October 30, 1997 - From the October, 1997 issue

Santa Monica’s Housing Manager: What is Possible when Housing is a Priority!

Bob Moncrief moved from his post as Director at the City of Los Angeles’ Housing Department to take over management of the City of Santa Monica’s Housing Division in July of last year—just in time to participate in the drafting of the City’s Housing Element. Now, just over a year later, The Planning Report checks in with Moncrief on the direction of Santa Monica’s Housing policy, and seeks his ex officio insight into L.A.’s housing entities.


“[Santa Monica’s] citizens and elected officials are very well informed and very involved in shaping policy, including housing programs…”

Bob, why don’t we start out with your perspective on the differences in your tools and responsibilities in Santa Monica versus what you had at the L.A. City Housing Department, your former employer. 

In many ways, being Housing Manager in Santa Monica is the same as the job in Los Angeles in that it includes responsibility for affordable housing development and the earthquake recovery programs. 

In Santa Monica, however, I also have responsibility for the Housing Authority and play a major role in the development of housing policy such as the development of a new Inclusionary Housing Ordinance and our five-year Housing Element. One clear difference is having primary staff responsibility for housing as opposed to being third in command. 

Santa Monica has a very strong sense of community. Our citizens and elected officials are very well informed and very involved in shaping policy, including housing programs and priorities. Fortunately, I came to Santa Monica just at the time the City's Housing Element was being drafted. This gave me an exciting opportunity to put my stamp on the policy that will guide the City through 2003. 

In Los Angeles, I found that the public expected less of its public officials, had less input, and cared less, except for dedicated housing advocates, community based developers, and some elected officials and their staff. As an administrator, this provided much more freedom to define the housing agenda, but often less satisfaction that one's work was appreciated and supported. 

Before we turn to Santa Monica's priorities and your specific programs, give us some insight into whether your analysis of the two City's politics makes a difference in outcomes, and whether the charter reform efforts in Los Angeles ought to address citizen involvement.

A big difference in Santa Monica is great expectations that government can do something positive. There is pressure to perform here, and encouragement to perform from a very involved community.

In Los Angeles, there are many, many communities. And those communities are generally distant from the workings of government, both in terms of geography and participation. Charter reform presents a great opportunity to empower and increase involvement of those communities. And more involvement in the workings of government means better and clearer policies. It also means higher expectations of government to perform—and that's long overdue. 

Another important difference is how much easier it is to bring various City departments together to work collaboratively in Santa Monica. We all work in the same building, essentially. Different departments even share office suites. 

If the task is to improve communities—which is how I look at my housing job—it's made so much easier when you can bring together the Police, the Human Services folks and Housing and Planning to get a job done. Almost every meeting on any issue involves two or three different departments. It's a great opportunity to address community needs comprehensively. 

One wonderful collaboration in Los Angeles, however, was the Ghost Town Task Force that I was fortunate enough to chair. It was an exhilarating experience, but it was unique for L.A. In Santa Monica it's the rule.

Why is collaboration not happening in L.A.? 

First of all, Santa Monica is smaller and most departments work in the same building. It also could relate to the fact that L.A.'s elected officials have their own districts and in Santa Monica they're elected at-large. There is a greater sense in Santa Monica of collaboration and doing things for the City rather than for the districts. 

Additionally, management encourages collaboration here. The city manager system has many of the benefits of a strong-mayor system. The City Manager brings people together and says Okay, let's work together to get things done. That doesn’t happen enough in Los Angeles. There is no one person who brings people together.

Focusing again on Santa Monica, please share with our readers the city’s housing element priorities. 

The Housing Element articulates our priorities for 1998-2003. A major priority is to mitigate the negative impacts of the Costa-Hawkins Vacancy Decontrol Law, passed by the State Legislature in 1995. Costa-Hawkins drastically alters the rent control regulations in effect in Santa Monica since 1979, regulations that have helped to provide affordable housing for thousands of households.

In January 1999 vacant units may be rented at the full market rate. Given the demand for apartments in Santa Monica, market rates will not be affordable to low-income households, and, over time, the economic diversity of the City will change. It will also be more difficult to find apartments for holders of Section 8 certificates and vouchers given that market rental rates will exceed HUD fair market rent levels.

The Housing Element suggests mitigation measures that may include seeking more funds for housing production, including tax-exempt bonds, expanded low-income housing production capacity under Article XXXIV of the State Constitution; seeking a Santa Monica-specific fair market rent from HUD; and a more productive Inclusionary Housing Ordinance. 

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The City last month filed a lawsuit accusing an apartment building owner of trying to coerce his tenants into vacating so he could raise the rents under the state legislation referred to. What’s the City’s position here and what is the message Santa Monica is trying to send?

The message is, don’t harass your tenants. Tenants are very vulnerable today because of two new dynamics that have been created. Costa Hawkins, after years of rent controls, could encourage apartment owners to try to remove long term tenants who happen to be paying ‘below market’ rents. The City needs to be vigilant to protect these tenants from harassment. 

The second dynamic has been created by HUD’s allowing Section 8 landlords to opt out of their contracts with housing authorities, leaving Section 8 tenants without the subsidies needed to pay their rent. Owners are concluding that rents paid by long-term Section 8 tenants do not compare favorably to what they perceive they could get on the open market. 

Though the Section 8 tenants may remain in their apartments, they will have to find the resources to pay their rent without the help of Section 8. Over time, many of these tenants will be forced out due to inability to pay their rent. 

Gary Squier made a comment in our July issue which I wonder if you would address. He said: “Los Angeles has an unusually hard problem. While much of its housing is in terrible condition, it’s also very costly. This is a by-product of the City’s failure to enforce its building and safety standards adequately. Housing policy has to come to grips with this fact. Somehow there needs to be shake-out in the LA market.” How applicable are Gary’s comments to Santa Monica?

Santa Monica has recognized that strong code enforcement, housing production and preservation programs are needed to improve neighborhoods. The new Housing Element says that we should explore greater code enforcement to improve neighborhoods. If you target properties that need rehab, new ownership, and/or strong code enforcement, block by block, we can stamp out any emerging neighborhood problems that might exist in Santa Monica. 

The Housing Element also lays out a program to explore establishment of a multifamily neighborhood improvement program. The components are developing an inventory of substandard buildings, performing code inspections, issuing citations, and then providing housing rehabilitation assistance, where appropriate. 

The Santa Monica Housing Element was finally passed in May after a legal challenge. Could you summarize what the new Housing Element looks like in 10 words or less and how you expect it to shape Santa Monica’s housing in the years to come?

It opens doors to new sources of financing, expanded financing authority, and more productive housing ordinances for the years 1998 to 2003.

Would the City’s redevelopment agency be involved in housing?

Yes, definitely. The Redevelopment Agency set-aside of funds for housing is critical to preserving and creating affordable housing in Santa Monica. My hope would be to secure more than 20% of set-aside for housing by continuing to demonstrate in Santa Monica that affordable housing can be provided efficiently and effectively.

Given a current State/local fiscal relationship that has resulted in what some call the fiscalization of land-use, how is it that Santa Monica is receptive to housing as a policy priority when most local officials seem to prefer high volume retail development within their jurisdictions?

I am not sure this applies to Santa Monica at all. However, selling affordable housing as a priority is really a matter of education about the need that exists. And it certainly helps to be able to point to the success of existing developments. The Community Corporation of Santa Monica, a local nonprofit, has many showcase developments that demonstrate the positive aspects of affordable housing. The product speaks volumes.

Lastly, let's turn to federal housing policy. In our June issue we ran a piece by Peter Dreier on Congressman Lazio's provocative proposal, the Housing Act of 1996. Dreier says "In theory this is a good idea but if Lazio is serious and really wants to encourage the spirit of volunteerism, than he won't limit his plans to the poor people who live in public housing or receive housing vouchers. They represent only a tiny portion or people who get housing assistance from Washington. Most beneficiaries of federal housing subsidies are wealthy or at least upper middle class and they get their subsidies not from the Department of Housing and Urban Development but from the Internal Revenue Service in the form of tax breaks." Your Comments?

Let me go back to the selling of housing ideas. One key is listening to people to see if we can craft housing programs that will win the support of a wider group of people than just low-income rental advocates. This may mean more home ownership opportunities, often the best way to make sure properties are well-maintained.

Then you make decisions about your limited resources—can I broaden what we do with the goal of improving neighborhoods? Can we do more than just tax credit, acquisition rehab, or low-rent housing? If we listen to what the communities are saying, we can broaden the agenda to gain a larger consensus.

As to the Housing Act of 1996, do I agree with Peter Dreier that homeowners are getting large subsidies? Yes. It's probably the biggest subsidy program there is. Drier is absolutely right.

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