Seeing ‘What’s already here’: Santa Cruz YIMBY group’s ‘missing middle’ tour points to past for solutions
Leaders from the Santa Cruz YIMBY chapter led a group on an hourlong tour of homes along the city’s downtown grid that represent what they believe is an important missing piece to the affordability crisis. And they believe it could return with the passage of Senate Bill 9.
Scattered amid the quaint and cozy Victorians of Santa Cruz’s downtown neighborhood are hidden pockets of what affordable housing advocates call the “missing middle.”
On Wednesday evening, leaders from the Santa Cruz YIMBY chapter led a group of approximately 25 locals, neighboring residents, and city officials on an hourlong tour of homes along the city’s downtown grid that represent what they believe is an important missing piece to the affordability crisis. And they believe it could return with the passage of Senate Bill 9.
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Rafa Sonnenfeld led the group along Elm, Washington, New, Lincoln, and Center streets to point out 11 different styles of “missing middle” homes, referring to a range of house-scale buildings with multiple units that are built in walkable neighborhoods.
The majority of the homes shown on the tour were built in the late 19th or early 20th century — but most have been refurbished in the last 20 to 30 years for modern tenants.
Starting at the Lincoln Court Apartments on Lincoln Street, Sonnenfeld explained that the homes were originally constructed in 1905 as a 12-unit complex of cottages. The property was bought by late acclaimed architect Michael O’Hearn in 1987, who restored the units in 1990. There are currently estimated to be between eight and 12 units.
“It’s just a really unique property — these buildings probably couldn’t be built today because they are too close to the sidewalk,” Sonnenfeld said. Current Santa Cruz regulations require a setback in relation to the right-of-way of the street, which could be between 20 and 40 feet depending on the home’s location.
One of the most expansive stops on the tour was the Abbott Row Houses, built in 1894 and restored in 1973 as housing for low-density sprawling cities. Each rowhome offers a two-bedroom apartment for tenants, and the building is on the National Register of Historic Places in Santa Cruz County.
Mayor Donna Meyers, Vice Mayor Sonja Brunner, and city councilmember Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson joined the tour, listening to constituents’ questions about the home options and what the potential of housing could look like throughout the city.
Preston Rutherford, a relator based in Lafayette, brought his 3-year-old daughter Ryan to the tour to see both what Santa Cruz housing had created in the past, and what models could work in the future.
“You’re not limited to a single-family home on a 9,000-square-foot lot as the only way to be a homeowner,” he said. “There’s this whole middle, that opens up more opportunities for everyone.”
Rutherford and his wife Jackie launched the goal of building 1,000 ADUs on Jan. 1, 2020 over five years, after the state of California updated their ADU regulations. In the time since, progress has been slow due to the COVID-19 pandemic — but that hasn’t stopped Rutherford from gathering further ideas for helping to solve the housing shortage.
“It really made me excited about what is possible here, if we just look at all the great work that’s already been done,” he said of Wednesday’s event.
As Sonnenfeld explained, “the point of this tour is to highlight what’s already here and show how many of the homes in this neighborhood already have multi-family units.”
“Most of these already have the character of single-family homes,” he said. “We want to show it’s possible to have the form of a historic neighborhood that is really a place people would want to call home.”
Understanding SB 9
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the city requires 40 to 50 feet for setbacks from property lines. Front setbacks for single-family neighborhoods range from 20 to 40 feet.