The City of Santa Monica is looking to introduce a new policy that would allow historically-displaced residents a chance to return to the neighborhoods of their ancestors.

Earlier this month, local leaders called on the community to provide input on the possibility of adding a new “Right to Return” criteria to the city’s Below Market Housing program, a local initiative that provides Santa Monica residents and workers with apartments in the private sector at a rent that is lower than market rate.

The City’s BMH program currently prioritizes residents who have been or will be displaced from their homes within 12 months for a variety of reasons, first; residents who live or work in Santa Monica, second; and all other applicants who don’t qualify for the first two categories, third. But Santa Monica Housing Commissioners recently voted 4-3 to give prioritization to Right to Return applicants, meaning City Council will now decide if former residents like those displaced from the Bel Mar and 10 Freeway-Pico Corridor areas in the 1950s and 1960s will have first priority in the program.

“I don’t agree with prioritization one, definitely, because they’ve been gone 60 years for the most part,” Vice Chair Richard Hilton said during the recent Housing Commission meeting, where he asked commissioners to consider the thousands of people who are already on the BMH waiting list who could be displaced by Right to Return applicants. “So my suggestion is that we leave it to Council (to make the final determination).”

Some Commissioners, like Josh Hamilton and Chair Michael Soloff, who both voted no during Tuesday’s motion, agreed with Hilton, but others took opposing stances.

“In my opinion, humble opinion, this group needs to be added to the first priority group. I think putting it anywhere else, you have the potential of never actually making it to those people,” Commissioner Rene Jean Buchanan said. “So, I think that if we’re saying that what happened because of the 10 freeway and what happened because of the Civic Center was unjust and as damaging as we’re saying that it is, then I think placing this group anywhere but at the top is not supporting our words.”

Commissioner Todd Flora agreed with Buchanan on two fronts.

“One, they should be in group one, priority one; and two, it needs to be the whole group because, again, if we say, ‘Hey, you’re group one,’ and then we put a limit on it, we go back to that symbolic, ‘Look, we helped some of you,’ kind-of-rationale,” Flora said. “So, I see this as first right of refusal… they should at least be given the first right of refusal.”

Commissioner Carl Hansen said he understands the concerns over the limited number of units that are available on the list.

“And that’s why, for me, this doesn’t feel real unless it’s coupled with a robust, affordable housing funding strategy (and) a zoning reform that allows for the production of new affordable and market-rate housing,” Hansen said. “We need all of that together or we’re handing out a right to return but not enough units to actually return to.”

Commissioners suggested taking more time on the matter but Soloff said he had the understanding this was the only opportunity to discuss the proposal as an entire commission since there was no timetable on when it would next meet.

“I don’t think that with a triage choice like this that we’re gonna reach a situation that is acceptable or just for residents here… we just need to be honest and accept that we’re not going to get housing justice until we start tackling the housing crisis itself,” Commissioner Leonora Camner said. “I think we should spend a lot more time on the solutions to the housing crisis and go forward with this particular motion.”

After the motion, which recommended that City Council put Right to Return applicants into the priority one category, passed by one vote, Soloff said his no-vote was based on a belief that the City should allocate a number of units to applicants in other categories.

Hansen also clarified his vote.

“I think it’s a tremendous responsibility for us to house all these categories,” Hansen added, “and I think this is something that’s been a long time coming, and it needs to happen. And my suggestion is that we pair this with the production of housing that allows us to meet both these needs.”

Brennon@smdp.com