Quick Take:

Housing is a fundamental human right, writes UC Santa Cruz student and union organizer Joe Thompson. Measure N takes a bite out of the whale that is the affordable housing crisis.

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How often has a houseless person asked you to spare a bit of change?

If never, you probably don’t go out much or live under a rock, but for the rest of Santa Cruz residents, the impacts of the affordability crisis affect us nearly daily.

On Tuesday, Santa Cruz voters have a chance to take a bite out of the whale that is the affordable housing crisis by voting yes on Measure N.

Almost one year ago, Starbucks workers in Santa Cruz began organizing for a union and became the epicenter of Starbucks organizing in California. My fellow workers and I chose to unionize for many reasons, but the housing crisis was central to two of them.

First, baristas, myself included, could not find affordable housing in Santa Cruz, meaning that unreliable university housing was the only thing standing between us and becoming either rent-burdened or unhoused. The union piqued the interest of housing-insecure baristas, resulting in nearly unanimous votes to unionize.

Second, baristas were exposed to the brutality of houselessness every day. Working near the Benchlands was challenging, especially in the early morning and late hours. Often, houseless individuals would come in and buy a cup of coffee. While talking to them, I would hear about the horrendous living conditions only hundreds of feet away from our county government.

As I walked out of Starbucks one day, a man asked if I could spare some change, not so they could have a coffee, but for a waterproof tarp. As a naive college student, I wondered, “What’s that for?” The man said, “When you’re homeless, it’s nicer to sleep on the tarp than the cold ground.” My coworkers and I saw this daily and knew a union could help us fight the ever-expanding houselessness crisis.

Union organizer Joe Thompson speaks to a crowd in front of the Starbucks on Mission Street in May.
Union organizer Joe Thompson speaks to a crowd in front of the Starbucks on Mission Street in May. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

Growing up in Lincoln, California, there weren’t many houseless folks; it was too hot during the summer and too cold during the winter. Moving to Santa Cruz was the first time I had lived in a community where housing was utterly unaffordable, and houselessness was the main issue impacting voters.

I understand that our housing crisis is urgent and requires change. People often fear change, so while many elected leaders and candidates preach change, others weaponize fear to ensure nothing changes. The opposition to Measure N weaponizes fear like no other.

“TOO INVASIVE, TOO EXTREME.” If you live in Santa Cruz, you’ve probably seen the No on N signs. What is more extreme? Paying a tax of $16.44 per day — roughly the price of my Starbucks order with a tip — or having the highest number of homeless people per capita in the country?

I won’t be paying the tax, nor will the vast majority of people reading this; however, if you make less than $87,000 a year, you might end up living in the affordable housing built by Measure N. If I were given the chance to give up drinking Starbucks to generate millions of dollars for affordable housing, I’d take it in a heartbeat.

Last year, around the same time as the union organizing began, I picked up my first empty home tax petition.

I became aware of the campaign in its very early stages and loved the idea. I immediately signed the petition and changed my voter registration so I could vote locally and improve the housing conditions of all Santa Cruz residents.

On my free weekends, I would canvass the old-fashioned way: with paper, a pen and a precinct map. During one of the canvasses, I knocked on the door of two tenants who were in the process of being evicted due to unbearable rent increases. The people living in the house immediately signed the petition.

Most of the time, I talked to voters as much as 50 years older than I am, and many were delighted that a young person was engaged in politics locally. For my sake and sanity, I don’t want to spend the next 50 years fighting for the right to affordable housing. Please join your local baristas, housing advocates, Santa Cruz Democratic Socialists of America, Santa Cruz County YIMBY, the Santa Cruz and California Democratic Parties, everyday working-class folks, and myself in supporting Measure N, the empty homes tax.

Joe Thompson is a union organizer who helped lead the fight to organize Starbucks in California. They are a second-year student majoring in environmental studies with a concentration in policy at UC Santa Cruz.