Section 8 voucher holders will soon have a stronger voice when it comes to housing issues, especially the administration of federal housing dollars, within the City of Santa Monica.

At a meeting earlier this week, Santa Monica City Council voted to change the way housing voucher recipients are represented within the regulatory process, with a stated purpose of supporting a “self-determining and self-guiding” board of Section 8 voucher holders.

The Section 8 voucher program provides very low-income families as well as elderly and disabled people who qualify access to housing via a subsidy paid directly to landlords by the federal government.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, mandates that those who receive Section 8 housing vouchers are entitled to provide input on housing plans “to improve the quality of life and resident satisfaction and participate in self-help initiatives to enable residents to create a positive living environment for families living in public housing.” 

Currently, that means that each of the 1,300-plus Santa Monicans who receive Section 8 housing choice vouchers is a member of the city’s Resident Advisory Board (RAB) and that, once per year, any member of that board is entitled to call in to an annual meeting to voice concerns. 

City staff stated the existing RAB complied with HUD requirements. 

“I would like to reiterate that, while our current approach is congruent with HUD regulations, additional methods of soliciting input [and] feedback could help our programs reach their broader goals,” Housing Commission Staff Liaison Jim Kemper said.

Council asked Kemper to reiterate that the current program fits within HUD rules for community input.

“There’s been a lot of discussion about this in the community, as I’m sure you know, and I just want to clarify a couple of things because I’ve received emails that suggest, for example, that we’ve been out of compliance with regulations for a very long time, but I get the impression from your report that that’s not true. Could you expand on that a little bit?” Councilmember Gleam Davis asked Kemper.

Kemper said it was “not his understanding” that the City had been out of compliance, and added that his contacts at HUD have praised Santa Monica’s program.

“HUD have said to me as recently as last week, Santa Monica does more than the other housing authorities that they work with,” Kemper said. “They said that last week. They’ve said that several times in the past years.”

But critics, including representatives from the Santa Monica Housing Commission, say the system does not do enough to represent voucher recipients.

“Unfortunately, our own housing authority has never had a real, meaningful or functioning RAB,” Housing Commission Chair Michelle Gray said during a presentation at the Tuesday, Sept. 13, study session. “In recent years, some nominal gestures have been enough to satisfy HUD requirements on paper, but the truth is that the Santa Monica Housing Authority has never adequately facilitated clients’ self-representation”

On Tuesday, City Council agreed, voting unanimously by acclamation to request city staff draw up a new way for voucher holders to be represented, in line with requests from the Housing Commission that seven to 15 voucher holders be permitted to create an advisory panel to represent Section 8 concerns before the city. 

“I do want to emphasize this is tens of millions of dollars we get from the federal government, and it’s really important to everyone to understand that we’re — the seven of us up here — are the ones who are responsible for administering that money,” Davis said. “And if it’s not properly administered, we’re the ones who are on the hook and we’re accountable to the Fed.”

Council came to a consensus that the new board, in whatever its final shape may be, should fall under California open meetings rules, more commonly referred to as the Brown Act, meaning that the board would be subject to laws intended to keep it functioning as openly and democratically as possible.

“I think it is important that it be a Brown Act body,” Davis said. “I think the Brown Act is supposed to promote transparency and you don’t want a situation where five cabinet members get in a room and conspire against — yeah, not that they would, but, you know, [that is] the whole point of the Brown Act.”

Other councilmembers agreed, and fellow Councilmember Phil Brock made a motion asking that city staff return as soon as possible with an outline for how the new board should function — ideally by October.

“I think we all want this to be collaborative, rather than argumentative,” Brock said, adding he hoped it would be a “win-win” for the City.