Santa Monica Offers Cash To Seniors To Help With Rent
Homelessness among seniors is rising in California as the elderly struggle to find affordable housing. Experts warn it could get worse as California's baby boomers transition into retirement as part of our statewide collaboration covering the California Dream. PBS is Amita Sharma reports on how one city is working to keep seniors in their homes. Santa Monica conjures up images at the beach of sprawling mansions. But it's also a place where seniors are straining to pay their rent. We had one household where the participant was eating every other day. We had another household where the participant was trading her parking space for protein powder. That's Lisa around with the city of Santa Monica. She says the stories were difficult to hear. They were all managing barely hanging on by just a tiny thread. And they were doing it with lots of dignity. The last quarter of their lives. So this city set out on an experiment nine months ago it started giving cash between 200 and 660 dollars a month to nearly two dozen seniors to help pay their rent. OK who asked that we not use her last name walked into everyone's office on a recent afternoon. She was dressed in the glamorous red outfit that she proudly pointed out came from a thrift store. Kay is 70 she says before she got into the program. She lived on her thousand dollars Social Security check. If I didn't have money to eat after paying my monthly bills I just didn't need it. There's literally nothing for nothing. No money for partial dentures. I had to have 12 teeth pulled out of my head in one day so that I could get dentures because they wouldn't pay for parcels. No money to go anywhere. There were many times I had to say to someone I don't even have the money to take a bus to get you. This one time actress dancer nanny waitress and sales woman says cinemagoers monthly subsidy has spared her if it weren't for the city of Santa Monica. Help me. I would probably by now have been evicted and on the street. We are human and we have to help each other and they know that they understand that it's in the wrong city okay. 70 year old Pierre Landry laughs now. But just one year ago he was wracked with anxiety because he couldn't afford his bills. He was dogged by one thought what's going to happen tomorrow and how I'm gonna live tomorrow. When he got the letter from the city of Santa Monica that he was accepted into the pilot program. It was something that came down from heaven. Steven Wallace of UCLA Fielding School of Public Health says the fact that seniors and rent control Santa Monica need help highlights the broader financial challenges the state seniors are facing. Twenty percent of California's elderly live in poverty according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. While US many more are in survival mode you don't see people dying on the street necessarily but you do see people in dire circumstances and making due in various ways that I think none of us would consider adequate civilized society like we're in. WALLACE consulted on Santa Monica as elderly subsidy program. He says a true test of its success will be its seniors in the pilot project stay in their homes longer than those who don't get help. Santa Monica city officials said the 14 month project will cost 300000 dollars less they say than what taxpayers would spend if the seniors became homeless. Santa Monica is Director of Housing and Economic Development and Diego says the city sees helping out as part of its responsibility. When most of California Social Security is barely going to pay your rent and so are we as a state has Californians going to say let's add everybody who's over 65 as homeless. Is that really who we want to be as a country as a state. Anifah Sharma K PBS news. And joining me now is PBS reporter Amita Sharma. Martha welcome. Thank you. It's good to be here. Tell us more about how the city of Santa Monica determined this subsidy was needed. What did they see happening. Well a couple of years ago they started hearing these stories about seniors living basically in survival mode. The rumors are making the rounds at city hall so the city decided to do a survey and what they learned was truly wrenching in their eyes and I think in most people's eyes they heard stories about people living on the absolute edge of the edge seniors doing everything they could but barely getting by. And when I say barely getting by We had seniors who risked being meal's who were eating every other day. They were bartering for their own existence. One woman as I said in the piece that you just heard was actually trading her parking space for protein powder. And so the city said we've got to do something. Now Santa Monica has rent control. Why didn't that help the seniors who were struggling. Well even though Santa Monica has rent control landlords are still allowed to raise their rent. Between three to five percent annually and that three to five per percent increase isn't matched by a social security increase. In fact the average Social Security recipients receives about a point three percent increase annually. So it's not keeping up. And meanwhile the cost of medical care is always going up. Are the people in this program who are receiving subsidies are they all renters. They are. And were their bank accounts or additional assets taken into account before they were selected for the program. Yes. So were they allowed to have a bank account. Yes. OK. You spoke with a couple of the people who were part of this subsidy program and what struck you about their stories. There there good cheer their honesty about their predicament and their generosity despite having so little. I spoke with one woman Kay. She's a former actress former dancer a former businesswoman and she admitted to me that she had to go without food before the rental subsidies and after she started receiving the subsidies. One of the things that she said really made her feel so good was that she was now able to help a homeless man who was older than her who lived across the street. So now if she wanted to give him ten dollars or get him a sandwich and give him a water bottle she could she could go into the store and she could do that. And that gave her tremendous joy. Then I spoke to another man by the name of Pierre divin laundry. He's a Frenchman who emigrated to the United States. He's a painter. He absolutely loves painting. That's his life. He was buying raw rice in bulk and subsisting pretty much only on rice and he also told me that now that he has this this little bit of extra money he feels so good. Because when he sees homeless people he can give them a few extra dollars. You're there. Now you tell us that Santa Monica has set aside three hundred thousand dollars to fund this pilot program. Are there any estimates of how much the program would cost if it expanded to all the struggling seniors in the city. None that I've heard so far. The city will re-evaluate the program early next year. But when I asked this city Analyst Lisa Varone how how Santa Monica even afford this program right now she said how could we afford not to do this program. She said because these seniors were so close to becoming homeless that if they did and they needed emergency medical services well that was going to cost the city so much more. So she was a big obviously a proponent of this program. I also spoke to a gentleman by the name of Andy Agle who heads the city's economic development department and he made a point that this program is consistent with the city of Santa Monica as core values that they do not want to be known only as this shining city by the beach full of wealthy people and 10 million dollar mansions. They want it to be a diverse community and not in the sense that we typically think of. I mean of course they want that but they want members of they want a population of all age groups and they don't want elderly people many of whom have been living in the city of Santa Monica for decades. They don't want them to feel excluded if they still want to live there. Now this program mean the like the test program you mention in Stockton to provide cash to low income residents. They do actually seem like stopgap measures that would be hard to maintain. Are there any long term ideas floating around to deal with what seniors are facing. Well there is a lot of discussion about building more affordable housing for seniors in this state. I know that there's also been talk of allowing more seniors access to food stamps and making it easier for them to qualify for Medicaid now and extend medical coverage to older immigrants. I've been speaking with PBS reporter Amita Sharma. Thank you. Thank you Maureen.
Rumors of seniors straining to pay their rent started making the rounds at Santa Monica City Hall two years ago so officials surveyed its elderly residents.
“We had one household where the participant was eating every other day,” said Lisa Varon, senior analyst with the city of Santa Monica. “We had another household where the participant was trading her parking space for protein powder. We had people who were forgoing medical or dental care that they needed and making really difficult choices. They were all managing to hang on by a just a tiny thread and they were doing it with a lot of dignity the last quarter of their lives.”
Aging in California is becoming less about cruises, the pursuit of hobbies and time with the grandkids under the sun and more about survival. One in five seniors in the state lives in poverty, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Half of the state’s single seniors don’t have enough money to cover basic expenses. And regions like Los Angeles County are seeing a spike in homelessness among seniors.
Santa Monica hopes to stem that trend.
In November, it launched a 14-month experiment by giving cash to nearly two dozen senior men and women struggling to pay their rent in a city that has rent control.
“You would think their rents would be low, but even the 3 to 5 percent increases allowed a year outstrip the increases in the cost of medical care and other costs combined with the limited increases in Social Security,” said Steven Wallace, associate director of UCLA’s Center for Health Policy Research.
Before Kaye, who only wanted her first name used, was admitted into Santa Monica’s pilot program she said she had to pay all her expenses from her $1,000 monthly Social Security check.
“If I didn’t have money to eat after paying my monthly bills, I just didn’t eat,” Kaye said. “There was literally nothing for nothing.”
That meant no money for partial dentures.
“I had to have 12 teeth pulled out of my head in one day so that I could get dentures because they (Medi-Cal) wouldn’t pay for partials,” she said.
It also meant no money for gas for the 70-year-old’s car or any other transportation.
“There were many times I would have to say to someone, `I don’t even have money to take a bus to get to you,’” she said.
Kaye said Santa Monica’s monthly subsidy has saved her.
“If it weren’t for the city of Santa Monica helping me, I would probably by now have been evicted and on the street,” she said.
Outside of helping seniors remain in their homes, city officials say the goal is to preserve Santa Monica’s diverse population.
“This is not just the fancy shining city by the beach,” said Andy Agle, Santa Monica’s director of housing and economic development. “This is a city that is for everyone. It should be accessible to anyone. There are people living in $10 million houses here, but there are people living on Social Security, and all of that is part of Santa Monica.”
Officials said Santa Monica may be the first city in the United States to subsidize rent for seniors. Though other cities like Denver and Detroit are offering rental subsidies to low-income families. Stockton also plans to offer a basic income of $500 to some of its neediest residents in the fall as part of an 18-month project.
“We are human beings,” said 70-year-old Pierre Devillandry “We have to help each other.”
The 30-year Santa Monica resident is a painter who laughs easily. But just one year ago, he was wracked with anxiety because he consistently fell short $500 each month on his bills. He was dogged by one thought: “How am I going to live tomorrow?”
Then came the letter from the city of Santa Monica informing the painter that he was accepted into the pilot program for a monthly subsidy.
“It was something that came down from Heaven,” he said.
Wallace said single seniors like Devillandry are hurting the most.
“About half of them don’t have enough money to pay those basic expenses,” Wallace said. “And so, you don’t see people dying on the street but you do see people in dire circumstances and making do in various ways that I think none of us would consider adequate in a wealthy, civilized society like we’re in.”
Wallace consulted on Santa Monica’s elderly subsidy program. He said the true test of its success will be if seniors in the pilot project stay in their homes longer than those who are not receiving help. Another indicator will be if the city saves money.
Santa Monica admitted seniors making $14,000 a year or less into the program. The city used UCLA’s Elder Index to calculate how much it costs for seniors to cover their basic expenses and has sought to raise the income of each of the participants to $22,098 annually.
Varon said Santa Monica has set aside $300,000 in general fund and sales tax money for the pilot project. She said the alternative could be even more expensive.
“When somebody becomes homeless, their expenses become astronomically higher because they’re on the street, and they are sick and possibly we are calling paramedics for them,” Varon said. “They are ending up at the hospital because they are so sick so how can we afford not to keep them housed?”
Santa Monica’s Agle views the city’s subsidies as part of its social contract with seniors.
“In most of California, Social Security is barely going to pay your rent,” he said. “Are we as a state, as Californians, going to say, `Let’s add everybody over 65 as homeless.’ Is that really who we want to be as a country as a state?”
This story is part of The California Dream project, a statewide nonprofit media collaboration focused on issues of economic opportunity, quality-of-life, and the future of the California Dream. Partner organizations include CALmatters, Capital Public Radio, KPBS, KPCC, and KQED with support provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the James Irvine Foundation. Share your California dream. On Twitter, use the hashtag #CADream.