We want the impact to reach down to the most vulnerable people, the most marginalized people.
Rick Cole, Santa Monica city manager
2016 RWJF Culture of Health Prize Winner
Using Data to Help Lift All Boats
Visitors to Santa Monica, Calif., might think the city begins and ends with the iconic Santa Monica Pier and Third Street Promenade of shops. But for the 93,000 people who live there, Santa Monica is a complex city wrestling with the same complicated issues as its bigger neighbor, Los Angeles.
“Santa Monica is much more than the stereotype of a beach community,” says Julie Rusk, who steers the city’s Wellbeing Project. “We are a real city with real people facing real challenges every day.”
Four years ago, Santa Monica set out to measure what was helping or hampering the well-being of residents. How healthy were they? Were people thriving economically? Did they have opportunities to learn and grow? Did they have a strong sense of community and connection? Did the physical attributes of the city promote their well-being?
The answers led to the Wellbeing Index, the first attempt by a city to produce a data-based guide for steering policy. To launch the project, Santa Monica received a grant of $1 million from Bloomberg Philanthropies in New York City and guidance from experts at Santa Monica’s own RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research center. Combining existing information gleaned from city departments and fresh input from surveys, the index sets a framework for priorities and shapes initiatives on health and wellness. It shows where things are going well and where there are gaps that need attention.
This call to action, grounded in data, is one reason Santa Monica was selected for the RWJF Culture of Health Prize. “It’s really recognition for the ways that we've been at the forefront of trying to make a city that works for everyone,” Rusk says.
The city takes pride in its diversity. “In the popular imagination, Santa Monica’s known as an exclusive, wealthy community,” says Andy Agle, the city’s director of housing and economic development. In reality, 1 in 5 households earns less than $20,000 a year, and 70 percent of residents are renters, a result of the strict rent controls that have been in place since 1979.
Santa Monica has pushed for change on multiple fronts, including improving wages, increasing affordable housing options, supporting public education, addressing homelessness and offering “cradle to career” opportunities for young people.
“Santa Monica’s DNA is really fused with this idea that we're not interested in doing something for a few people,” says City Manager Rick Cole. “We want the impact to reach down to the most vulnerable people, the most marginalized people.”
For example, the Santa Monica City Council recently approved raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2020 for employees at most businesses and even sooner for hotel workers, who will make $15.37 an hour by 2017. The state of California also is increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour, but over the course of six years.
Santa Monica residents pay an additional 0.5 percent in a sales tax that steers more funds to schools. The city also collaborates with the school district and community college to share facilities such as playgrounds and swimming pools.
Factors such as where we live, how much money we have and our education level have been clearly linked to our health, well-being, and how long we live.
We want the impact to reach down to the most vulnerable people, the most marginalized people.
Rick Cole, Santa Monica city manager
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?’”
It’s a little after 4 a.m. when two officers and a passenger step out of a police cruiser to talk to a middle-aged woman sitting on the sidewalk. She wears very little.
“Good morning,” greets the passenger, kneeling down to speak to her. “It’s Brian from human services. It’s been awhile since we talked.”
Every day from 3 a.m. to 1 p.m., pairs of specially trained officers reach out to homeless individuals on the streets of Santa Monica. On this morning, the team is joined by Brian Hardgrave from the city’s Human Services Division. The trio know many of the people they encounter and asks everyone the same question again and again: “Would you like help?”
Santa Monica’s police street team includes six officers and one sergeant who are focused exclusively on homeless issues. “We use the police strategically to engage these individuals who might not normally seek traditional homeless services on their own,” Hardgrave says.
The unit is one of many initiatives in Santa Monica that addresses the problem of chronic homelessness. In the most recent one-day count taken last January, Santa Monica had 728 homeless people, 60 percent of whom were unsheltered. In comparison, in Los Angeles County—which includes Santa Monica—an estimated 47,000 people experience homelessness on any given night.
I hope they look at Santa Monica and say, ‘That's a model that makes sense. What can we do to replicate that success?’
Andy Agle, director of Housing and Economic Development
A network of Santa Monica partners—police and fire departments; city human services, health and housing offices; and nonprofit service providers—collaborates to find innovative ways to help the homeless. A guiding principle is the “housing first” philosophy, which maintains that it is not only more humane, but also more cost-effective, to house people as quickly as possible, and then make sure they receive services to resume stable lives.
Santa Monica was one of the first cities in the nation to develop a registry of the most vulnerable individuals experiencing chronic homelessness. And in 2007, it introduced another innovation—the Homeless Community Court. People who are cited for quality-of-life infractions such as trespassing or public intoxication are offered housing and treatment and, in the process, can clear their records.
Sgt. Jeff Glaser said an officer on his team recently received a thank-you email from a woman he helped. “He changed her life basically by waking her up one morning when she was living on the street,” Glaser says. “It’s those things that make us happy about what we do.”
Growing up in the Pico neighborhood of Santa Monica, 36-year-old Ana Jara had to follow her mother’s strict rule to stay away from Virginia Avenue Park.
Drug-dealing gangs ruled its 9.5 acres. The only way to describe it: “Scary.”
Today, the park is a hub for Jara and her neighbors—even her mother. On any given day, it hums like a beehive. Squealing toddlers run through fountains in a splash pad. Under trees, seniors practice Tai chi, while Millennials square off in a game of ultimate Frisbee. The park now boasts a new Pico Branch Library, a teen center, a fitness center with a boxing ring and dance studio for Zumba classes, and meeting spaces for after-school enrichment classes or birthday parties.
The park’s transformation reflects the city’s commitment to create a safe space for people to play, learn and interact. The once-threatening block is now a like a green town square, giving neighbors a way to build connections and strengthen the resiliency of the community. “We know this matters,” says Julie Rusk, director of Santa Monica’s Wellbeing Project. “If you know your neighbors, you're more likely to be able to handle the earthquake or the unexpected personal or economic disasters that we all face in our lives.”
Improvements to the Virginia Avenue Park began more than a decade ago. A factory making plastic products was converted into the teen center with a music studio. The library opened in 2014. Neighbors provided input on how to reimagine the park, with the library topping their wish list. Through an advisory board, they continue to make suggestions on programming.
A police substation is gone and in its place are offices for case managers from city agencies, offering everything from youth services to employment assistance and mental health counseling.
Janeen Jackson, a school arts administrator who serves on the Virginia Avenue Park advisory board, calls the campus-like park “our village.” Her children take classes in African dance and karate, attend artist workshops and frequent the Saturday morning farmers’ market. “This park,” she says, “is really great at connecting communities, breaking down barriers, and developing connections.”
Lawrence, Mass., is blocking city streets and creating ciclovias to encourage play, community engagement, and social connections.
If you know your neighbors, you're more likely to be able to handle the earthquake or the unexpected personal or economic disasters that we all face in our lives.
Julie Rusk, director of Santa Monica’s Wellbeing Project
At 4th Street and Colorado Avenue in downtown Santa Monica, passengers stream off the new Expo light-rail line, where they can hop on a city-run bus or rent a bicycle to ride on a wide new bike lane.
Los Angeles is synonymous with cars and gridlock. But Santa Monica is working to expand and improve options for how its residents and visitors get around. In August 2015, the Santa Monica City Council held a town hall-style meeting to consider new policy initiatives and adopted five goals, among them improving people’s mobility.
“The council has made a really strong commitment to a new model for mobility,” says Francie Stefan, the city’s mobility manager. “That means that you have lots of different opportunities available to you regardless of what part of town you're in.”
The opening of the seven-stop Expo rail line in May 2016, which connects downtown Los Angeles with seaside Santa Monica, prompted planners to take a closer look at travel patterns in the city. The new light-rail line, Stefan says, became a way of “inviting people to experience the city in a new way.”
The options we give people really affect their ability to access things that can improve the quality of their lives.
Francie Stefan, Santa Monica mobility manager
Santa Monica’s bus line realigned all 21 routes to make sure each one connected to at least one Expo station. “We don’t need to compete with rail; we need to make rail and bus really a viable option for commuters,” says Suja Lowenthal, manager of planning and community engagement for The Big Blue Bus line. More people are “really trying to find ways to keep their cars at home.”
“The momentum is changing around the way people get around,” says Cynthia Rose, director of Santa Monica Spoke, an advocacy group that increases bike use. “The car culture is not completely broken, but it’s certainly being challenged.”
Santa Monica has added 107 miles of new bike lanes in recent years and has 80 rental hubs via the Breeze Bike Share program, which started in November 2015. Even walkers have it better: The city changed 12 intersections downtown. Now pedestrians can cross in all directions.
“The options we give people really affect their ability to access things that can improve the quality of their lives,” Stefan says.
Few people in Santa Monica will forget the afternoon of June 7, 2013. After a family dispute, a 23-year-old man murdered his father and older brother, set their house on fire, and shot passengers on a bus and students at Santa Monica College with a semi-automatic rifle before being killed by police.
The tragedy followed the 2011 suicide of a high school athlete and the 2009 killing of a 20-year-old man as he left an art class at Virginia Avenue Park.
The deaths were a clarion call. A coalition emerged—called Santa Monica Cradle to Career—which linked parents with educators and service providers. The group began examining how the community could support its most vulnerable young people and their families and create an environment for them to thrive.
“We were saying, ‘We won’t let this happen again,’” says VaLecia Adams Kellum, president of the St. Joseph Center, a nonprofit provider of services to children, families and homeless individuals.
The city felt an even greater sense of urgency after the 2014 Youth Wellbeing Report Card found high rates of substance abuse, social isolation, bullying and symptoms of depression among young people. The survey—funded through a Bloomberg Philanthropies grant as part of the city’s Wellbeing Project—also reported that only one-third of 5-year-olds were prepared socially to enter kindergarten.
The city took decisive action. They invested funds not only in early childhood development, but also mental health services in schools. As part of the Cradle to Career initiative, Santa Monica High School soon will have a new Thrive Center, offering mental health screening, coordinated care for the most at-risk students and a range of well-being interventions.
St. Joseph Center, meanwhile, started youth resource teams to help disconnected youth and their families get back on track by coordinating services in a team approach. Some of the 41 participants, from 13-year-olds to young adults, were referred by schools; others were identified by law enforcement.
“The idea is to inspire hope,” Kellum says.
A team helped 18-year-old Sabrina Giannette, who had missed too many school days because of family responsibilities. When she transferred to an alternative high school, she was paired with Raquel Perez, a case manager who worked for the Boys and Girls Club. Perez helped Sabrina with small issues like getting a bus pass or supplies, and with larger challenges like finding work and earning class credits. Last June, Sabrina delivered a graduation speech and now attends community college. “Even last year, I didn’t think I would be here today,” Sabrina says.
The Village at Santa Monica is the type of luxury development where only the well-heeled need apply. A block from the beach on Ocean Avenue, prices start at $850,000 for a one-bedroom unit and rise to $7.1 million for a penthouse.
Immediately next door to the condominium building, the same developer also offers an equal number of rental apartments. But there, rents range from $456 a month for a studio to $1,354 a month for a three bedroom.
This is Santa Monica housing policy at work.
“Santa Monica is a community that, left to market forces, would be completely unaffordable,” says Julie Rusk, who leads the city’s Wellbeing Project.
Maintaining economic diversity has been a longstanding goal of Santa Monica. Of 93,000 residents, 70 percent are renters. In 1979, Santa Monica voters approved some of the most stringent rent control protections in the country, earning the progressive city the moniker “The People’s Republic of Santa Monica.” State lawmakers, however, weakened rent control rules, most recently in 1995, when landlords were allowed to raise rates to market levels when tenants vacated an apartment.
To keep housing affordable, Santa Monica responded with countermeasures. The Condominium Conversion Ordinance makes it illegal to convert existing apartment buildings into condominiums unless the citywide vacancy rate exceeds five percent for three months—a situation that is highly unlikely given the city’s high occupancy rates. The City Council also voted in 2014 to strengthen prohibitions against harassing tenants. Since landlords were allowed to recalibrate rents to market levels when tenants moved out, they had a strong incentive to “encourage” people to leave. The new law clarified what was considered harassment.
Santa Monica also requires developers to set aside a percentage of newly constructed units for affordable housing, using a sliding scale that depends on the overall number of units. The Belmar Apartments at the Village were built on city-owned land by Related California in partnership with the nonprofit Community Corporation of Santa Monica. To qualify for an apartment, prospective renters must earn between 30 percent and 60 percent of the region’s median household income of about $69,000.
The community corporation, which receives city funding, has developed 1,720 units of affordable housing since 1982. The Belmar, says Durinda Abraham, director of property management, “brings a healthy mix of residents to the community. It makes it more vibrant, more inclusive.”
If people have a safe, affordable place to live, their sense of well-being improves. “You will give families the opportunity to thrive who otherwise wouldn’t have that opportunity,” Abraham says.
The Prize honors and elevates U.S. communities working at the forefront of advancing health, opportunity, and equity for all.