Yes on N: It’s a vital step on the road to affordability

A Yes on N campaign sign on a lawn in Santa Cruz
(Will McCahill / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Miriam Greenberg and Steven McKay, both UC Santa Cruz sociology professors, argue that Measure N is a needed step in the fight for affordable housing in Santa Cruz. The crisis is so dire, they say, we need to throw “everything plus the kitchen sink” at it. Both have done extensive research on housing and insist we need to vote for N if we want to be a place that lives up to its values.

Have something to say? Lookout welcomes letters to the editor, within our policies, from readers. Guidelines here.

The affordable housing crisis in Santa Cruz has reached a point where we need everything plus the kitchen sink to solve it.

Since we conducted the No Place Like Home project researching the impact of the crisis on renters in Santa Cruz County in 2018, trends have only worsened. Rents have gone up an astonishing 67%, and Santa Cruz has jumped to the second-most-expensive and the least affordable metro in the entire country. While we continue to fight for large-scale interventions needed at the state and federal level, we have an existential and moral imperative to pursue every opportunity to effectively increase affordable housing at the local scale.

Measure N, the empty homes tax, does just that.

Measure N is a major step (albeit just one) in the right direction — and, as the saying goes, we make the road by walking. Affordable housing experts and the city’s own fiscal impact report agree that, with close to 1,000 homes subject to this tax, we stand to raise $2.5-$4.1 million, which would more than double the amount of our current affordable-housing trust fund. This means more than doubling our capacity to support local housing initiatives like community land trusts, coops and partnerships with nonprofit developers, as well as more than doubling our ability to leverage tens of millions more in funding via state, federal, and foundation matching grants.

Meanwhile, these funds come at little to no cost to the vast majority of Santa Cruzans. The online declaration process for property owners will take five minutes annually. Enforcement and penalties — which were copied from existing taxes already on the books — are exceedingly rare. The third-party audit committee — again, already on the books for other taxes — will meet just once a year, have extremely limited authority and be overseen by the city council. Exemptions are readily available for those needing to keep homes empty. And the council has the authority to update the law to make sure it’s fair.

The key point is that the tax is aimed squarely at speculators and other large owners of real estate who can afford to leave properties vacant during a housing crisis. We argue this targeting has major benefits that far outweigh any inconvenience homeowners might experience in filling out a form or applying for an exemption — and these benefits continue even when revenues decline. Like all taxes designed to reduce socially harmful behavior — from smoking to carbon emissions — taxing empty homes both raises funds to redress the harm they cause while incentivizing their opposite: living in these homes or renting them out.

Either way, it makes more housing available for those who need it and curbs speculation and price spirals moving forward. The latter is especially urgent now, with thousands of units of market-rate housing soon to be added downtown. And on that note, such programs provide sunlight, helping policymakers and the public understand the extent to which speculators operate in our housing market in the first place.

This impact on housing speculation unfortunately helps explain the fear-mongering and divisive campaign against N. Led by Santa Cruz Together, which is backed by the real estate industry, opponents of N have raised close to $130,000 dollars. This constitutes four times Yes on N, which is funded entirely from small donations and noncommercial organizations.

In fact, the single largest donor among opponents of N, the Los Angeles-based California Association of Realtors, thus far has provided $49,000 — greater than all of yes on N funds.

While we respect the concerns of our neighbors on this measure, we are dismayed by the toxic impacts of such industry-backed campaigns in undermining our democratic process.

Let’s come together as renters and homeowners around solutions to a problem causing so much pain for our community. Let’s turn the tide on ever-escalating rent burdens, overcrowding, displacement and homelessness. We write as homeowners eager to do our part, housing researchers heartened by this effective and tested approach and parents, hopeful that our kids will one day be able to afford to live in the town they love. And most of all, we write as Santa Cruzans who yearn to live in a city that lives up to its values and takes every possible step, small and large, to address this crisis.

Miriam Greenberg is professor and chair of sociology at UC Santa Cruz, and a Santa Cruz planning commissioner. Steve McKay is a professor of sociology at UC Santa Cruz. Both were authors on theNo Place Like Home project and continue to research and teach on issues of housing, equity, sustainability and belonging in our region.

More from Community Voices