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Council Takes Steps to Boost Input from Section 8 Advisory Board

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By Jorge Casuso

September 16, 2022 -- After a lengthy debate, the City Council on Tuesday unanimously voted to radically shrink -- and rename -- an advisory board comprised of Section 8 tenants to give it a stronger voice.

The newly named Client Advisory Board (CAB) would be comprised of a select number of Section 8 tenants, instead of the more than 1,300 voucher holders who are not currently weighing in on voucher policies.

The CAB, which would likely be streamlined to fewer than a dozen members, would advise the Council, which acts as the Santa Monica Housing Authority (SMHA) board.

Like the current Resident Advisory Board (RAB), it would have input any time significant changes are proposed to the plan SMHA presents to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development each year.

But staff cautions that SMHA -- which does not own or operate public housing -- has limited input into the highly regulated Housing Choice Vouchers (HCV) program run by the Federal government.

"Tenants with vouchers reside in hundreds of privately owned properties located throughout cities and PHAs do not have a role in how such properties are managed and operated," housing officials wrote in their report to the Council.

The role of the housing authority, staff said, is solely to ensure "that federal Housing Quality Standards are met through periodic inspections."

Still, for more than a year, a small group of voucher holders has mounted a vigorous campaign to gain a bigger voice in how the Housing Authority administers Santa Monica's approximately 1,350 vouchers, which average about $1,300 per month.

The Council's study session on Tuesday comes 18 months after SMHA staff expanded the City's RAB from the seven members it selected in early 2020 to all 1,350 voucher holders.

But the change did little to increase participation at Housing Authority board meetings that are mainly attended by the Legal Aid Foundation, which represents low-income tenants, staff said.

"Sixteen-hundred participants are invited to the (SMHA) meeting every year," said James Kemper, the City's housing program manager. "We have tried hosting meetings, and we haven't had any input."

Councilmember Oscar de la Torre suggested that housing officials haven't tried hard enough.

"What we want is to get people involved," de la Torre said, "and the way we're doing it now, it's not happening."

De la Torre, who for two decades organized low-income parents and residents when he headed the Pico Youth and Family Center (PYFC), said it helps to offer perks to boost participation, such as pizza and childcare.

"It's always a struggle" to get a good turnout, he said.

In the end, the Council directed staff to come back with information on organizing a virtual forum where voucher holders can meet independently of the Housing Authority board.

The "virtual communication channel" would provide an "informational forum for RAB members, who voluntarily opt-in, to converse in general about voucher program issues," according to the staff report.

Staff also will explore what it would take to create a Council-appointed advisory board that could hold quarterly meetings organized and supported by housing staff.

Staff would then return to the Council early next year to recommend ways the board would be chosen, operated and staffed.

Councilmember Phil Brock, who was elected in 2020, worried adding another board would spread staff too thin.

"Since I've been on the Council, this has been mired in controversy," said Brock, before asking staff to find a better way that does "not mire staff more."

Council members also worried advisory board applicants may not reflect the demographic make up of voucher holders, a fear allayed by City Attorney Doug Sloan.

The City would need to "provide opportunity to be inclusive, but you can't impose quotas," Sloan said.

The goal, said Mayor Sue Himmelrich, is to form a "self-determining group, self selective, that gives us input."

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