in January, although 17 remaining participants still receive cash assistance. Five seniors exited the program since 2017. Three started receiving housing vouchers, one moved to another city and another died.

Participants in the pilot program get cash assistance based on how much of their income goes toward rent and how much they need to afford basic necessities, which is calculated as about $750 per month for one person and $1,300 for a two-person household.

For example, a senior with a fixed income of $1,400 per month who pays about $950 in rent would get a $300 POD allowance to supplement the $450 they have left after paying rent.

The new phase of POD would provide different amounts of cash assistance to three groups of seniors and raise the eligibility age from 62 to 65, which would align with federal entitlements like Medicare.

Out of a $2 million total budget, the program would allocate $700,000 to renters who only need up to $250 in subsidies, $1 million to those who need between $250 and $500, and $30,000 to those who need between $500 and $700.

“The … allocation formula (would allow) the program to serve more households than would be served if only households with the highest financial need were served,” Kemper wrote.

An additional $160,000 would fund a limited-term housing specialist position and as-needed staff assistant hours. The pilot program included an extra $100,000 for administrative costs.

The Housing Commission recommended that the city roll out the program over six months. Kemper said expanding the program will take one year because of its complexity, but added that city staff recognizes the sense of urgency and will enroll participants in the program as soon as possible.

“Expanding the POD program to several hundred participants will involve outreach, waitlist administration, application processing, eligibility determination and coordination with participants,” Kemper wrote.

Staff will also be working to resolve the issue of program participants enrolled in CalFresh, otherwise known as food stamps, seeing their benefits reduced when they receive POD assistance.

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