Quick Take:

Why a small town hall meeting turned into a sometimes-heated exchange between 1st District Supervisor Manu Koenig and a crowd of neighbors displeased at how a supportive housing project is being rolled out along Park Avenue in Soquel.

Raised voices, accusations of backhanded deals, an at-times flustered 1st District Supervisor holding court in person before the crowd.

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Thursday evening’s Soquel town hall thrown by Manu Koenig and his staff at tiny Porter Memorial Library was not the normal affair. It drew nearly twice the number of people — 40 in person and another 70 online — as any previous town hall they’ve held, Koenig said.

Neighbors in the zone where Soquel, Capitola and Aptos meet who are upset over a proposed Project Homekey development on Park Avenue showed up en masse to express their litany of concerns. More than 300 had previously gathered at Willowbrook Park, near the project site, on Feb. 27.

We introduced this issue in the third part of the Unhoused Santa Cruz series, taking a closer look at the collision course it appears we’re on in Santa Cruz County. It’s a clash pitting turbocharged state initiatives geared to address an unrelenting housing and affordability gap against communities unaccustomed to dealing with the nuances of homelessness — and used to far greater control over neighborhood developments.

Thursday night, citizens voiced concerns about the riparian habitat attached to the involved parcels, a lack of parking, fire safety and emergency access, along with safety concerns associated with who these new neighbors will be. But, by far, the overriding anger centered on a lack of transparency and trust.

“When did you know?” one woman who took the mic at the library asked Koenig in a pointed tone.

Koenig said he knew very little about the project’s details until just before the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors was set to vote on it; the board unanimously approved it and two other projects at its Jan. 23 meeting. Koenig then turned attention to what he believes are the positives that are being overlooked by many: a chance to help veterans, families and older teens coming out of foster youth programs in a location that puts them close to Cabrillo College.

To a question from a woman who said her children were concerned about what is going on at the site, Koenig replied: “What I would tell your kids is these are people who didn’t have a mommy and daddy who have lived in a variety of different homes and now we’re just trying to create a place where they can get their feet under them and go to school at Cabrillo College.”

He continued: “These are vets who fought for our country in wars, just like what we’re seeing with the trauma in Ukraine, and these are families with kids who will be able to finally send their kids to a preschool like the one across the street.”

The library crowd answered Koenig’s explanation with boos and hisses.

Homekey projects are part of an unprecedented $12 billion commitment to solving homelessness by the state. And lawmakers in Sacramento have “streamlined” projects deemed affordable, making it harder for public opposition to quash them. Environmental, traffic, parking and zoning concerns are held to a less rigorous standard than other development projects. Same with public hearings, which aren’t even a state requirement after a project is passed.

“I do believe that Supervisor Koenig is in an unenviable position to defend a project that was sprung upon him as well,” his analyst, Jamie Sehorn, said Friday. “He does believe in it conceptually but understands the neighborhood’s concerns. We’ll continue to listen to people’s concerns and try to help them get answers to their questions, but I expect this to continue to be a major issue over the coming weeks and months.”

What’s new

Many of the concerns raised focused on drug use and mental health issues. Sehorn acknowledged that neighborhoods such as this one, where homeless services have not been located, don’t have clarity on what this project will bring.

“Most of the people opposed directly correlate the population this project will serve with drug users — which is a truly unfortunate assumption that helps no one,” Sehorn said. She added that people need to know that “screening criteria would prohibit eligibility for anyone with certain felony convictions, history of drug dealing, sex offender status, and so on.”

She acknowledged “this will go some ways towards alleviating the fear. There will still be opposition, though.”

Manu Koenig fields questions from a crowd in Soquel.
Manu Koenig fields questions from a crowd in Soquel.

Koenig’s follow-up

Asked Friday for his reaction to the town hall, Koenig said he will advocate for a better communication process before projects of this magnitude are voted upon.

“This has made me realize that we need to do a better job of publishing the board of supervisors’ agenda earlier and sharing it more broadly. Right now we have agendas that are up to 2,500 pages long being published as little as two full business days ahead of time. That makes it very difficult to take in all the information, let alone ask for and receive public comment,” he said. “A longer lead time would ensure that projects like this are appropriately noticed to the community. I’m going to pursue a change in policy to allow everyone more time to review the agenda and notice projects like this.”

Koenig said his greater concern is trying to communicate the dire need for affordable housing of all kinds.

“How do we move together as a community towards more affordable housing construction in general? I’ve yet to see people react positively to any new construction in their neighborhood,” he said. “Meanwhile, the average home price in Soquel and Live Oak today is $1.3 million. Teachers, nurses, and other essential workers can’t afford housing. The county has 50 vacant health care positions we’re having trouble filling as a result.”

An informational slide from Supervisor Manu Koenig's presentation

What’s next & what we’re following

Park Avenue developer Iman Novin attended the meeting virtually, but did not comment and did not respond to questions Lookout sent to him Friday about the crowd’s concerns.

The project needs final go-ahead from the state’s Department of Housing & Community Development; approval or denial could come any day. Whether word of a decision will circulate before the March 22 board of supervisors meeting is unclear. Novin and Koenig have both said they will hold a public meeting if the project is approved, probably in early April.

Sehorn says she will be recommending a concerted focus on educating concerned neighbors about how the service programs will be administered, by whom and for whom. People need to know more about what types of new neighbors will be joining them.

“I think one of the best things the county and developer can do would be to put faces to the project — show the community the people this project would help,” she said.

You can reach Koenig’s office at 831-454-2200 and email him and Sehorn directly: Manu.Koenig@santacruzcounty.us and Jamie.Sehorn@santacruzcounty.us Go here for the slides presented at the Soquel town hall.

Follow Mark Conley on: Twitter, Instagram, Facebook. Mark joins Lookout after 14 years at the Mercury News and Bay Area News Group, where he served as Deputy Sports Editor on a staff that covered three...