California Senate candidates Adam Schiff, Barbara Lee and Katie Porter
California Senate candidates (from left) during recent campaign appearances in Santa Cruz County: Reps. Adam Schiff, Barbara Lee and Katie Porter.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Civic Life

Housing crisis takes center stage as Senate race comes to Santa Cruz County

After visits by Reps. Katie Porter, Adam Schiff and Barbara Lee, vying for the Democratic nomination to replace the retiring Dianne Feinstein in the U.S. Senate, Christopher Neely breaks down what he heard from each on one of Santa Cruz County’s most pressing concerns: housing.

Santa Cruz County hasn’t had a major Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate visit ahead of a primary election since Barbara Boxer made the trip in 1992. That’s in part because in California, competitive Senate races — especially primaries — are rare. Kamala Harris’s 2016 rout of Loretta Sanchez was the only race that didn’t feature an incumbent since that 1992 election.

The 2024 election is unique in almost every way, especially for Santa Cruz County. Not only does the Democratic primary feature three contenders, each made stops in Santa Cruz County over the course of eight days. Irvine’s Rep. Katie Porter kicked it off by speaking before 175 donors inside the Veterans Memorial Building in downtown Santa Cruz; only two days later, Rep. Adam Schiff, of Burbank, attended a local Democratic Central Committee fundraiser at a prominent local couple’s Victorian-style Santa Cruz home; and Oakland’s Rep. Barbara Lee capped it off with a free event at a Mexican restaurant in downtown Watsonville.

Campaigns for the Senate tend to lean heavily on large national issues, such as women’s reproductive rights and gun control. But here, in a California Senate primary, the candidates didn’t differ much on the big-D Democratic platform. Schiff and Lee told their crowds they supported ending the Senate’s filibuster, and Porter and Schiff said they wanted to expand the U.S. Supreme Court beyond nine justices and implement term limits.

Locally, however, housing is a marquee issue, if not the headliner. I asked each candidate about their plans for housing solutions, and each acknowledged the statewide crisis. They said they wanted to boost housing supply and felt like the federal government had a role to play. Yet, how they viewed that role, and the way they talked about the solutions, varied.

Katie Porter

Katie Porter (left) at Vets Hall in downtown Santa Cruz on Aug. 20.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

For Porter, housing is her top issue and “how I got started in public service.” The former consumer protection law professor at UC Irvine was tapped in 2012 by then-California Attorney General Kamala Harris to act as a bank watchdog following the foreclosure crisis. She said she soon found that predatory lending was only the “tip of the iceberg” of the state’s housing challenges. She said the barriers into the housing market don’t exist only for young people or minorities, and the federal government needed to insert itself.

Porter said a senator must own and fully dig in on the biggest problems facing California. There’s no bigger issue, she said, than housing.

“It’s not enough for our federal leaders to point the finger downhill and say it’s a state issue, and for the state to say it’s a county issue, and the county leaders say it’s a city issue,” Porter told me. “The federal government needs to make a big investment.”

Porter sees Congress’ role as passing legislation that would require the federal government to fully fund Section 8 vouchers. “Right now, one in five people who qualify for rental assistance help gets it,” she said. “Can you imagine if we said the same thing for Medi-Cal? You all qualify for Medi-Cal but this year only a few people get it.”

She also wants to see the federal government invest more in low-income housing tax credits that help facilitate affordable housing development — a program she said works: “Not everything in government works but when we find something that does, you can’t be afraid to double down on it.” Without putting more federal dollars behind low-income housing tax credits, the country then relies too heavily on banks to finance affordable housing projects. “Wall Street will never build enough workforce housing on its own,” she said.

Porter’s third proposal is her most creative, though what it looks like practice is still nebulous.

“We’re tapped between these two extreme models: the 30-year fixed rate mortgage with 10 or 20% down, and the one-year lease with no stability or security,” she told me. “We have to be more imaginative at the federal level. What could exist between that? What about five-year leases? What about leases for workers that they can take only when they’re retired so they can get from retirement to when they pass? What about four-year leases for college students?”

Adam Schiff

Adam Schiff (right) speaking Aug. 22 to a crowd of supporters in Santa Cruz.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Schiff, who led off his speech to the crowd at George Ow Jr. and Gail Michaelis-Ow’s home by lamenting the state of the economy, views the housing crisis as one of the clearest indications of an economy “that doesn’t work for people.”

“I absolutely feel that housing is a national, urgent issue,” Schiff told the crowd. He said he’s introduced legislation to create a federal council on housing to match the existing council on homelessness, and said the federal government needs to be a “much more substantial partner” in coming up with housing solutions across the country.

“I’m also working to expand the amount of Section 8 vouchers because right now, there’s a lottery to get a voucher, there’s another lottery to find somebody who will take your voucher, and even then, it doesn’t cover enough of your cost,” Schiff said.

It’s still not clear what form an effort to put Santa Cruzans’ dollars toward affordable housing will take, but that and...

The Burbank congressman told me that he’s been pushing legislation “for years” to provide tax incentives to create more housing. He believes the federal government can help clear regulatory hurdles to building more supply; however, “most globally” he said, it’s about “making the economy work.”

“No matter what kind of resources we throw at the problem, ultimately, if we can’t raise incomes, if we can’t do better by working people, then there won’t be enough money to throw at the problem,” Schiff told the crowd.

Barbara Lee

Rep. Barbara Lee at Jalisco Restaurant in Watsonville on Monday night.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Throughout her campaign, Lee has tried to differentiate herself not only by her consistent progressive values through 25 years in Congress, but also through her lived experience as a Black woman who has first-hand experiences with the traps of racism and poverty.

She told me America’s growing homelessness problem is a “moral disgrace” and, similar to Schiff, pointed to how housing costs have run away from wages throughout the country. “You have to see housing in the context of a living wage,” she said. “That’s the big picture.”

Yet, similar to Porter, Lee urged creativity in solving the state and country’s housing problems. She said she planned to introduce a bill in the Senate that would create a revolving federal fund to cover the cost of security deposits for rentals and down payments for home ownership — both of which she considers major barriers to entering stable living situations.

Lee talked about the role of the federal government helping people get into the housing market. She reflected on her college days, when she was a single mother raising two children while going to Mills College and UC Berkeley. She said a federal program helped her buy her first home for under $20,000. She contrasted her story to college students and young people today, many of whom don’t believe they will ever be able to buy a home.

“The only path, in this country, to acquire any kind of wealth is through equity in one’s home,” Lee told me. “I want young people especially to think about home ownership.”

Among the three candidates, Lee was the only one to lay out something resembling a plan for student housing, an issue that resonates in Santa Cruz County, where college students’ limited options force them to participate, and drive up the prices, in the local housing market. She said she wants to see Congress pass policies that send more federal dollars directly into student housing projects and solutions.

“The federal government needs to find ways to do that because you know we have plenty of resources to invest in these campuses, provide affordable housing on campus or in the community around the campus,” Lee said. “You can’t tell me we can’t do that. We can, it just takes the political will to step out of the box and to do the right thing by California and the country.”

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