In an attempt to increase diversity and representation, Santa Monica Housing Commissioners are exploring the possibility of a lottery system that would help the local commission systematically appoint more diverse members.

This week’s conversation was a continuation of one that began during a meeting on the Right to Return program.

“2020 was a flashpoint year for me personally. And like many white Americans, even though I was below the surface always aware of it, 2020 really brought to the surface the incredible privilege I’ve lived with for my 49 years. And one of the things that I really didn’t think about — honestly, until tonight — is we are not a diverse board,” Commissioner Todd Flora said when the subject was first broached back in February.

Commissioner Leonora Camner agreed with the sentiment and, like Flora, said she’d be willing to vacate her seat so long as a person of color would be appointed. “I’m very honored to be on the commission,” Camner said, “but I’m also uncomfortable with the lack of diversity.”

In the months since, the pair have partnered with Commissioner Carl Hansen to form a Diversity Subcommittee that has studied programs that allow for the specific appointment of more diverse voices while avoiding trouble with state laws, which have strict rules regarding the appointment of City Council, Commission and Board members.

The trio explained during a presentation Thursday that they have settled on a lottery system seen in cities like Toronto, Canada, and Eugene, Oregon, that would maintain the Commission’s affordable housing and senior housing appointments but would change how the other five appointments are conducted.

The city would send a mailer out to all potentially qualified participants, and those who opt in would attend an information session and eventually receive training.

“It might even benefit lower-income or rent-burdened residents, because you may have an opportunity to add two or three income-qualifying appointments through this lottery system,” Flora said. And while the people may not be experts, “they can bone up pretty quickly on the general issues that are facing a city like Santa Monica.”

Not everybody on the seven member Commission agreed though.

“The formal education that people receive when they study particular issues in school is no better than the education that people receive when they live situations, when they live the experiences that these people are studying about. And, it’s vice-versa — lived experience is no more important than what someone who has studied a situation has come to learn. Both are necessary to ensure that you have participation that is representative of an entire community,” Rene Jean Buchanan said. “I think that a Housing Commission that is solely made up of people with lived experience would not necessarily be the best thing, just as a Housing Commission solely made up of people who have studied this issue or worked in this field would be a good idea. It needs to be a combination of both.”

Buchanan added she agrees that there are not a lot of people of color in positions of power in the city. “But… from my standpoint, I don’t believe that the Housing Commission has not been able to do what it was supposed to do because there has been throughout at least two people with lived experience, and for the last 10 years, two very local people with lived experience who have not just sat quietly by and said nothing,’ she said. “And so, I think while this needs to be addressed and something needs to be done, I think that more discussion needs to happen. I think that we need more input, and I think that I understand that this lottery worked in Toronto and worked in Eugene, I think we need to really understand and really look into if it would work here.”

Commissioner Richard Hilton followed-up by asking the subcommittee if the absence of diverse representation caused the Commission to fail in performing its duty.

“If you focus on performance, we’re not getting anywhere. I’m a white, male homeowner that cares a lot about lower income people of color. But I shouldn’t be making decisions that affect them. A lower-income person of color should be,” Flora said, adding, “It’s a rather defensive position to say, ‘Well, we’re white. But have we done anything wrong? It’s not the point.”

Chair Michael Soloff noted shortly after that the proposal was interesting but he took issue with a few components of the plan.

“To be perfectly honest, I think you’ve sort of illustrated to me one of the reasons why just picking random people would not be an appropriate thing for the Housing Commission,” Soloff said. “It’s only because of your going out and doing the work that these concepts are even being presented; this isn’t something that was brought up by staff or by anybody else, and that has actually been the hallmark of this commission. I realize that the three members of the subcommittee have probably attended about 10 meetings total of the Housing Commission. But the history of this commission, where we’ve made any difference, is where we’ve actually gone out; we’ve done the research; we’ve come up with programs and the like, and I think that’s a valuable role in the city.”

Commissioners largely agreed that Flora, Camner and Hannsen are correct in believing there is not enough ethnic or racial diversity on the commission or in the city.

“But we do actually have a formerly homeless person. We do actually have a disabled person. We do have people who are receiving Section 8 and people who are living in affordable housing. We have people who are homeowners,” Soloff said. “And while that’s not perfect, if you compare us, say to the Planning Commission, which actually is a commission that’s been meeting every week about housing policy in the city and is trying to deal with affordable housing as well as every other aspect — they have no person of color. I think they have one renter out of seven in a city that now has 70% renters. They have no formerly homeless people. They have no people on Section 8. They have no people living in affordable housing… So I think we can do better here but I think we should acknowledge the fact that one of the things this commission has brought is actually much more diversity, has had lived experience, and it’s mattered.”

Flora felt it was “a cheap shot” for Soloff to mention the short tenure of the diversity subcommittee. He apologized for possibly being defensive.

“But speaking of defensiveness — Oh, my God — this has nothing to do with the performance of the current and previous Housing Commissions and the quality of previous Housing Commissioners,” Flora said. “Wake up! We’re too white! That’s what this is about, not about performance.”

Buchanan said she didn’t feel highlighting what the commission has done positively was a defensive response.

“The real issue, I think, is with those who do make those appointments. And I think that’s what we should be focusing on,” she added.

“I’m not trying to criticize our commission. And you raised a very good point. Why is our City Council engineering to appoint a bunch of white people to everything? So yeah, the council may need to look in the mirror,” Flora said. “But since the Housing Commission is the commission I sit on, that happens to be the commission of my focus. And so, I’m concerned about our racial and ethnic diversity. I absolutely agree with you, though…. But the only point that this diversity commission is bringing to this body is that we’re too white.”

Soloff agreed to disagree before concluding the conversation.

“I understand your perception of what you said,” he said to Flora. “I have a little different perception. But I don’t want to have a legal debate with you right now.”

Commissioners decided to agendize the matter in the future so it can return for further discussion.

Brennon@smdp.com