The road to affordable housing is paved with confusion


For decades, the City of Santa Monica has maintained a list of individuals waiting for an affordable housing unit, however, the inner workings of the list have been a mystery to residents, and even to those who administer it.

The alchemy of the list combines income level, household size, current living situation, cultural priorities and personal preference but the magic ingredient that determines when someone on the list will move into an apartment is impossible to identify.

This is due to both the complexity of matching each of these factors to the specifications of an available unit, and because years of poor record keeping on the City’s behalf has resulted in very little meaningful data to analyze.

Prior to March 2020, the City did not have a system to track the number of units in its inventory, how many households were successfully placed or what waitlist priority group they came from.

“We don’t have that data,” said Housing Program Manager Jim Kemper. “It may be that we have it, but it would be a research project and it’s a research project we can’t take on.”

When a unit opened up, the City would provide landlords with a list of eligible tenants from its waitlist, but information about placement outcomes was not always relayed back to the City and some landlords chose eligible individuals who applied outside of the waitlist.

At the same time, nonprofit developer Community Corps of Santa Monica maintained its own waitlist and other for-profit and nonprofit affordable housing developers ran separate referral and placement processes.

Complaints of bias and lack of transparency in placement were raised across the system.

In March 2020, the City created a centralized waitlist by merging CCSM’s list with its own. The goal of the new Below Market Housing (BMH) waitlist is to streamline the process for individuals to access housing through a combined portfolio of 2,600 extremely low to moderate income units.

Landlords are progressively transitioning to a new tenant referral system for the BMH list that will better capture data by requiring property managers to report placement outcomes before they can receive referrals for other units.

“There is a commitment to have this data going forward and part of the reason why we combined the list is so that the City has greater visibility as the referral agency on who is getting placed into in each unit to make sure that priority households are getting placed,” said Public Information Officer Constance Farrell.

In the 14 months since the creation of the BMH list, 140 units have been confirmed as filled. The City believes more placements have been made, but lacks data from several landlords who have yet to report outcomes.

On July 13, 2021, City Council voted to alter the prioritization of different groups on the BMH waitlist through the “Right to Return” pilot program. Prior to this meeting, priority went first to individuals facing no-fault evictions in Santa Monica, second to individuals who live or work in Santa Monica and third to applicants from outside of Santa Monica.

Once the City launches the Right to Return application, the BMH list will prioritize up to 100 households and descendants of households who were displaced by the creation of the Civic Auditorium and I-10 freeway in the 1950s and 1960s above individuals who live or work in Santa Monica, but below those facing no-fault evictions.

This program was designed as a means of transitional justice for the primarily Black and Latinx households who lost their homes in the Belmar Triangle and Pico Corridor through the City’s use of eminent domain.

Councilmembers approved the pilot program without seeing data on how many people from each priority group were being housed off the waitlist annually or how this would affect the ability of those living and working in Santa Monica to access affordable housing.

Mayor Sue Himmelrich said she was not aware of the extent to which the City had failed to capture outcomes of waitlist referrals prior to creation of the BMH list, but still supports the prioritization adjustment of the Right to Return Program.

“We were concerned that people who immediately needed housing not be bumped by people who already were in housing, so we have that first (priority) group for people who have been evicted through no fault of their own,” said Himmelrich. “The live-work people, they have a need that’s very pressing as well, but I am aware of that and that’s why we limited this to 100 (applications) because we didn’t want to permanently block them.”

The limited data available on the affordable housing placements, suggests that the Right to Return program may temporarily slow, but will not eliminate, local residents and workers’ ability to move off the waitlist.

Of the 140 placements recorded in the 14 months after the creation of the BMH list, two were households facing eviction, 119 were live-work applicants and 19 were outside of Santa Monica applicants.

Data from CCSM’s former waitlist shows a different ratio of placement outcomes between live-work applicants and outside of Santa Monica applicants.

Between 2016 and 2019, CCSM placed 24 households facing eviction, 139 live-work applicants, and 143 outside of Santa Monica applicants. This represents a 45 percent placement of priority two applicants and 47 percent placement of priority three applicants.

In either case, live-work applicants should continue to receive housing spots when moved to a lower prioritization, but the two data sets suggest different outcomes for the scope of the delay they may experience.

It is also likely that regardless of prioritization, both Right to Return and live-work households will face a long wait before accepting a housing placement due to the low rate at which households referred to a vacant unit actually end up living in that unit.

In the 14 months following the formation of the BMH list, the City has referred 2,500 of the total 5,500 individuals on its waitlist to a vacancy and confirmed filling 140 units. This represents a 45 percent referral rate of vacancies and a 5.6 percent average rate of placement per referral, meaning that the City may go through hundreds of applicants per unit before making a successful pairing.

“It’s always been hard to predict how long someone could wait on the list because it really depends on what kind of unit you want and also what is the income that is set,” said Tara Barauskas, executive director of CCSM. “It is quite a complex puzzle to match the household with the unit.”

According to Nigel Wallace, senior administrative analyst in the Housing Division, it is difficult to match applicants to vacancies as consumer preference leads many households to turn down units. Individuals might not like the location of the unit, the rent price, or their circumstances may have changed since they signed up for the waitlist.

“There may be some people that say this isn’t the right time…


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