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It's Not One Thing
By Frank Gruber
October 24, 2011-- Tomorrow night the Santa Monica City Council has one of those agendas that reminds you that while national politics is all about the clash of generalities, local politics is all about details: the design of a park or a light rail maintenance facility; the price of parking; or how best to deliver services to the homeless.
Two years ago the big controversy in town was whether the maintenance facility for the Expo light rail line would be located in Santa Monica, on the north side of Exposition Boulevard across from a neighborhood. There were charges of environmental racism, a lot of staff work examining alternatives, negotiations with the Expo authority and Santa Monica College (which owned nearby land), and ultimately a plan that allows for the creation of a “buffer” between the facility and the neighborhood.
Now the plan itself is so non-controversial that it’s on the consent calendar. But it’s worth noting that after several community meetings, City staff can report to the council that neighbors, staff, and the Expo authority all agree on a design for the project, thus proving that at least sometimes, rational thinking and communication can solve problems.
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There is another item on the consent calendar that I want to mention, because it’s another example about how in a relatively short period of time a good idea can be articulated, tested, and then adopted by local governments.
In his 2005 book, The High Cost of Free Parking, UCLA professor Donald Shoup argued that street parking was too valuable to give away cheaply, and that when it was under-priced, motorists drove inordinately too many miles looking for it. In general, he recommended that parking meter rates be increased, but ideally he suggested that meter rates be adjustable, so that rates could reflect demand at different times, so that at any given time, 15 percent of spaces would be available.
What do you know, but technologies were developed to allow exactly that. New parking meters have been devised with electronic payment options, which not only allow motorists to pay with credit cards or mobile phones, but also allow cities to adjust rates according to demand. Local cities including Los Angeles, Beverly Hills and West Hollywood have already installed these meters, and they have worked well.
Santa Monica has been slow to adopt new policies on street parking, but assuming the council approves the item tomorrow night, next year the City will replace all of its 6100 parking meters with new electronic meters.
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The council will also deal tomorrow night with the design of the “Town Square” to be built in front of City Hall, an issue that has been controversial since the spring because of disagreements over how much the design needs to reflect the historical design. As reported in The Lookout (see story: Town Square Off, October 14, 2011), the Landmarks Commission approved the most recent design, but attached conditions, and City staff appealed some of those conditions to the City Council.
The approval of the final plan would have to go to the council in any case, and one might wonder why the staff appealed the commission’s conditions. In fact the appeal was quite significant. It means that the council, which is the “applicant” as well as the final decision-maker, is not constrained by any “final ruling” of the commission.
When the council hears appeals of rulings by the commission, it does so on a “de novo” basis, meaning that it starts over. The fact that the staff is willing to accept some of the commission’s conditions means nothing. (I want to add, as I wrote previously_WHAT I SAY, Plaza or Park, September 26, 2011), that I agree with some of those conditions, too.)
But in June, when the council last saw plans for the square, the council members told the square’s designers (James Corner and his colleagues) to be “bold,” and not to be limited by the Landmark Commission’s notions of what was historical. I wonder if the council members will consider the current plans bold enough. To me, they still look as if they were created by designers worried about the past looking over their shoulders.
For one thing, there is little lighting, beyond the decorative, to enable people to use the space after sundown. In the original designs, going back last year, there were exciting uses of lighting. I don’t see them now.
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A continuing theme in Santa Monica politics for many years has been how to deal with the city’s large population of homeless people, and on tomorrow night’s agenda is the annual review of the City’s Plan for Homeless Services. I will not try to summarize or analyze the whole plan here, but some points jumped out at me.
Over the past two years there has been a modest but significant reduction in homelessness in the city. Since 2009, the number of homeless, as determined in streets counts, has declined 19 percent. This is heartening, but what’s also interesting is that there has been an even greater drop in the percentage of the public who express concern about homelessness. According to the City’s 2011 Resident Satisfaction Survey, since 2009 there has been a reduction of nearly one-third in the percentage of residents who identify homelessness as an issue of concern (from 31% to 22%).
What this says to me is that although homelessness has not been “solved,” there is a perception that the City and its various service provider partners are now working on the problem more effectively. I suggest that this perception is based upon the adoption of a “housing first” model, one that is directed towards getting homeless people “in from the cold” and giving them the services they need, as opposed to trying to give them those services while they are still on the streets, which was the model for many years.
Unfortunately, it is clear from the report that funding for a housing first strategy, which should come from the county (even if it gets the money from the federal government), is not sufficient. The county, as the ultimately provider of health services (as well as of judicial services and jails), has the most to gain fiscally if homeless people are housed.
Much of the focus in Santa Monica in recent years has been to direct City money to services that assist homeless people who have a Santa Monica connection (determined in various ways). I understand this policy as a reaction to the fact that neighboring cities spend considerably less (on a per capita basis) than Santa Monica does on homeless services, but I’m not sure how effective this policy can be.
If someone is sleeping on a Santa Monica street, it’s in our interest -- almost as much as his -- to get him off the street regardless where he slept the night before. For that reason, it’s good to have service providers here. Those providers, however, receive funding from various sources, and they can’t limit to whom they give services.
I am all for doing anything to goad the county and other cities to spend more on services and housing for the homeless and to develop service provider facilities for their populations of homeless people. When it comes to housing first, Santa Monica should direct its energies, funding and available housing first to our own chronic homeless. But I’m not so sure we can draw bright lines between geographical categories of homeless people.
After all, they’re homeless.
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