Quick Take:

Senate Bills 9 and 10, which would allow for increased density in single-family-zoned areas, are poised to be signed into law. But some say they will do little to change the housing stock in Santa Cruz County, while others say adding housing will further strain the county’s infrastructure.

Two housing bills poised to become California law will have limited impact in Santa Cruz County, housing advocates acknowledge, but they say they hope the legislation will provide momentum for growing calls to stabilize costs in the region and elsewhere.

Even these modest changes have proved controversial; some believe they could lead to further issues with already struggling infrastructure amid population growth and potentially higher housing costs. The bills, Senate Bills 9 and 10, have been approved in both the Assembly and state Senate. Gov. Gavin Newsom has indicated he supports the bills but has not outright said he would sign them into law.

How do these bills affect Santa Cruz’s housing stock?

Rafa Sonnenfeld, a lead with Santa Cruz YIMBY, said that of the 54,817 single-family residential lots in the county, 43,522 would be eligible under SB 9 to build additional units. However, many of these lots might be too small to add a unit or could already have a so-called granny flat. As such, there are 1,422 lots that would be capable of adding at least one more unit under SB 9, or approximately 3% of the total single-family parcels.

According to data from the UC Berkeley Terner Center for Housing Innovation, the net change of market-feasible units could be as high as an additional 8,000 units throughout the county, should all eligible households take advantage.

Ultimately, Sonnenfeld said the two bills provide Santa Cruzans with more options and reduce barriers to building.

“The number of units will have some benefit, but it’s really the signal that this sends, that we’ve accomplished something and we can build on this momentum,” he said. “These numbers will make a small improvement in the local market, but we’ve focused on the state level for zoning reform because it’s not enough for local municipalities to do the right thing in allowing more housing.”

Are these recent issues?

Casey Beyer, CEO of the Santa Cruz County Chamber of Commerce, has worked on addressing public housing policies on and off for nearly 40 years. He said one of the main issues is to address the environmental impact of growth on local infrastructure, leading to specific greenbelt areas protected from development.

“When you do protect open spaces, the only way you can address other issues is through in-fill development, and we have not done our share of in-fill development in the county or the city,” he said. “Because of that long delay in the process, you’re seeing a huge amount of applications coming through the pipeline addressing the middle-income and very low-income needs.”

Beyer noted UC Santa Cruz as an example of the continued housing squeeze in the county since he arrived in 1982, even though the university has the highest on-campus housing rate of any school in the University of California system. Between students looking for housing and people who lost their homes in the CZU wildfires doing the same, it’s a more contentious market, and one that requires more affordable housing development.

“It took one of my dear friends’ daughters nearly three years to find reasonable housing out of UCSC,” he said.

And Beyer understands the housing pressures of Santa Cruz County on a personal level. After moving back to the county in 2011, he lived in a few places as a renter while waiting to buy. When the pandemic and wildfires hit simultaneously last year, his landlord decided to move back into the home, and Beyer had to move outside the county.

What are some concerns regarding the bills?

But for Santa Cruz resident Lira Filippini and other worried locals, those numbers don’t reflect what could actually happen: more housing units, yes, but perhaps no more affordable options.

“Housing is a valued commodity, especially true of coastal areas of California,” she said.

Filippini said that though additional units increase residential capacity, the monetary value of the property also rises. That in turn typically increases costs of living, both for renting and owning. But with the bills taking away local oversight from city and county governments, there’s no certainty that the additional units would be offered at an affordable rate.

“If we have no restrictions on what’s being produced and what the cost will be, how do we know it will be affordable?” she asked. “I’ve not heard anyone in various circles I engage with identify that we don’t have an affordability issue.”

Beyer also questioned the costs of building additional units for the eligible households.

“How many actual properties can take advantage of these two laws?” he said. “It may take a while before we see any difference. Change is good, but what are the benefits in the long term?”

YIMBY tour
Leaders from Santa Cruz YIMBY led a tour of the so-called missing middle homes of Santa Cruz earlier this month. Some question whether those options could possibly be built today with SB 9 and SB 10 — or if homeowners could take advantage of the new rules and not create more affordable units. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

What about the polling from Housing is a Human Right?

According to late July polling commissioned by Housing is a Human Right — the housing advocacy division of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation — 63% of those surveyed oppose SB 9 and 67% oppose SB 10.

Sonnenfeld said that data shows a very skewed perception of the bills, and from an organization that is significantly more well-funded.

“That campaign is organized by a nonprofit that has over $1 billion in annual revenue,” he said. “When they take a position on something, they have a lot of financial resources in order to push their narrative and their perspective — they have the opportunity to frame the discourse.”

Yet, as Sonnenfeld said, the YIMBY support has grown both locally and statewide. He’s had more Santa Cruzans reach out specifically over the past month to learn more about the bills and discuss more about the need to fund them.

“There are people who want to see progress being made, and that’s what we’re trying to do — make progressive, incremental steps toward more housing affordability,” he said.

Does Gov. Gavin Newsom need to sign these bills for them to go into effect?

Technically, no.

Because both the Assembly and the Senate have approved the bills, they don’t require Newsom’s signature to go into law. He could choose to sign the bill before the recall election on Sept. 14 or afterward, but it’s unnecessary.

“Newsom has signaled he would be supportive of this legislation,” said Sonnenfeld.

Previous affordability coverage

Grace comes to Lookout from just over the hill, originally from Sunnyvale but with a variety of journalism experience from across the country.After doing her undergrad at Seattle University, Grace earned...