Shelia Carrillo, a member of Democratic Socialists of America, raises her hand during a meeting on the housing tax measure
Shelia Carrillo, a member of Democratic Socialists of America, raises her hand during a meeting on the housing tax measure on May 31.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Civic Life

Santa Cruz handed its planned 2024 housing bond to the community to lead. Now what?

A broad coalition appears to be crucial to persuading Santa Cruz voters to pass some kind of bond or parcel tax, but despite interest in the process and in the goal of building more affordable housing from players around the city’s political scene, “we are way past the point of someone needing to claim this as their own,” says one planning commissioner.

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After campaign commitments from the mayor, taxpayer-funded polling, city council discussions and a trio of public meetings dedicated to the issue, big question marks still hang over the prospect of city of Santa Cruz voters seeing a new affordable-housing tax measure on a ballot in 2024.

In the three weeks since city leaders announced they would hand the housing bond process over to the community, there is still no consensus about who will lead the initiative, how best to raise the money for affordable housing or how exactly those funds will be used. This extended interregnum has raised questions about whether the measure will come together at all, despite a widespread belief that affordable-housing money is crucial for Santa Cruz.

Many people, including Mayor Fred Keeley, have pointed to affordable-housing nonprofit Housing Santa Cruz County as the likely torchbearer for the tax measure.

Board chair and former mayor Don Lane told the city council last week he would want to “take the handoff” from the city and help develop the tax. Yet in a conversation with Lookout late last week, Lane remained noncommittal in his and Housing Santa Cruz County’s role. He said he does not have the bandwidth to “personally lead” but is willing to “engage various people.”

“There is a real possibility of the community picking this up and making this happen,” Lane said. “There is such a lack of clarity right now because there are different ideas out there on the central pieces to a possible ballot measure. Plenty of people want to do something but they might disagree on what it is.”

Don Lane at the May 31 housing-measure meeting.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Housing Santa Cruz County’s executive director, Elaine Johnson, did not return Lookout’s multiple calls for this story.

Cyndi Dawson, a Santa Cruz planning commissioner who helped lead the failed empty homes tax ballot measure last November, says a leader needs to emerge soon if any ballot measure for 2024 is going to be successful. But Dawson says it’s not going to be her.

“We are way past the point of someone needing to claim this as their own,” said Dawson, who started conversations around the empty homes tax more than two years before the election. “When some group or organization stands up and claims this, then that will be a time when I’m more interested in stepping forward. It’s hard to put a lot of time and effort into something so vague because I don’t have the capacity to run another campaign right now.”

The failed ballot measures of 2022 — Measures D, N and O — were criticized for being drafted by close circles of allies, which led to a politically fraught election season in both the June primaries and the November general election.

Since discussions around the affordable-housing tax measure began in earnest at the start of this year, many involved have emphasized that the process needed to be transparent and bring together a broad coalition in order to be successful.

Andrew Goldenkranz, head of the Santa Cruz County Democratic Party, says that not only will diverse voices need to coalesce around the measure, but political rivals will as well — and quickly.

“The question mark right now is going to be over the next two to four weeks, and whether there can be any momentum that brings a group like Santa Cruz Together and the people that supported the empty homes tax to the same table,” Goldenkranz said.

Santa Cruz Together, a group of mostly homeowners throughout the city led by Lynn Renshaw, is viewed as a critical variable in the tax measure’s equation — however, more as a lion no one wants to wake rather than potential ally.

“You don’t need to have their backing but you cannot have their opposition,” said Darius Mohsenin, a local landlord and Santa Cruz Together supporter who has been a staple at the housing-measure meetings. “Don’t expect them to go ‘ra-ra’ and support the tax.”

Darius Mohsenin speaks during the May 31 meeting.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The group, with the help of tens of thousands of dollars from the California Association of Realtors, helped kill a 2018 rent-control ballot measure and the empty homes tax measure in 2022.

Renshaw did not return Lookout’s request for comment.

Then there are the many unanswered questions about the measure’s substance: Will it be a parcel tax that charges each property an annual flat fee? Will it be a real estate transfer tax that charges a fee on property transactions? Will the tax revenue finance only affordable housing for the workforce or will it have a carveout for homeless services as originally imagined? Will the question go in front of voters in a June 2024 special election? Or will it be part of the November 2024 presidential election?

Mohsenin says the people he’s spoken to in Santa Cruz Together are not opposed to the idea of a parcel tax that charges an annual fee — proposed right now at $95 per year — to drive revenue for affordable housing. However, he says they are opposed to a real estate transfer tax, and he believes the group would come out against any measure that uses some of the money for homeless services.

“They want accountability, and no more money going to homelessness given how much money has already been spent on it,” Mohsenin said. “My job right now is to convince whoever leads this thing that they have to ditch anything in the measure that sounds like homeless services. I want to get ahead of the narrative because if the measure includes permanent supportive housing, it will die.”

Not everyone agrees with the parcel-tax idea, and this could result in a fractured approach. Sheila Carrillo, a member of the local Democratic Socialists of America, says she could see some people split off and work on their own initiative.

“I’ve heard people talking about that possibility,” Carrillo said. “It’s hard to say whether we’d support it when push comes to shove because everyone wants more money for people who can’t afford to live here. But if there was another option, I would prefer that.”

Despite the uncertain politics and process ahead of this tax measure, Keeley is guaranteeing an affordable housing ballot measure will get in front of voters before his term ends in 2026.

“Sometime between now and when I leave office, there will be a housing measure on the ballot,” Keeley said. “There is no equivocation there. We’re going to have a ballot measure on affordable housing.”