A rendering of the project proposed for 1112-1122 Pico Boulevard. (Rendering from the staff report)
A rendering of the 32-unit project proposed for 1112-1122 Pico Boulevard, the only housing project approved by the City Council in 2014. As housing scarcity throughout the county and especially on the Westside drives up rents, people who depend on government subsidies to pay for housing are being squeezed out.

Earlier this month, the Santa Monica Housing Commission voted to recommend extending the time people can spend looking for a place to live through the federal rental subsidy program known as Section 8.

While the recommendation to increase the time period allotted people with Section 8 vouchers have to find a place to live from 60 days to 90 to 120 days seems routine, the underlying reason is actually much more troubling.

Section 8, officially called the Housing Choice Voucher Program, is the principal U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) program for assisting low-income people to find “decent, safe, and sanitary housing.” Unlike Santa Monica’s nonprofit housing developers who build permanently low-cost housing, Section 8 provides a subsidy to eligible households to for renting privately-owned housing within Santa Monica.

With Santa Monica’s rents among the highest in Los Angeles county, people who rely on Section 8 vouchers to subsidize their rents are increasingly unable to compete with higher earners for scarce housing options.

“It used to be, for the most part, people who were seriously looking, would find a unit” within the 60 days, said Barbara Collins, housing manager for Santa Monica’s Housing and Economic Development department.

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“There’s not enough housing,” said Collins. And that’s driving rents well past the reach of people who rely on Section 8.

According to the Section 8 program requirements [PDF], for someone to qualify for Section 8, they must make less than 50 percent of the county area median income, as defined by the federal department of HUD. While the threshold varies depending on household size, in Los Angeles County a single person must make $28,500 or less to qualify for the program.

Once qualified, the maximum subsidy someone could get for a one-bedroom unit (the subsidies vary depending on the size of the unit) is $1,352 a month. In Santa Monica, where the median asking rent for available one bedroom apartments is $2,800, a Section 8 renter spending the maximum subsidy would have to spend about $1,450 of his own money on rent a month, or about 60 percent of his annual income. HUD requires that Section 8 renters not spend more than 30 percent of their annual income on rent.

It’s tough, with a shortage in housing causing rents to skyrocket, to get apartment owners to take lower rents to accommodate Section 8 renters.

“We probably need to promote the program and educate landlords in Santa Monica,” said Collins. We should “acknowledge them and recognize them,” she said. When they rent to low-income people, “they provide a public service,” she said.

“I think we’re going to try to change some of the things we are doing,” Collins said, like setting up a direct line to landlords to help them address issues.

“Ultimately, it would be great that we could be slightly more marketable, but I’m not sure that’s going to happen in the near future,” she said.

In Santa Monica, about $16 million in subsidies are distributed to the roughly 350 apartment owners who participate in the program. But rents aren’t likely to go down at the rate Santa Monica is building new housing (and yes, building more housing can actually help lower rents). Last year, the Council approved only one new housing project, a 32-unit building on Pico Boulevard.

And, the city won’t likely see a significant increase in federal funding for the program any time soon, despite the high demand.

There are currently about 1,400 people in Santa Monica who rent with Section 8 vouchers, including 238 with special-needs vouchers. Those include people with physical and mental disabilities and who struggle with chronic homelessness. But there is a waiting list with 33,000 people on it.

Santa Monica has policy of prioritizing people who already live in the city who may be facing displacement and people who work here. However, even when those criteria are taken into account, there are about 3,000 people on the list, twice the number of vouchers available.

The Commission’s recommendation to extend the search time allowed ultimately has to be approved by the City Council and HUD, but even if the recommendation is accepted, in a region facing a historic housing shortage, it will do little to stop rents from rising, forcing out of town some of the community’s most vulnerable residents.