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Apply and Demand: How Local Housing Providers Beat the Odds

By Teresa Rochester and Jorge Casuso

May 13 -- When applications for Santa Monica's newest senior housing project first became available, Steve Wagner was surprised that several thousand forms were snapped up by immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

Despite the heavy marketing campaign that took Wagner to Little Tokyo, Koreatown and the Crenshaw District, as well as Santa Monica, the Menorah Housing Foundation had not advertised in the immigrant community as part of the outreach efforts for its new building.

But when application day arrived, minivans filled with immigrants showed up at Menorah's Los Angeles headquarters. And although only one numbered application was handed out per person and all duplicates were thrown out to avoid photocopies, the first wave of forms filled two large mail bins.

"I'll grant you this," said Wagner, Menorah's Director of Operations & Property Management. "They're very organized and very willing to be involved in the bureaucratic process and willing to relocate. I'd like to speak to them and see how they do it. I'd like to understand, so I could do it myself. I've lost sleep over this.

"I'm not sure I have an answer," said Wagner. "The better organized groups get the majority of the applications," Wagner noted. "The agencies I sent flyers to need to get their act together. They (Santa Monicans) are not applying in large numbers."

Based on the applicant pool -- 2,854 of the 3,683 applicants were white and 416 were Asian -- he results of the lottery for the 65 coveted $150-a-month apartment units four blocks from the beach was predictable. When the building on 4th and Wilshire Boulevard opened its doors in February -- 58 of the new tenants were white and seven Asian.

Only eight Santa Monica seniors -- none of them Black or Latino -- made it, although many likely qualified under the income requirements of less than $19,300 for one person or $22,050 for two.

The $9.5 million Menorah project -- which was built with $2.3 million from the City and $7 million from HUD -- is the latest example of a trend that has seen Santa Monica seniors, as well as minorities, left out of affordable housing. The trend is fueled by federal and state laws that prohibit affordable housing providers that use HUD or state money from giving local preferences or basing housing decisions on race or ethnicity.

But despite the lottery's results, Wagner contends that it's better than the alternative of first come, first served.

"That would be the worst nightmare you could ever imagine doing," Wagner said. "You know Laker tickets?"

But despite the heavy legal restrictions, some housing officials argue that aggressive marketing of new projects to Santa Monica residents and minorities can help beat the current odds that result in buildings predominantly occupied by white tenants.

Joan Ling, executive director of Community Corporation of Santa Monica, estimates that of the agency's 3,000 to 4,000 annual applicants, 20 to 25 percent are Black and 30 to 35 percent Latino, while another 20 to 30 percent are from the former U.S.S.R. (No hard data exists on applicants, however, because race and ethnicity are not part of the application process.)

"We make a humongous effort to do outreach to minority communities that are not plugged into the social service loop," said Ling, whose agency runs 21 affordable buildings in Santa Monica. "The result is we get a very, very diverse crowd."


Joan Ling remembers the well-organized masses of prospective tenants who snapped up the stacks of applications for low-income units seconds after she'd leave them at strategic spots around the city.

"We left applications at the City and library and people would take the entire stack," Ling said. "We changed it so we would only hand out applications, only one per person. Then the buses started coming."

Like her counterparts, who specialize solely in affordable senior housing, Ling is bound by federal and the state regulations when a CCSM project receives federal or state money.

But those projects that are funded with local dollars or private money -- which account for 30 percent of CCSM's projects in Santa Monica -- allow the agency to give preference to Santa Monican residents and workers, who make up one-third of the applicant pool.

The City of Santa Monica has supported set-asides with an ordinance that gives preference to locals in projects that are not bankrolled with state or federal funs. Tenants whose buildings have been removed from the rental market under the state Ellis Act and those whose landlords opt out of the federal Section 8 program also are moved to the top of the list.

But while local preferences are important in balancing the tenant mix, an aggressive marketing campaign is crucial for ensuring diversity in all affordable housing projects, especially in those buildings funded with HUD or state money.

To insure a demographic mix, Community Corp hires ethnically diverse employees, who work with various groups in order to find potential applicants. The agency also works with the school district's community liaisons, who hook them up with students' families and with churches, such as the heavily Latino St. Anne's Catholic Church, as well as a number of Protestant churches that primarily serve African Americans.

When Community Corp employees realized that a number of low-income workers transfer buses in downtown Santa Monica on their way to work in domestic jobs in Pacific Palisades and the North of Montana neighborhood, they started to canvass bus stops.

Applicants meeting certain criteria are invited to apply for units that fit their needs in terms of household size and income.

"Unit size makes a difference in how many people we invite to apply [for a unit]," Ling said. "Large family units are very desirable. Location is also important. Most white applicants don't want to live in the Pico Neighborhood. We generally invite more people to apply."
If a person declines an invitation to apply - either because of unit size or location -- that person is taken off the list for two years, which is how "we mitigate the problem with people self-selecting," Ling said.

Across Santa Monica's southern border, Steve Clare of Venice Community Housing also goes to great lengths to ensure diversity among the agency's clients. Like Community Corp, VCH does not build senior housing projects, but serves low-income Section 8 tenants and the disabled.

Outreach for applicants when units become available is not only done through the typical advertising campaign, but also through Venice Community Housing's other projects, which include a number of job training programs and after school care.

"There are a lot of different ways we reach out in the neighborhood," Clare said. "We pass out leaflets and publish in newspapers. We're part of this community, so it's an on-going process."

Clare said that the majority of people who know and use Venice Community Housing are from the surrounding area and that the organization's most recent housing project in 1996, resulted in 90 percent of the applicants being African American or Latino.

Clare credits the high minority turnout to an active member of the community. Ling too credits Community Corp's success in being community oriented.

"Outreach is different between a community-based group and a regional group," Ling said. "We're in it for the long-run."


Menorah Housing Foundation is again looking to build a new affordable senior housing project in Santa Monica, but after the latest project, its efforts have met with a cool reception from Santa Monica officials.

Bob Moncrief, housing and redevelopment manager for the City, said he wouldn't put out a welcome mat unless Menorah goes directly to HUD and asks for local preferences.

"I think the first thing they could do is go to HUD and get some relief from HUD's restrictions for the project they have (on 4th Street)," Moncrief said, adding that he would also expect a request for preferences for the new project.

"Otherwise it would be a cruel joke on the community if they just followed the same unsatisfactory rental procedure for 4th Street," he said.

That move, however, may be unlikely. Steve Wagner, Menorah's director of operations & property management, has said he is opposed to local preferences because it is difficult to determine who qualifies as a resident and opens the door for applicants to lie about their status.

But without a request for local preferences, Moncrief said he would whole-heartedly recommend that the City close its coffers to Menorah.
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