In the Public Interest: Is Santa Cruz’s housing plan too dependent on UCSC’s new development?

Rendering of primary site of UCSC's proposed Student Housing West project.
A rendering of the primary site of UCSC’s proposed Student Housing West project, which would replace and significantly expand existing housing on Heller Drive.
(Via UC Santa Cruz)

In this week’s edition of In the Public Interest, Christopher Neely examines how projects at UC Santa Cruz fit into the equation of the number of housing units the City of Santa Cruz is mandated to permit by 2031.

This story was originally featured in this week’s In the Public Interest newsletter from Christopher Neely. Be first the first to hear about politics and policy news in Santa Cruz County — sign up for Christopher’s email newsletter here.

UC Santa Cruz’s founding in 1965 permanently altered the destiny of its surrounding community. For all the intellectual, cultural and economic benefits the institution has brought Santa Cruz, the issue of housing students has fed an accelerating affordability crisis and a prickly relationship among the university, residents and public officials. Especially as the university plans to grow.

Consider a pair of active lawsuits against the university. The City of Santa Cruz filed one in 2022 over the university’s plans to add 8,500 students by 2040 and its impact on the local housing market. Habitat and Watershed Caretakers filed another in April, attempting to block the long-discussed, 1,085-unit Student Housing West project.

Now, as the city finalizes its plan to fit a state-mandated 3,736 housing units by 2031 (known as a “housing element”), it seems to depend heavily on the university’s Student Housing West development to provide not only a third of the total housing units required, but to make the single largest contribution of housing stock for the region’s lowest earners. This has left some scratching their heads.

When the city presented its housing element to the city council last Tuesday, skeptical community members highlighted the university’s track record of expensive on-campus housing — the cheapest monthly on-campus housing rate is $1,319-$1,343 per person in a two-bedroom apartment that fits five students. They also raised concerns about the city’s ability to dictate the affordability of on-campus housing, and questioned how units that are accessible only to students could count toward the city’s affordable housing goals.

So, what gives the city such confidence that UCSC can, and will, play an outsized role in obtaining the most difficult pieces of its affordable housing obligations?

Matthew VanHua, senior planner with the city who is leading the housing element process, says UCSC is a “critical piece” in Santa Cruz’s fulfillment of its affordable housing requirements. VanHua says the city has been coordinating with the university, but after community members raised questions about the fit of the UCSC housing in the city’s plan during last Tuesday’s city council meeting, VanHua says the city is going to do more research before it submits the housing plan to the state.

When the Santa Cruz City Council advanced the first draft of its housing element to the state last Tuesday, the plan included an expectation that Student Housing West will provide more than 860 units for the region’s lowest-income renters — more than 60% of what the state has mandated for Santa Cruz. These units represent the largest single contribution of affordable housing in the city’s state-mandated housing cycle for 2023-31.

On-campus housing counts toward the city’s housing obligations as long as the units are legitimate apartments with a kitchen, as opposed to a simple dorm room. Yet, the often-high prices of these kinds of on-campus apartments is the impetus for sending students off campus to search for housing. As Santa Cruz Mayor Fred Keeley says, it’s like handing students a hunting license when there is no game to be hunted.

The lawsuit filed against UCSC by Habitat and Watershed Caretakers tries to drill at this point.

“There is irrefutable evidence that the [Student Housing West’s] housing rates are, on average, almost double the comparable rates of the off-campus market,” the complaint reads. “This fact reveals that the university’s stated project objective of providing affordable housing is unattainable, and invalidates the University’s demand projections based on the false premise that [Student Housing West] units will be more affordable than off-campus units.”

Rafa Sonnenfeld, a policy director with affordable housing watchdog YIMBY Law, says he wants to see assurance from the university that it will keep new housing at affordable rates over time. The most surefire way for the city to lock in affordable housing, on land within the city’s boundaries, is through deed restrictions. UCSC, though, technically sits on state land, making the legalities tricky.

“Is the university’s commitment a binding commitment? And how can we verify the affordability levels promised by the university are going to be upheld?” Sonnenfeld tells me. “Basically, we want the university to show its work, especially if the city is leaning on UCSC, when it’s the city that is on the hook to build adequate affordable housing.”

A proposal to build family student housing and a child care center for students at staff on UCSC's East Meadow
A proposal to build family student housing, and a child care center for students at staff, at the corner of Hagar and Coolidge Drives on UCSC’s East Meadow has faced significant opposition.
(Via UC Santa Cruz)

There’s also this question of how the university calculates affordability. According to its plans for Student Housing West, the university considers an on-campus unit affordable because it is a certain percentage cheaper than typical off-campus housing. The state, and the city, consider a unit affordable if someone making a certain income can afford it. The university’s market-focused definition and the state’s income-focused definition appear to be apples and oranges, yet the city says new on-campus apartments are valid in housing elements.

Keeley, who voted in favor of the housing element last Tuesday, is yet unsure whether UCSC will be able to come through for the city’s affordable housing goals. He plans to meet with UCSC Chancellor Cynthia Larive on May 12 to discuss housing, the first of multiple such meetings, he says.

So, is the city’s dependence on UCSC to provide the most affordable housing a little premature?

“I will have a much better feeling about how to characterize my level of confidence [in UCSC’s ability to contribute affordable housing] after my meeting with the chancellor,” Keeley said.

UCSC did not make a representative available to answer specific questions regarding this story.

Of Note

Lani Faulkner, director of the Equity Transit alliance
Lani Faulkner, director of the Equity Transit alliance.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

2024 movement: Lani Faulkner, founder and director of nonprofit Equity Transit, has thrown her hat in the ring to run for District 1 Supervisor, the lone challenger, so far, to incumbent Supervisor Manu Koenig. If Koenig is going to attract a challenger, it’s no surprise that Faulkner enters the conversation from the transit arena, where Koenig made some enemies as a loud voice for 2022’s Measure D campaign to dismantle the Coastal Rail & Trail project.

Number update: Last week in this newsletter, I quoted the Sheriff’s Office as confirming that roughly 50% of the inmates at the county jail were on psychotropic medication to treat a mental illness. The Sheriff’s Office has since updated that number with more specificity. During March, 162 of 377 inmates at the main jail and Rountree Medium Facility in Watsonville were on such medication, or just about 43%.

Say It Again

A quote from Supervisor Manu Koenig about Santa Cruz County's transit future

District 1 Supervisor Manu Koenig, talking to a crowd after an announcement that the county received about $42 million in state grants for a handful of transit projects.

The Week Ahead

The Pride flag flying in 2022 at Scotts Valley City Hall.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Pride redux: The Scotts Valley City Council on Wednesday is scheduled to vote on whether to fly the Pride flag during June for Pride Month. The topic caused quite a stir last year as the city council discussed whether to fly the flag for the first time. Although the vote was unanimous, Councilmember Randy Johnson and then-Councilmember Jim Reed implied that flying the Pride flag could lead to requests by the Klu Klux Klan and National Rifle Association to fly their own flags outside city hall. This year’s vote comes only three months after the conservative-led city council in Huntington Beach voted to stop flying the Pride flag for Pride Month, calling it divisive and sending shockwaves through the state.

Budgets, housing: The Capitola City Council will get a look at the city’s budget for 2023-24 during a special meeting Wednesday. The tax-funded budget is expected to be $2.6 million. Then, on Thursday, Capitola’s planning commission will examine the city’s housing element, which is its plan to fit a state-mandated 1,300 new housing units by 2031.

Weekly News Diet

Rendering of Pacific Station North and the newly reimagined Metro station, looking from Front Street toward Pacific Avenue.
Artist’s rendering of Pacific Station North and the newly reimagined Metro station, looking from Front Street toward Pacific Avenue.

Local: Santa Cruz is changing, quite quickly. Next year, the city is likely to see the completion of a few major developments, just in time for new ones to begin. My colleague Wallace Baine tackles an update on the city’s physical evolution.

State: Oakland closed the city’s major homeless encampment at Wood Street last week. What’s remarkable here, according to the article, is that of the 48 people moved off the camp, 43 accepted the city’s offer of housing, a more than 90% success rate. Contrast this to Santa Cruz’s clearing of the Benchlands last fall, when only 31% of the residents accepted the city’s offer of alternative shelter. (Natalie Orenstein for The Oaklandside)

National: What a couple weeks for media brands. Fox News settles the Dominion case, BuzzFeed News shutters, NBC Universal fires CEO Jeff Shell, CNN fires Don Lemon on the same day that Fox News parts ways with Tucker Carlson, Vice News cuts 100 jobs and shuts down is flagship TV program, FiveThirtyEight saw half its staff slashed while its parent company, Disney, prepares to go to court with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Did I miss anything?

One Great Read

“Consider the Lobster” by David Foster Wallace for Gourmet Magazine

This week, I reach back into the archives for one of my all-time favorite great reads. The erudite, postmodernist author David Foster Wallace took an assignment with food and travel magazine Gourmet to cover the Maine Lobster Festival, a beloved, decades-old New England staple. Perhaps the magazine felt it might get a gimmicky little piece from one the day’s most sought-after writing minds. But in true DFW fashion, the story quickly evolves into something much greater and more profound than a simple lobster festival. Author Philip K. Dick once asked whether androids dream of electric sheep; here, Wallace wonders whether lobsters can feel pain and if they can’t, as the going narrative implies, why do they try to escape a pot of boiling water? Hey, wait a second, what is pain anyway? And how did lobsters go from something seen as so grotesque as to not even be considered food to one of the most expensive items on American menus?

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