Santa Cruz County hasn’t been the easiest place to build housing. There are natural hurdles: The county is surrounded by steep, mountainous terrains, agricultural production and Monterey Bay. But then there are more man-made hurdles, such as zoning, fees and costs.
Yet, with the rest of the state, the county is poised to set off on a new housing reality. Last week, the board of supervisors unanimously approved a plan that shows how the jurisdiction can fit 4,634 new housing units within the county’s unincorporated areas by 2031. The 4,634-unit number is known as the regional housing needs allocation, or RHNA (“ree-na”), a state mandate for new housing handed down every eight years to each jurisdiction in California. The plan approved by the supervisors is known as a housing element.
With approval of the housing element, the county essentially puts in writing its commitment and proof of concept to permit 4,634 new housing units over the next eight years (3,054 need to be affordable for low-to-moderate-income residents). As with everywhere else in the state, the housing production required of Santa Cruz is unprecedentedly high. Between 2015 and 2023, the state told the county to permit 1,314 new units, 763 of which had to be affordable.
The county didn’t achieve the numbers in the previous housing cycle. So, in order to fit four times as many housing units this time around, the county had to take a hard look at some of its man-made hurdles and force some changes, particularly around rezoning. The county has committed to rezoning dozens of existing commercial, industrial and single-family parcels to allow for multifamily housing. Rafa Sonnenfeld, who works with pro-growth organization Santa Cruz YIMBY (yes in my backyard) said the zoning changes approved by the supervisors showed the “county has come a long way” in prioritizing housing production.
“The county, for years, has not had the zoned capacity to get housing at the level it needs; we’ve fallen well short of reaching goals for all income levels,” Sonnenfeld said. “The rezonings are an impactful change. This is a meaningful commitment that the county has made. It’s the beginning of correcting our policies and a long process toward having a county that works to encourage housing.”
The housing element targets rezoning 75 parcels, with the potential to bring more than 2,260 new units. The most substantial rezoning focuses on the old par-3 golf course at 2600 Mar Vista Dr. in Aptos, which the county estimates could produce 430 new units. The county sees the lot as a major asset in reaching its housing mandates, but the property, which sits as 14 acres of public open space, has been the subject of debate among residents, county staff and local leaders.
Attorney Antoinette Ranit of Aptos-based Wittwer Parkin LLP told the board of supervisors last week that she’s been retained by an unidentified group of locals she referred to as the “Aptos council,” who seem prepared to challenge development plans for the site.
“The history of the par-3 [course] shows that the community has long rejected this site as an area for housing, so that it could remain an important recreational and open space resource,” Ranit told supervisors. Ranit didn’t return Lookout’s multiple attempts for comment, but the fate of the former golf course will be a story to watch next year.
The county also identified 25 “opportunity sites” it believes can fit more than 1,100 new housing units. A collection of three nearby parcels in Live Oak, including the 14-acre paved paradise at 2260 Soquel Dr. — the home of the former Santa Cruz Flea Market — could be home to more than 480 new units. Other opportunity sites include 161 units on the 6-acre lot at 21501 East Cliff Dr., which hosts a shopping center and the Live Oak farmers market on Sundays. The county also sees the potential for 136 new units at 783 Rio Del Mar Blvd. in Aptos, right next to Red Apple Café.
The county also committed to rezoning about 40 parcels in existing residential neighborhoods that sit near transit and other services. Through state legislation, these parcels will be rezoned to allow up to 10 units per parcel, and could yield more than 330 units for the county. Sonnenfeld said these in-neighborhood changes help to ensure new and affordable housing is developed on not only the periphery, but within communities that already have services.
The county has three years to complete the rezoning laid out in the housing element. Overall, the housing element shows a housing capacity across the county of more than 6,400 units.
The county also committed to developing a new rental housing law that requires developments of five or more units to set aside 15% of the units for low-to-moderate-income residents. The county will also examine the feasibility of rules that encourage all-electric homes and moving past dependence on natural gas. A federal appeals court judge earlier this year struck down all-out bans on natural gas in new builds. The city of Santa Cruz had such a ban, but is now working on an ordinance to encourage electrification rather than require it.
Elaine Johnson, executive director of nonprofit Housing Santa Cruz County, knows the county was mandated to complete a housing element, but she believes county staff went “above and beyond” in engaging the public and assuring the community was front and center in determining where housing should go.
“When the community is invited to participate in how they want their community to look, that’s part of the work that is shifting systems here,” Johnson told Lookout. “One of the things I keep driving home is the notion of community. It felt like there was a collaboration between the county, the board of supervisors and the community.”
The state has until Jan. 15 to give final approval to the county’s plan. A rejection would trigger the infamous builder’s remedy until the county can get its plan approved. The builder’s remedy allows developers to ignore zoning codes for affordable housing projects.
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