Against the Odds: Chances for New Housing Slim for Santa Monica Seniors
By Teresa Rochester and Jorge Casuso
May 12 -- When the City unveiled its newest senior housing project in February, the ribbon cutting ceremony was attended by mayors (both current and former), representatives of top state officials and even a congressman. But missing from the group of dignitaries was the man who worked for nearly six years to make the project possible.
"I was protesting my own project," said the City's Housing and Redevelopment Manager Bob Moncrief. "I didn't attend to send a message."
The target of Moncrief's protest is a federal housing policy that is resulting in a deeply disturbing trend: Most of the affordable senior housing built in Santa Monica with City and federal funds is neither going to Santa Monica residents nor to minorities.
The trend comes in the midst of a heated housing market that is seeing many of the units once affordable to low and moderate income residents doubling and tripling in price under a state rental law that allows landlords to charge market rates for voluntarily vacated units.
The same law also is encouraging landlords to opt out of federally subsidized Section 8 programs that once fetched higher rents that the maximum allowed under rent control or to go out of the rental business altogether under the state Ellis Act.
The trend is nowhere clearer than in the highly touted $9.5 million senior housing project built by Menorah Housing Foundation above a new public parking garage near 4th Street and Wilshire Boulevard.
Of the 65 units, only 12 went to Santa Monica residents, despite $2.3 million pumped into the project by the City. Of the new tenants, 58 are white, seven are Asian and none are Black or Latino.
"I'm very disappointed by the performance of this project in meeting our goals of diversity and affordable housing for community members who need it," said Mayor Michael Feinstein, who cut short a European trip five years ago to cast a deciding vote for the project.
"I'm personally not willing to move ahead on future projects until we receive assurances for better performance on both accounts," Feinstein said. "This is not what I expected when I voted for this project."
The Fourth Street Project -- owned and managed by Menorah -- isn't a demographic fluke. According to City statistics, local senior affordable housing projects are predominantly occupied by white tenants who were not Santa Monica residents.
Of the 183 units in Santa Monica's other three most recently built senior housing projects, only18 are occupied by Blacks and nine by Hispanics. At least 145 units were occupied by white residents. And although City officials did not know how many of the tenants were residents of Santa Monica, they said that there is little reason to believe that the makeup is much different than that of the Menorah project, which is 18 percent.
"It's what's happened with every one of our projects because of the HUD lottery system," said Moncrief, who has been the City's housing director for nearly six years. "Everyone can apply, but the results end up being weighted toward white people.
"It's a fair process, but it's an unfair result," he said. "It's predictable. It happened in the past, and it would happen again if we did another one."
You can bet on it, officials say. Just look at the odds.
Although tenants who qualify for the units are chosen by lottery, Federal Guidelines make it difficult, if not impossible, to give preference to local residents or members of a particular ethnic or racial group.
And since a disproportionate number of applicants are white and live outside the city, the results are not surprising. In the case of the Fourth Street project, of the 3,683 applicants, 2,854 were white, followed by 416 Asians.
So why are so many whites from outside the area applying for the units? Housing officials offer a number of theories, ranging from cultural background to marketing practices.
Although white applicants are not categorized by ethnicity, housing officials agree that many, if not most, of the applicants are Russian immigrants who are well organized and familiar with dealing with government bureaucracy.
"I am not an expert on Russian affairs," said Steve Wagner, who coordinates outreach for Menorah. "But I think that it is a group that is used to dealing with government, used to waiting in lines. I think the whole Santa Monica climate, I don't know, maybe it's like the Black Sea.
"Santa Monica is a real desirable location," Wagner said. "Our intentions were so honorable. Other groups needed to apply more."
Steve Wagner said he tired everything possible to get the word out about Menorah Housing Foundation's newest affordable housing project for seniors in Santa Monica.
He passed out flyers, visited the WISE senior center in Santa Monica, stopped in at the Urban League, ran advertisements in La Opinion, visited the George & Helen Thomas Senior Center in the Crenshaw District, dropped by a Korean Center on Hill Street and scoured Little Tokyo.
Wagner, who once managed a Section 8 building in Santa Monica, also said he canvassed all of the social service agencies in the city -- all in an attempt to drum up a diverse pool of applicants for the 4th Street housing project.
"We did as much outreach as we could," said Wagner, director of operations & property management for Menorah, which manages more than 950 senior apartment units in 14 buildings across the Los Angeles area. "We are also looking for a minority mix."
But what he couldn't do under the federal guidelines of HUD -- which pumped $7 million into the project -- was give preferences to local seniors. Menorah might have won local preferences for a senior housing project in Beverly Hills a decade ago, but that was an exception, Wagner said.
HUD and federal law, he added, had tied Menorah's hands and kept it from obtaining a similar designation in Santa Monica. The head of the Los Angeles branch of the federal agency had even balked at requests that preference be given to seniors who were forced out of their homes so that their landlords could quit the rental business under the state's Ellis Act.
"Preference for residents we couldn't do," said Wagner. "We even went to HUD to see if we could get preference for Ellis evictions. We couldn't get that done.
"Every city is looking to get a local preference," Wagner added. "When you apply for HUD money they want to see marketing within a radius of the area."
But in a letter to Wagner a local HUD official denied a local preference for Santa Monica, agreeing with a decision by the department's Los Angeles Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity.
Santa Monica's affordable housing crunch for seniors -- who make up 16.6 percent of its population -- is no worse than in the rest of the county, Jerome Champion, director of the Los Angeles Office of Multifamily Housing for HUD, wrote in a letter dated Oct. 11, 2001.
"The need/demand for affordable housing of this type is much higher than the supply in the Santa Monica sub-market," wrote Champion, who did not return numerous voice mails requesting an interview.
"The need/demand is so intense throughout Southern California and especially in Los Angeles, that a residency preference would be in effect a residency requirement; preference can only work where markets are relatively soft."
The meeting with Menorah Housing Foundation officials took place almost a year ago and lasted about six minutes, but Bob Moncrief still bristles when he talks about it.
Moncrief had called the meeting in his office to ask foundation officials to lobby for local preferences for the senior housing project the City had poured $2.3 million into.
But Menorah officials refused his request. Wagner said he was philosophically opposed to a local set aside because it would be difficult to determine who qualifies as a resident. Menorah could not support the City's request that they or their developer lobby HUD.
"I ended the meeting after six minutes," Moncrief said. "And I asked them to leave. I said, 'If that's your position, we have nothing more to talk about.'"
Moncrief figured that the developer would have more sway with HUD than a lender, such as the City, and a flurry of letters followed the Aug. 1, 2001 meeting, with Moncrief asking Menorah Executive Director Anne Friedrich to reconsider. He even included a draft letter she could send to HUD in support of a local preference.
Friedrich responded that Menorah's previous requests to HUD for set asides for Ellised tenants and those that might be displaced from the Mountain View mobile home park had already been denied. But she offered to support the City's efforts, adding that Menorah would market aggressively in Santa Monica.
"We will of course support any residency preferences that the City might achieve through its own request for HUD approval," Friedrich wrote to Moncrief on Aug. 3, 2001, "however we do not believe we can unilaterally implement residency preferences without HUD authorization."
Wagner sent a letter to Champion stating that Menorah would support any decision the agency made. But Champion already had denied local preferences in letters to both Wagner and Moncrief, who had lobbied him.
Determined to bring a racially and ethnically mixed population to the Menorah project, Moncrief helped market the new building, peppering local organizations, non-profits and churches with flyers.
"The application process is flooded by well-organized groups," said Moncrief. "There are ads in papers, then the buses pull up filled with white people. They get the apartments because they know how to work the system."
By going to local agencies and churches Moncreif hoped to send the message to local elderly Blacks and Latinos who needed the housing most: This is a building for you too.Part II: What happened and what can be done?
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