Can the unhoused population of Santa Cruz County be distributed more evenly around the area?
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Coast Life

Unhoused Santa Cruz: A ‘proper place’ for the homeless? Push to spread the burden stirs NIMBY backlash

Neighborhoods are receiving little advance information about newly streamlined projects, as the state of California and the county of Santa Cruz move to rapidly build new housing. As Project Homekey-funded projects pop up around the county, we see pushback in Soquel, and maybe more widely. Lookout takes a closer look at the community whiplash and the likely growing pains ahead.

AJ Javed is his usual blur of constant motion as he darts this way and that at his small craft grocery store in Soquel.

The popular market that bears his name at the corner of Park Avenue and Soquel Drive also serves as a gas station and car wash, and is known for its unparalleled mix of eclectic hand-curated items, from spices and sauces to cheeses, charcuterie and beer.

One of the few things you won’t find at AJ’s Market: signs of homelessness.

In this quiet, wooded sector of the county, where Aptos, Soquel and Capitola connect near Highway 1, close to the pristine Monterey Bay views of New Brighton State Beach, the overt markers that plague the cities of Santa Cruz and Watsonville seem a million miles away.

It’s why Javed was handing out fliers last week, brought in by a concerned neighbor, detailing a “homeless housing project” being “rammed through” just down the street, raising concerns, the flier said, about creating “a homeless and drug problem on Park Avenue.”

Javed says he makes the trek to Costco in Santa Cruz’s industrial-zoned Harvey West Park area several times a week, and “the mess” he sees along Coral Street outside the homeless shelter sticks in his head.

Soquel Drive where it meets Park Avenue is home to the popular market of AJ Javed.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“This is such a beautiful, peaceful, quiet little community — I’d hate to see that change for the worse,” says Javed. “Something has to be done for these people because they’re human beings, they need help. But it should be somewhere that is the proper place for them.”

Where is the proper place? That is the complex question playing out in neighborhoods all across the Bay Area and state, not just here. Disputes over Project Homekey development proposals like the one on Park Avenue drive controversies in San Francisco, San Jose, Milpitas, Stockton and Marin.

Over the past four years, and with a pace that was accelerated by the pandemic, the state of California decided it was time that new housing — the primary solution to the issue of homelessness — be more widely distributed and shared beyond its urban and industrialized areas. The legislature threw gasoline on the fire with bills that get affordable housing units built much faster, with far less friction than ever before.

While everyone can agree the issue sorely needs to be resolved, these new laws providing for rapid solutions have created new, and multiplying, controversies.

Robert Ratner
Robert Ratner is the director of the county’s Housing For Health division, and is leading the state’s charge for more housing units here.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Each new project or development seems to create a new battleground, pitting advocates against residents and business owners, with the former often dismissing the latter’s concerns as part of that quintessentially California “not in my backyard” syndrome known as NIMBYism. But as with most complex and nuanced issues, this is an oversimplification, and legitimate questions abound.

Prominent among them: Can neighbors differentiate between people who have fought their way into permanent supportive housing programs by choice and the raw, visceral chronic homelessness they see outside the Coral Street shelter or along the San Lorenzo River levee?

On the flip side, can local government officials, advocates and developers hear and understand the concerns — whether real or overwrought — of those residents as well as business and property owners who are now confronted with seeing their neighborhoods become part of the solution?

These people don’t want to simply be labeled crazy — and, worse yet, rendered voiceless. And they, like many of us, find it hard to immediately envision who, exactly, their new neighbors might be. Who exactly is placed in supportive housing, is just one of the questions many have.

Understandably, then, there is fear of the unknown.

How you roll these things out is extremely important.

— Jon Showalter

“How you roll these things out is extremely important,” said Jon Showalter of the Association of Faith Communities. “You engage before it becomes public.”

And, says local activist and developer Sibley Simon, it’s within that two-way dialogue that fears — some legitimate, some not — can typically be alleviated.

Sibley Simon
Sibley Simon of New Way Homes.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“We have seen way over a thousand folks who have exited chronic homelessness in the last decade in Santa Cruz County,” said Simon. “And the majority of those folks really thrive and become good neighbors.”

To the county’s chief of homelessness, Housing for Health Director Robert Ratner, decentralizing homeless services in this over-affected area is a moral imperative. It comes down to a simple reality.

“We will not be able to see encampments disappear without creating more permanent places for people to live with the [the] supports necessary to help them become successful tenants and neighbors,” he said.

Local leaders believe it’s time for a paradigm shift that spreads the support services around the county. They have seen too many “solutions” that didn’t work.

Susan True
Susan True of the Community Foundation.

“Best practices would be that you have small groups of people getting just the right level of services they need, spread out all over,” said Community Foundation CEO Susan True. “But because there is such tension about having people who are homeless go to neighborhoods, we end up with these highly concentrated areas. And then we associate the problems of that area with everyone who’s homeless, which we know isn’t true.”

In this third part of the Unhoused Santa Cruz series, on the eve of Monday’s first homeless count in three years, we take a closer look at the collision course it appears we’re on in our county. It’s a clash between turbocharged state initiatives geared to address an unrelenting housing and affordability gap and communities — unaccustomed to dealing with the nuances of homelessness — and used to far greater control over neighborhood developments.

On Monday, about 100 people will comb the county and Lookout’s correspondent team will be with them, filing reports on...

A power shift, from local to state

Longtime local and state politician Fred Keeley cites the words of Gov. Gavin Newsom, who, during his inauguration speech in January 2019, said, “Shelter helps the sleeping problem, housing helps the homelessness problem.”

Keeley, who helped lead the Affordable Housing Santa Cruz County coalition’s unsuccessful attempt to get an affordable housing bill called Measure H passed in 2018, said he is happy to see housing action finally moving quickly.

Flush with a budget surplus of $31 billion, the state has made an unprecedented multiyear, $12 billion funding infusion. Further, it has “streamlined” projects deemed affordable, making it harder for public opposition to quash them.

Longtime local and state politician Fred Keeley
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Keeley also cites improved coordination efforts between the county and city of Santa Cruz.

“It’s not easy,” he said. “If it was easy, we would’ve solved this. If it was agreeable to everybody, we wouldn’t have these debates and discussions. But we do because I think there’s a good faith effort to try to solve this.”

If things are feeling different for small communities, with projects like the Park Avenue proposal seemingly sneaking up fast, it’s because they are, says Simon.

The proposal is part of the state’s Project Homekey program, California’s most aggressive attempt yet to make up for years of housing stock deficiencies. Homekey funding makes up $8.75 billion of the $12 billion with a goal to add 46,000 new affordable housing units statewide.

Santa Cruz County saw only 105 of its state-mandated 734 “very-low-income” (VLI) housing units get permitted in 2021, as it falls further and further behind on its regional burden. It will need 3,400 units — 826 in the VLI category — by the year 2031.

“We’ve spent 30 years giving the power to the neighborhood’s homeowners, and we’ve seen what that produced, which is essentially no housing,” Simon said. “And that’s true in most of California. So, yeah, there’s not much power anymore.”

The loss of local control ultimately forced the Santa Cruz City Council to move forward on the controversial 831 Water Street project under Senate Bill 35.

It also meant that county supervisors had little choice but to approve the application for funding the Park Avenue Project Homekey development along with three others — including conversions of existing buildings at the proposed “Veterans Village” in Ben Lomond and the Rodeway Inn on Beach Street in Watsonville. Two weeks earlier, the county signed off on its first Homekey proposal, a small project across from Housing Matters on Coral Street.

We’ve spent 30 years giving the power to the neighborhood’s homeowners, and we’ve seen what that produced, which is essentially no housing.

— Sibley Simon

Under Assembly Bill 2162, supportive housing developments — “usually for those lacking housing who face a multitude of complex medical, mental health and/or substance use issues that are co-occurring,” according to CSH (Corporation for Supportive Housing) — are easier to get approved because they’re not subject to the usual environmental scrutiny or public hearing processes. In addition, the law opened the door for them to be placed in multi-family residential neighborhoods.

It’s why those whose job it is like Ratner, to house as many of this county’s 3,000-plus homeless, call Project Homekey a “once-in-a-generation funding opportunity.”

‘Do you want them living in the forest?’

Jon Showalter is a longtime leader among a coalition of local ministries that have helped lead the way in county homeless services, particularly in the mid-county zone. where a number of the churches are located.

The SafeSpaces overnight parking program certain churches have employed as part of the Association of Faith Communities (AFC) has worked so well that the city of Santa Cruz is consulting with them, he said, about how to organize a program that connects to its recent RV ordinance.

Jon Showalter helps lead the Association of Faith Communities.
(Via Jon Showalter)

Showalter knows the assumptions and stigmas that go along with the unhoused population better than most. He recalls how quickly a proposal to house RVs donated by the state for emergency pandemic homeless response at the Seventh Day Adventist Camp on Old San Jose Road in Soquel got shut down in 2020 — even though it was a location far away from immediate neighborhoods.

“As soon as it hit Nextdoor, it was shut down within 48 hours,” he said. “The image put out there was of drug-crazed, crazy people running down Old San Jose Road with their hair on fire. Once that starts it’s so hard to pull it back.”

The Aptos Blue project across from the Rancho Del Mar Shopping Center.
(Via MidPen Housing)

But similar rancor played out in the pre-Nextdoor era as well. In 2013, a 40-unit affordable apartment complex across the street from the Rancho Del Mar Shopping Center, a MidPen Housing organization construction known as Aptos Blue, also took the local community by surprise.

Keeley takes the stigmas that surround homelessness and a tendency for immediate neighborhood saber-rattling one step further.

“It’s sure a lot easier to see whatever dysfunction someone has when it’s happening in front of your eyes, as opposed to whatever dysfunction there may be in your neighbor’s house or your own house or the house across the street,” he said. “To assume that everything is peaceful and wonderful in the housed community, and it’s really the unhoused community where all the problems are, I think misunderstands the issue.”

To assume that everything is peaceful and wonderful in the housed community, and it’s really the unhoused community where all the problems are, I think misunderstands the issue.

— Fred Keeley

Showalter invites people to meet some of those who have successfully navigated the path from homeless to housed again at an AFC function. “Three weeks ago they were scary, now they’re your neighbor,” he said. “The only difference is they have a roof over their head.”

Keeley said he noticed a county divide on homelessness with Measure H results in 2018, with people in Santa Cruz and Watsonville far more willing to put their tax dollars into homeless services than those in the mid-county and unincorporated zones.

“It’s a direct relationship to what people see in their community,” he said. “In places like Capitola and Scotts Valley, there is not a lot of visible presence of folks experiencing homelessness like there is in Watsonville and Santa Cruz. In those places it’s affecting overall quality of life overall and community, so people are more willing to address it..”

The wooded zone behind the parcel proposed for development off Park Avenue in Soquel.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

However, as those who do a lot of walking, hiking and biking in the mid-county area well know, there are plenty of signs of homelessness. But they tend to stay less conspicuous.

“They don’t want to be visible because if they can get a shower once a week and access to laundry, you can’t tell the difference,” Showalter said. “Do you want them living in the forest behind you or do you want them living somewhere you know they can get services?”

The Park Avenue project

The site at 2838 Park Ave., where a three-story, 36-unit modular building would be built beyond the existing parking lot and include a new 800-square-foot commercial space, was one of the three approved to apply for state funding by the board of supervisors in late January. The state has 45 days to review it and the board believes it will have a decision on all three projects by its March 22 meeting.

The development would provide small units for three groups:

  • Older veterans.
  • Families on the brink of homelessness.
  • Teenage youth who have timed out of the foster care system.
A rendering of the three-story, 36-unit modular building proposed at 2838 Park Ave.
A rendering of the three-story, 36-unit modular building proposed at 2838 Park Ave.
(Via Novin Development)

Developer Iman Novin, who is also doing the 831 Water Street project, considers the location ideal for those populations: “There’s a grocery store, there’s good transit access. It’s right down the street from Cabrillo College. It’s a service-rich environment, close to open space and parks, and so it’s a great place for people who have been unhoused to have an ability to sort of rebuild their lives and take advantage of the great benefits that we all have in our community.”

Novin grew up in Santa Cruz, went to Harbor High School, and now lives with his family in Walnut Creek, where he fell short of winning a city council seat in 2018. He said he considered communicating with the public on a project like this in advance premature.

“To raise a bunch of issues and talk about the project broadly, like I think some of the neighborhood opposition groups are trying to do to create controversy, until there’s a real project” doesn’t make sense, he said. “And we’ll know that in March.”

It doesn’t really make sense to prematurely go out and raise a bunch of issues and talk about the project broadly, like I think some of the neighborhood opposition groups are trying to do to create controversy

— Iman Novin

But veteran homelessness advocates like Showalter warn that good faith signs of earning the community’s trust should always come first.

“A longer conversation about what’s going to happen is extremely important,” he said. “Without that step, you don’t have allies who can stand up and say, ‘Well, this is going to be OK.’”

Safety, parking, traffic and environmental issues have all been broached in multiple Nextdoor threads about the project, where the majority of complaints center on the lack of transparency provided by the county and developer in advance of the state application being submitted.

Manu Koenig at a park.
Manu Koenig, 1st District Supervisor.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The Park Avenue location is the territory of 1st District Supervisor Manu Koenig, but much of the concerned constituency lives in nearby Capitola’s Cliffwood Heights, which is 3rd District Supervisor Zach Friend’s area. The offices of both combined received well over 100 calls and emails last week, the majority expressing concerns.

Longtime area resident Brandon Irwin had walked a few blocks down Park from his house to the site Wednesday morning, seeking answers he’s not sure why he still hasn’t gotten. “I want to be open-minded about the project, but I can’t understand why I don’t have any reliable information about it,” he said.

The entrance to 2838 Park Ave, where a dental practice and natural medicine practitioner currently occupy.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Nor had Dr. Vasavi Chinnam, whose dental practice has been at the adjacent site for 12 years, received any clear information about whether Novin, which purchased both properties in the past two years, was planning to raze her building and the one next door that houses Thrive, a natural medicine practice. Chinnam’s office was relayed news that the developer didn’t plan to remove the buildings, or disrupt the businesses, by a reporter.

A flier, without contact information, circulated early in the week announcing a community meeting scheduled for Sunday at 1 p.m. at Willowbrook County Park. The goal it states: Discuss our community response. Koenig’s office didn’t respond to a question about whether he would attend. He and Novin have both said they will hold community meetings in April if the state funding is approved.

A flier announcing Sunday's community meeting, posted at the site on Park Avenue.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Novin, who has spent months of back and forth with the city council and neighbors with the 831 Water Street project, seems disenchanted with the engagement process. Asked what he’ll tell concerned neighbors if the Park project is approved — even though no public hearing is required by Project Homekey — he said he would encourage them to educate themselves about the new state priorities and homelessness itself.

“It’s about educating oneself and also being willing to open your community to vulnerable populations,” he said. “It’s about having compassion and wanting to try to understand rather than spread fears. I understand that there’s concern about it coming fast, but this is not a new problem. Homelessness has been around for a long time, and it’s just been more exacerbated by COVID and the growing economic divide.

Project developer Iman Novin.
(Via Novin Development)

“What we’re trying to do is what the state is trying to do and what the county is trying to do. At the end of the day, the solution to homelessness is building housing. And the biggest impediment to it is NIMBYism.”

Pastor Rene Schlaepfer of nearby Twin Lakes Church, which includes a small private school of 300 students, said he hesitates to weigh into such political matters.

“I hope that if this goes through, the neighborhood will do its best to warmly incorporate these new neighbors into our community. That kind of connection is what helps people get through these rough patches,” he said. “If this is built, and they are right here on our doorstep, we will help them here. If it is not built, we will help them wherever they are.”

Legitimate community questions

Reasonable people could agree that the still-looming decision to place a sexually violent predator in Bonny Doon is not the same as placing veterans, foster youth and families in a neighborhood supportive housing project. But given the rancor of online discourse these days, it wouldn’t be hard to conflate the two public reactions.

The homeless encampment at San Lorenzo Park as seen in December.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

While there’s a level of logic to those visceral reactions, those steeped in the issue say, there’s also a more reasoned approach to vetting such situations — even if the new state housing legislation will make them hard to overturn. And there are plenty of logical questions to be answered.

“What part of this population are they? What sort of services will come to where they are? How are you going to transport them in and out?” said Showalter. “So there’s a whole bunch of questions that have got to be answered before you’re ready to turn to the community and say, ‘Here’s what we have in line.’”

Simon agreed that community buy-in is essential. “It’s fair in a lot of ways to question these things. What is going to happen? What role does the county play? I think people get more comfortable about it, some more than others, when they really come to understand it. First of all, people have to learn about it. What it is, what it isn’t, and what requirements there are. There are a lot of requirements on these projects.”

Harvey West Studios hopes to serve 120 individuals, the largest supportive services housing project in county history.
(Via Housing Matters)

Simon said he has been a part of many projects brought before angry community members who have already made up their minds about it — only to be pleasantly surprised by their reaction after hearing the details. Recent ones involving the 120-unit Harvey West Studios, planned to break ground later this year and become the largest supportive housing development in the county, are fresh in mind.

“I remember neighbors that were angry about what they thought it would bring to the area,” Simon said, “but through conversation with them about it, they went away feeling like, ‘OK, this project is part of the solution, not part of the problem.’”

Simon says people should be pressing the county about the specifics of services and the commitment to make sure they are maintained over time. He says that is the main difference between those who succeed on their path back into society and those who don’t.

It’s about people coming in and checking up on them and making sure that they’re going in a productive direction.

— Sibley Simon

“It’s about people coming in and checking up on them and making sure that they’re going in a productive direction,” he said.

Koenig says one strategy “might be a community governance plan for the building that has open public meetings.”

Keeley said he applauds that approach and believes “there is always opportunity for a principled compromise” especially if “every community has some obligation to be a place where some portion of this problem is addressed.”

That’s the world that state and county leaders are seeing as the new reality in California. Whether areas like Soquel, Capitola and Aptos are ready for it or not.

“We cannot make progress without creating more high-quality, permanent affordable and supportive housing units,” Ratner said.

Fred Keeley looks at the empty lot in his neighborhood where people sometimes camp.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Keeley, the former state assemblymember headed into his 51st year in politics, lives close to the 831 Water St. project in Midtown and said he can often see people camping in a vacant lot across from his home.

While he understands people’s rationale about safety, neighborhood home prices, and even being against the general principles of subsidized housing, he takes a holistic view on permanent supportive housing projects like this one.

We don’t sentence people to supportive housing. It’s a massive change in their life and their behavior.

— Fred Keeley

“It is a testimony to success, not failure — somebody got there because they wanted to change their life,” he said. “We don’t sentence people to supportive housing. It’s a massive change in their life and their behavior. Choosing to change the direction of our life, taking responsibility for it … I don’t know why we would be in opposition to that.”