Mayor Fred Keeley wants Santa Cruz community members to take the lead in drafting a housing bond measure to put before the city’s voters in 2024. But to this point, the process for this “citizen legislature” has been an uneven one.
This story was originally featured in this week’s In the Public Interest newsletter from Christopher Neely. Be the first to hear about politics and policy news in Santa Cruz County — sign up for Christopher’s email newsletter here.
Milan Wilkerson, a second-year political science student at UC Santa Cruz and member of the Student Housing Coalition, arrived at a packed room inside the Santa Cruz Police Department on Wednesday at the invitation of Mayor Fred Keeley. The group of roughly 50, including city staff, gathered for what was meant to be the third and final meeting in a unique civic process unfolding in the city.
Is it possible for the community to come together, in an open, everyone-is-invited brainstorming process, and draft a proposal to tax itself and create a steady revenue stream for affordable housing? Keeley, who is helping facilitate the process with city staff, and likens the group to a “citizen legislature,” believes so. However, many who have participated in the affair have growing doubts.
Tax law is often the arena of economists, financial experts and lawyers; consensus is the court of politicians and advocates. Yet, this process, which will require skills in both, is being led by anyone and everyone in the community who wants a say. In theory, when this series of meetings ends, the community will have drafted a new piece of tax law — quite an achievement for everyday residents. The task will then be to begin a petition to place their new tax law on a 2024 ballot so voters can approve or reject the self-levy.
Wilkerson missed the first two meetings, but says Keeley urged her to attend the final gathering because the discussion needed student perspectives. Yet Wilkerson’s experience at the meeting reflected the ocean between the idea of a community-led tax measure and the difficult and cacophonous practice of actually producing one.
Several people I spoke with after Wednesday’s meeting felt as if they had entered the ring for a political royal rumble. Wilkerson saw this directly. A young woman and student of color, she struggled to see herself in the room of mostly older, white residents, and listened as some people told her students shouldn’t count in the equation.
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“The room itself felt very, very charged, with a lot of people wanting to fight, but not really come to a solution,” Wilkerson said. “At one point I was trying to provide a critique on how single-family homes should be taxed. Before I could even give my explanation why, I was completely mad-dogged by a white older man, which was very intimidating. I felt defeated and like my input didn’t matter.”
Wilkerson says she appreciates the idea of bringing the community in and including all voices, but “aside from the intent, the execution wasn’t really there.” While some said there were some good ideas thrown around Wednesday night, many left echoing Wilkerson’s concerns about execution and an uncertainty about the process.
This process is the brainchild of Keeley, who vowed on the campaign trail to put an affordable housing and homelessness bond in front of voters. Last month, he ceded leadership on the idea to the community, calling for a transparent, open and grassroots effort — facilitated by the city — to develop a new tax and put it on the ballot. Keeley says it’s a pragmatic choice for two reasons: 1. It is intended to avert an oft-levied criticism against ballot measures — that they are drafted in private by select special interests. 2. The threshold to succeed at the ballot box is lower, according to state law. If a measure for a new tax is placed on the ballot through a citizen-initiated petition that receives enough signatures, it requires only a simple majority to pass on election day. However, if the same tax measure was drafted by the city and put on the ballot through a vote of city council, it would require a two-thirds supermajority to pass on election day.
However, what’s reasonable in theory can take on a different, more complicated shape in practice, especially in the public square. Wednesday’s meeting offered a view into the challenges ahead and left many participants wondering whether a truly open and inclusive process could produce anything legitimate, and who among them will step up and lead the petition process — a powerful role — once the meetings conclude.
Andrew Goldenkranz, the head of the Santa Cruz County Democratic Party, grouped up with Wilkerson during the meeting’s breakout session, where smaller groups tried to reach consensus on a few priorities. He said the meeting felt surprisingly “feisty” and that attendees were more energetic about what they’d reject in a bond rather than accept.
As participants were asked to give feedback on the nitty-gritty, some struggled with terms and ideas such as eminent domain and its impact, evincing an understandable knowledge gap in what experts might consider boilerplate terms. Others used their time to debate the merits of a market economy and making profit off real estate.
“Dealing with the fine print in such a large group is super hard,” Goldenkranz said. “I don’t know whether something can come out of this large group.”
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Midway through the meeting Wednesday, several participants had asked why they were being rushed into figuring this tax measure out in only three one-and-a-half-hour meetings. Almost unanimously, the attendees said they wanted at least two more meetings. Impending deadlines for citizen-initiated ballot measures means that request would likely push the earliest election for this bond from the March 2024 primary — which would have cost the city no additional expense since there is already an election scheduled — to a special election in June, which would cost the city $180,000 to stand up.
Goldenkranz pointed out something that I noticed as well. When it came time for the breakout sessions, the room became cliquish, as like-minded people gravitated toward one another to discuss feedback on the measure’s text. Goldenkranz believes a meaningful product will require cross-pollination.
“When I walked out of that meeting, I kept wondering, ‘What does consensus look like?’” Goldenkranz said. If opponents in last year’s Measure O battle can get together and discuss the bond, Goldenkranz says he would “listen hard to them.” Similarly, he said, if representatives from the local Democratic Socialists of America party and Santa Cruz Together — two parties that clashed over Measure N’s empty home tax in 2022 — can be at the same table, “then that’s progress.” But he didn’t see much of that Wednesday night.
At this point in the process, city staff is responsible for incorporating the feedback heard at the meeting into drafts of the law’s proposed language. However, on Wednesday night, there was no larger vote or survey on any of the suggestions. This means, ostensibly, a suggestion to exclude students from new affordable housing carries the same weight as a suggestion to allow the city to, if it finds it necessary, use the tax revenue to forcibly take over private property.
Bonnie Lipscomb, the city’s economic development director, says the process has been labor-intensive for city staff. Her team has the difficult task of trying to balance out the public’s suggestions at the meetings against the results from the polling, as well as what city staff considers feasible.
Lipscomb used the example of one suggestion that the measure create a community land trust, in which a separate organization would acquire, manage and develop land for affordable housing in the public’s interest. She said this would be a giant task for staff and legally and logistically complex to stand up, so staff might leave that out of the measure’s language. This is a real-world concern for the city, but, in practice, it could be seen as chafing against Keeley’s message on Wednesday that the group is basically a “citizen legislature” responsible for drafting a bill. Staff’s professional opinion of what is feasible often comes second to the legislature’s desires.
Eventually, the city will hand the language off to the community so it can begin the petition signing process. This raises the question — perhaps the most important question — that hangs over all unstructured groups of humans: Who is going to lead on this thing? After the community meetings wrap up, the city’s job is over. It will be up to the community to take the tax measure, create a petition, and begin collecting signatures. Who will bear the torch? What changes might they make once it’s in their hands? How will they bring the community together?
Keeley said it was his hunch that Housing Santa Cruz County, a coalition of local organizations and leaders that advocate for affordable housing solutions, would take the baton from the city. But no decision or agreement has been made on that question.
“The government has facilitated something, but then they will hand it off to the community, but the community is thousands of people, and [the city] is not really handing this off to thousands of people,” Don Lane, board chair of HSCC, said. He says figuring out who will step up to take the lead, and how to get the community to agree to that, is the central piece to the work ahead.
As the meeting came to a close Wednesday, a jovial Keeley emerged with an optimistic smile on his face and a hop in his step. The mayor is confident this experiment in citizen democracy will be worth it.
“It’s going to work out fine,” Keeley said. “I’m not being flippant about it. There will be a product that comes out of this.”