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Council Creates Department to Focus on Housing and Homelessness

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By Jorge Casuso

March 13, 2023 -- After once again declaring homelessness its top priority, the City Council on Saturday unanimously directed staff to create a new department and allocate new tax dollars to tackle the persistent problem.

Under a reorganization plan approved by the Council, the newly created Housing and Human Services Department will become "the organization point" for homelessness services and programs.

Funding from a voter-approved tax hike on hotels, motels and home shares -- which is expected to raise $4.1 million a year -- will be used to expand existing outreach efforts and interim housing.

The department will also administer programs funded by Measure GS, former Mayor Sue Himmelrich's transfer tax hike that is expected to generate some $50 million a year for affordable housing, homelessness prevention and public schools.

At its six-hour-long special meeting Saturday, the Council also voted to prioritize once again promoting clean and safe public spaces and furthering Santa Monica's economic recovery from the coroonavirus shutdown.

The Council also voted to expand community and cultural programs under a newly created Recreation and Culture Department and to "further racial justice, equity, social diversity and a sustainable and connected community.”

“Today’s process provided the opportunity to reflect on the work of recent years and to look ahead to what is most important for our community,” Mayor Gleam Davis said after Saturday's meeting.

The new Housing and Human Services Department will work to prevent housed Santa Monicans from becoming homeless and increase affordable housing, efforts that will be expedited after the City declared a Homelessness Emergency last month ("Council Votes to Declare Homelessness Emergency," February 15, 2023).

It also will "address the behavioral health needs of vulnerable individuals and advocate for regional capacity to address homelessness," City officials said.

The new department will "become the organization point for homelessness services and programs" and "provide core focus and leadership on administering" programs and funding, officials said.

The department's leader, said Mayor Davis, will have to be "someone who can bring all that together" and "create accountability for the community."

The Council also voted to use funding from the Measure CS hotel tax to expand the Police Department's Homeless Liaison Program and the City's homeless multidisciplinary outreach team beyond the Downtown and Beach in the upcoming City budget.

It also would use the new tax funds to allow SAMOSHEL, Santa Monica's homeless shelter, to take in clients 24/7, continue the City's Clean & Safe programs and boost enforcement of short term rental laws, leading to more revenues resulting from fines.

As part of the reorganization, the Council unanimously voted to create a department that will focus on recreation and culture, two offerings Council members said are critical to Santa Monica's recovery.

"Having that dedicated staff and dedicated plan really will give a lot more opportunities to bring our community back together, because with COVID, we've been broken for a while," said Councilmember Christine Parra.

The Recreation and Culture Department will focus on restoring, expanding and creating programs, as well as on guiding the future of the Miles Memorial Playhouse at Reed Park and the Camera Obscura building in Palisades Park.

The department also will work to further restore library hours and services, increase capacity for youth programs and continue funding the Playground Club.

Councilmember Phil Brock, who served on the City's Recreation and Parks Commission, noted that the State's mandate for Santa Monica to plan for nearly 9,000 new housing units over the next eight years will create a demand for green space.

Having a separate recreation and parks department is "absolutely necessary," Brock said, noting that Santa Monica always had a separate department dedicated to parks until the 2020 budget crisis.

"It is not a new program," Brock said. "It is a restoration of a necessary department."

Before calling a vote, Davis addressed "the elephant in the room," referring to a letter from two former City Department heads, Andy Agle and Karen Ginsburg.

Agle, former Director of Community Services and Housing and Economic Development, and Ginsberg, who headed Community and Cultural Services, urged the Council not to add more highly paid administrative staff "during the City's fragile financial state."

On Saturday, the Council also voted to direct staff to create a Small Business Tenant Improvement Fund and restore planning and economic development staff to support economic development.

It also voted to designate 2 percent of earnings from a new sidewalk kiosk program expected to generate $14 million a year -- or approximately $280,000 -- to a "diversity, equity and inclusion fund" ("Council Awards Kiosk Contract to Top Bidder," December 14, 2022).

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