At the end of another marathon meeting last night, the Santa Monica City Council unanimously adopted a proclamation “Declaring a Local Emergency on Homelessness.” (Item 11-a, agenda video.) According to City Manager David White, the approval recognizes the regional crisis facing not just Santa Monica but the entire region. It will also allow for faster coordination between governments across the region and less bureaucracy accessing city resources to address the crisis.
“Homelessness is not exclusively a city of Santa Monica issue,” White testified in front of the Council. “It is a county, state and nationwide issue.”
The declaration will end in 180 days and the Council will have the option to renew it, similar to earlier COVID emergency declarations. Santa Monica follows the county, L.A. City, Long Beach and Culver City in adopting similar emergency declarations.
So what does the emergency declaration actually do? White fielded questions from Mayor Gleam Davis and Councilmembers Oscar de la Torre, Jesse Zwick and Caroline Torosis who pushed for specifics as to what changes would actually occur.
There are three areas that change with the declaration. First, the city should score better on homelessness grant applications for county, state and federal funding. These grants could help the city increase staff, build affordable housing, offer more direct services, or even help renters facing eviction.
Second, it signals to other governments and agencies that the city recognizes the regional nature of the crisis and is prepared to work together on regional solutions. Third, it would cut through some red tape allowing the city to spend funding faster, especially from recently passed sales taxes, and hire people more quickly to respond to the ongoing crisis.
Most questions and comments from the Council were aimed at the second and third changes.
Mayor Davis questioned the working relationships with surrounding cities and how to work together. Without mincing words, Davis flatly stated that the new Culver City Council voted earlier this week to “sweep encampments” and questioned whether or not the city of Los Angeles “Inside Safe” campaign was “uprooting people without providing housing for them.”
White mentioned that the city is already working with governments and elected officials from other cities, including Los Angeles City Councilmember Traci Park whose council district nearly surrounds Santa Monica’s land borders. White envisions a collaboration of the governments that have declared a local emergency to work together to face the regional crisis together. Such a coalition would include the cities of Los Angeles and Culver City, the two neighbors that Davis expressed concerns about. The coalition would also include Caltrans, Metro and other government agencies that serve the city of Santa Monica.
Councilmember Torosis questioned how the declaration would impact the city’s ability to more rapidly build affordable housing.
“If we have a housing crisis, and a regional homeless crisis, we shouldn’t be holding back funding shovel-ready affordable housing projects,” stated Torosis
White responded that yes, the proclamation will make it easier for the city to spend resources on affordable housing projects, especially those that will be built on land already owned by the city. However, earlier in the evening the Council voted to hold a special meeting next week, on February 22, to discuss and possibly ratify the city’s housing element. Without knowing the final details of the element, it’s impossible to state definitively what that would look like and what individual projects could be accelerated.
Last, both Torosis and Zwick questioned how the declaration would impact the city’s staffing levels. There was particular concern about how it might impact civil service protections and other contracts. White assured them that it would not, but some job requirements might be waived to get positions filled more quickly, especially positions that offer direct services to people experiencing homelessness, and offer longer contracts to people in part-time or contract work, so that there are fewer positions that need to be filled. Regionally, there is a staffing shortage at agencies that work directly with people responding to homelessness and long wait times after interviews, high qualification standards and short contracts make it more difficult to fill needed positions.