California looks to Santa Monica as it ramps up rent subsidies for seniors

In Summary

Over the last year, the city has experimented with sending rental checks to nearly two dozen seniors and now wants to expand the program exponentially.

Santa Monica plans to give money to hundreds of additional seniors to help them with the rent — expanding a pilot program that offered between $200 and $660 a month to nearly two dozen seniors. 

“We’d like to expand this program tenfold,” Santa Monica’s Housing and Economic Development Director Andy Agle said of the program launched last year. “We’re taking our program from $200,000 to $2 million a year. That’s a huge ramp-up.”

Agle said he anticipates Santa Monica will now be able to help 250 to 400 senior households with the added cash.

Although Santa Monica saw a 3% rise in senior homelessness over the last year, no one in its rental subsidies pilot program suffered that fate.

“It’s really showing some success,” Agle said. 

Seventy-year-old Kaye, who didn’t want her last name used, has been part of that program, known as Preserving Our Diversity since its inception.

“If it weren’t for the city of Santa Monica helping me, I would probably, by now, have been evicted and on the street,” Kaye said.

Before getting the monthly checks from Santa Monica, Kaye said she would skip meals. She said she didn’t have enough money for food after paying her rent and bills on her $1,000 monthly Social Security check.  

“Life is oh so much better,” Kaye said. “I haven’t been to a food bank but twice in the last year.”

Santa Monica officials had been hearing stories about seniors trapped in poverty with no way to make up the gap between Social Security checks and their food, housing and medical costs. Minimal rent increases in rent-controlled Santa Monica were pushing the elderly to the brink.

The anecdotes echoed statewide figures — 20% of the state’s elderly live in poverty. Nearly half can’t afford basic expenses. And senior homelessness in most major counties is on the rise.

To help cash-poor seniors stay housed, Santa Monica cut checks to them or their landlords.  

“What I’m pleased about, and surprised by a bit, is we haven’t received maybe broader pushback from people that say, `How can you give people money without strings attached? That’s irresponsible,’” Agle said.

“Emergency rental assistance is the best solution — far better than trying to deal with the problem once they lost their home.”

State Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley

But Democratic state Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco said people empathize: “People every day see other people struggling with housing. They see it in the most visible way which is people living on the streets. They want to help, especially low-income seniors.”

Wiener added that until California can close its 3.5 million housing units deficit, he supports rental subsidies.

Democratic state Sen. Nancy Skinner of Berkeley said that approach inspired her to successfully push for setting aside $2 billion in this year’s state budget to prevent homelessness. Cities and counties can use that money toward homeless services and emergency rental assistance. She hopes some of that money will be offered to the elderly.

“Emergency rental assistance is the best solution — far better than trying to deal with the problem once they lost their home,” Skinner said.

Places such as Sacramento County are working on their own solutions to senior homelessness. Through a partnership with the nonprofit Volunteers of America, Sacramento County has invested $500,000 in converting a dilapidated motel into senior housing.  

“We’ve gotten very creative in the types of housing that we offer specifically to our older adult population,” said Meghan Marshall, flexible supportive rehousing manager.

Peter Lynn, Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority executive director, applauded Santa Monica’s rental subsidies, with a caveat.

“When the economy is reasonably strong; when property taxes are coming in; when sales taxes are coming in; when income taxes are coming in, there is reasonably good support for that kind of thing,” Lynn said.

But he worried about long-term sustainability.

“The test is going to be when we see a downturn, a recession where we see reductions in tax revenues for municipalities. That’s when the pressure on those kinds of programs comes very strongly.”

Santa Monica officials have taken into account a predicted economic downturn. Agle is confident this is an investment worth maintaining for now.

“We can’t turn our backs on these long-standing community members and it’s our obligation to help take care of them,” Agle said. “And I think that goes beyond Santa Monica. We as members of the California community should be looking on a statewide basis of who’s falling through the cracks and what we can do to help them.”

The California Dream series is a statewide media collaboration of CalMatters, KPBS, KPCC, KQED and Capital Public Radio with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the James Irvine Foundation

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