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Santa Monica Community Corp' Sarah Letts Loves a Challenge  


By Melonie Magruder
Staff Writer

April 16, 2012 -- Downtown Santa Monica Inc.'s (DTSM) newest board member Sarah Letts is used to facing challenges. Nearly a year ago, she took the reins as Executive Director of Community Corporation of Santa Monica (CCSM) determined to fulfill some big goals, starting with steering three years worth of affordable housing projects to fruition.

She had managed to accomplish a large chunk of that when Redevelopment Agencies across the state, including Santa Monica's, were dissolved last December, drying up the traditional source of major funding for the City’s affordable housing projects.

The dissolution of Santa Monica's RDA “will have a huge impact on how affordable housing is developed in Santa Monica,” Letts said. “Now is the time to figure out how to keep funds coming in."

The challenge of developing new sources of funding spurred Letts to run for an open seat on the DTSM board. She said being elected will allow her to “participate and observe” how the dynamic of the city flows.

“Community Corp owns several buildings Downtown that are performing well,” Letts said. “Serving on DTSM’s board will be a balance to everything else I do. I embrace all the contradictions of urban life.

"When you realize that it wasn’t so long ago that the Promenade was not such hot property, you see how the urban life cycle changes over time. There’s great opportunity to grow.”

The loss of funding comes at a time when demand for affordable housing is rising, City housing officials said.

When Santa Monica opened its affordable housing waiting list last year, it attracted almost 3,400 new applicants in two days. Of those, 3,370 are given preference because they either live or work in Santa Monica.

That figure was nearly seven times higher than when the list was last opened in 2006. But Letts says she relishes the challenge.

"It’s still unclear," Letts said of finding alternative funding sources. "We just have to expand our sourcing base.”

That search is taking her beyond the city’s borders to the Southern California Association of Nonprofit Housing (SCANPH), an umbrella entity that advocates for affordable housing, where she was recently elected to the board of directors.

For the moment, she is focusing on greater technological advances to help run Community Corp in an era of diminished funding, the kind of logistical quandary that she says she likes to “eat for breakfast.”

Letts is not unaccustomed to challenge. She was born and raised in Pasadena, attended Stanford and took a masters degree in urban planning from UCLA before working for a non-profit organization that developed housing for homeless people.

From there, she moved to Fannie Mae (Federal National Mortgage Association) – the beleaguered mortgage lending giant that, along with Freddie Mac (Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation) owns or guarantees more than half of the nation’s $12 trillion mortgage market - and worked 11 years in mortgage finance operations. This allowed her to “come into situations where funding is limited and get people together to get deals done.”

If Letts is daunted by the obstacles she faces, she doesn’t let it show. When asked how keenly her enthusiasm for her new position stands now, Letts laughed. “I still love it. I feel really good.

"We just got some new developments closed," she said, referring to buildings on Virginia Avenue near Cloverfield Boulevard and on Pico Boulevard, "and we’ve got more to close on this month. As far as housing developments, we’re meeting our objectives.”

But Letts’ future vision is expansive. She’s working on a 20-year strategy for CCSM. Meanwhile, she’s getting to know Santa Monica intimately: the demographics, traffic flow, residential needs and City resources.

“Santa Monica is very progressive,” she said. “I look forward to making it an even better place to live.”


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