Going to bat for affordable housing: In passionate tug of war over Soquel project, supporters get loud 

A mixed crowd gathered at Cabrillo College on Monday
A mixed crowd gathered at Cabrillo College on Monday to learn more and express its feelings about the Project Homekey proposal.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

While vocal neighborhood opposition turned out at Cabrillo College on Monday night, so did a fervent cast of believers in affordable housing projects such as the Project Homekey development on Park Avenue on the border of Aptos, Soquel and Capitola. That project has received a $10.7 million grant from the state to add 36 units to an area that, like much of Santa Cruz County, is unaccustomed to growth.

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“The best defense is a good offense.”

Leave it to a classic sports cliché to perfectly define the roster that Santa Cruz County leadership rolled out at Monday evening’s affordable housing matchup at Cabrillo College.

Developers, planners, health directors, service providers, architects, engineers, environmentalists, elected officials. Even an arborist.

Part of the group assembled to provide information about the proposed Project Homekey development on Park Ave. in Soquel.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Clearly, the 12-person team going to bat for the controversial Project Homekey development at 2838 Park Ave. in Soquel was crafted to form a unified front against an audience presumed packed with vocal neighborhood opposition at a small campus auditorium.

And Team Homekey predicted right. Supervisor Manu Koenig, whose 1st District includes the development, had clearly prepared for this event, having learned from his experience at the previous heated get-together on the project in March.

The naysayers in a split crowd of about 80 — a little more than half in opposition — were loud, ornery and not always content to speak in turn. They demanded to have a more direct voice in the Q&A portion, a demand that was met.

But project proponents dialed their game up another notch, adding even more speakers to the dozen they had brought from among county officials and the project’s team — including longtime affordable-housing advocate and two-time Santa Cruz mayor Don Lane, Cabrillo College trustee and 4th District Supervisor finalist Felipe Hernandez and Cabrillo president Matthew Wetstein.

They even included the kinds of residents who might be able to take advantage of the 36-unit affordable housing project if and when it is built: a few formerly homeless individuals, including a veteran helping lead the Veterans Village Homekey project in Felton. They also rallied vocal supporters in the crowd who spoke on behalf of the project and many who commented online.

The opposition — made up mostly of neighbors living in pockets of Aptos, Soquel and Capitola, in the close vicinity of the Park Avenue location — have made it clear over the span of six months that they won’t let charges of abject NIMBYism deter their cause.

The group that organized via Facebook in opposition to the Homekey project meets up during a break in Monday's meeting.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Because the project is closer to their own backyard than it is to that of most advocates, and wasn’t well-signaled or communicated by state or county leaders, they say they’re compelled to voice their loud displeasure.

It appears largely centered on the feeling that important community business was conducted behind closed doors, with little consideration for their opinion — except on this night, after the fact.

“I’m heartbroken to see something like this happen without involving the community,” said one unnamed 30-something speaker who attended the meeting with his parents. “A lot of the people making these decisions did not consult with anyone who lives here about what they thought of the project, how it might affect them.”

Other speakers, mainly from a group formed on Facebook called the Soquel Aptos Community Response Homekey Group, raised questions about parking, traffic safety, crime, fire hazards, water use, bus access, the riparian zone the parcel sits within, the profits developer Novin Development stands to make and more.

Alexia Martinez leads the opposition group at Monday's meeting.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The three-story, 36-unit “Park Haven Plaza” that received a $10.7 million grant from the state will serve veterans, families, and youth transitioning out of foster care. Homekey is funded as part of Assembly Bill 140, which uses various streamlining bills to pave the way for affordable housing in areas of California that need it most.

By the end of the two-plus-hour meeting, the Project Homekey proponents had matched, if not outright beaten back, the fervor of the opposition. Whether any minds were changed, or at least moved slightly, will be a tricky guess best left for the oddsmakers.

But 90% of the several dozen comments submitted by those watching virtually were in strong support, including a number who said they lived in close proximity to Park Avenue.

The stated goal of the meeting, according to Koenig, was to listen to concerns that could inform any reasonable adjustments: “(We want) the experts involved here to get us to ‘Yes.’ … For us to improve the project as much as possible so that you feel comfortable with it.”

Supervisor Manu Koenig listens from the audience Monday night.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

That’s another way of saying the project is moving very close to the finish line. It’s exempt from California Environmental Quality Act review. The county has also decided it doesn’t need further review under the National Environmental Policy Act.

Public comment for its environmental review record will remain open through next Tuesday, July 5, but under the prescriptive AB 2162 ministerial review process that accompanies Homekey projects, the county’s development review group has determined it’s compliant with “objective” standards and therefore can’t legally be denied.

The meeting’s setting served the evening’s need-to-build narrative: Cabrillo College is trying to get into the affordable housing game itself because it realizes its plummeting enrollment numbers are no coincidence as the area’s housing market remains among the nation’s least affordable.

“Until we start building affordable housing in this community,” said Cabrillo’s Wetstein, “the pressure of having people live here and serve our community is getting harder and harder.

“One of the worst parts of my job is calling back a job candidate and having them tell me they can’t afford to come here. It’s a significant challenge.”

A rendering of the project design.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Wetstein added that 20% of Cabrillo students surveyed say they have experienced homelessness and that college’s board of trustees supports the proposed development because “when we support a project like this, we are supporting real students.”

If this is what the future of Santa Cruz County’s push to spread out the burden of affordable housing looks like, it will be a passionate game of public pleading by those convinced there is no choice but to build our way out of this predicament.

“The average house in this ZIP code right now costs $1.5 million — it’s increased 30% in the last year,” Koenig said. “It’s going to mean fewer kids, fewer families in our community. It’s going to be harder for your kids to afford to keep living here.”

It is what happens when the playing field quickly shifts on government officials, who can’t look a $10.7 million gift horse in the mouth — particularly in a place that is among the national leaders in homeless population per capita.

And as a result, residents of areas that haven’t yet begun to feel the effects of California’s race to make up for its housing shortage can feel caught off guard and suspicious of the process.

A rendering of the modular building Novin Development is planning for the site in Soquel.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Multiple speakers said they felt duped by their public representative, in this case either Koenig or 2nd District Supervisor Zach Friend, since public comment entered the equation only after the application approval had been rubber-stamped by the county’s board of supervisors.

I understand your reaction to this project. I think it’s perfectly natural to be afraid when there’s any change in your neighborhood and to fiercely oppose it.

— 1st District Supervisor Manu Koenig

“I understand your reaction to this project. I think it’s perfectly natural to be afraid when there’s any change in your neighborhood and to fiercely oppose it,” Koenig told the crowd to kick off the night. “ And I think I would do the same thing if I was in your shoes. But the reality is that our community is changing. And we have to do things differently.”

The city of Santa Cruz is the only local jurisdiction currently keeping up with its Regional Housing Needs Allocation. Meanwhile, the unincorporated parts of the county, such as Soquel and the small city of Capitola, are far behind their goals.

One of the final speakers to take the mic was named Amie, who said she was an environmental activist fortunate to have lived in Capitola since 1986. She looked out at the crowd and offered up a question.

“Where is our humanity?” she said. “We’re talking about veterans and kids that have been in foster care and families that can’t get housing. There’s a house that just went up for sale in my neighborhood, 800 square feet for $1.325 million. There are houses being built on Opal Cliffs Drive that are huge but because those people have lots of money they get their projects done.

“Where is our humanity?”

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