On housing, Santa Monica stands apart for its commitment to adding affordable units and reducing homelessness. When the RAND Corporation vacated its headquarters near the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, it sold about 10 acres to the city. A flat parking lot was converted into the 6-acre Tongva Park, with manmade hillocks, water features, pathways and observation decks facing the ocean. Another block was converted to housing. The city partnered with a private developer to build more than 300 units, half of which had to be reserved for lower-income families.
“Nobody does that,” Agle says. Santa Monica took the unusual step of bringing affordable housing to an oceanfront block, he explains, because it values diversity in its neighborhoods.
The problem of homelessness harnesses the attention of government agencies, law enforcement and social-service providers like the Ocean Park Community Center and Step Up. In one move, the city compiled a registry of the most vulnerable people living on the streets so they could receive intensive outreach. “By ‘most vulnerable’ that basically means most likely to die on the streets in Santa Monica,” Agle says.
Of 369 individuals on the registry, 227 have been placed in permanent housing with access to services to help them succeed. The city embraces this “housing first” approach to homelessness, where step one is finding someone a permanent place to live and step two is dealing with other needs, such as access to mental health or substance abuse counseling.
In measuring the well-being of people, the city turned up a number of troubling findings relating to youth—from the low percentage of 5-year-olds who were ready for kindergarten to the prevalence of depression and other mental health concerns among teens.
“It required a lot of courage on the behalf of our institutions, our policymakers and the community to face this head on and to deal with it,” says Jonathan Mooney, an adviser to the Wellbeing Project. “The data tells us that there's more work to do, so it’s time to do it.”
In response to the findings, schools have stepped up services to meet adolescents’ behavioral health needs, and Santa Monica High School will open the Thrive Center, a school-based health center. The city also started what it calls youth resource teams, a collaborative approach to helping the most vulnerable young people, who face academic, social or emotional challenges.
Santa Monica aspires to be a leader for other cities grappling with the same issues. Agle says, “I hope they look at Santa Monica and say, ‘That's a model that makes sense. What can we do to replicate that success?’”