I support Measure O’s long game: Keeping downtown city-owned lots for affordable housing

A Yes on O sign in a yard in Santa Cruz
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Josh Brahinsky is a friend and UC Santa Cruz colleague of Lookout columnist and former Santa Cruz mayor Mike Rotkin. He supports Measure O, while Rotkin opposes it. In this Community Voices op-ed, Brahinsky explains his decision and focuses on our community’s dire need for affordable housing.

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I am writing this in response to Mike Rotkin’s column against Measure O. Mike and I are union comrades and have lectured together at UC Santa Cruz. It struck me, however, that our concerns about Measure O overlap very little — for me this is about housing, not the library.

I have come to support both Measures N and O, but it’s been a bit of a trial.

N was relatively easy — who wouldn’t support asking wealthy folks with two homes to pay extra if they leave the second one empty?

But with O, I simply relied on trust, and it was absolutely the wrong move. A friend explained that O would block a luxury hotel downtown where there ought to be affordable housing, and also prevent $2 million payments to subsidize parking. I was all-in.

I told my friends, even mentioned O in front of a crowd. The hotel seemed especially absurd on city-owned land, where we could choose to put affordable housing. But soon after, another trusted friend told me they were against O and I froze up inside — they said 123 units of affordable housing were on the chopping block if O passed.

To explain, I have been a union organizer for the past 30 years, worked on the rent control campaign and spent lots of my time and energy fighting to ensure that working people have food and homes. I also do organizing, where I listen to my neighbors, and have heard many of them say they are against gentrification (like the luxury hotel) but also that they want housing that they can afford. Personally, I think the people who work in Santa Cruz should also be able to live here.

Workforce housing brings economic and racial diversity that is good for all of our lives. It also brings less traffic. I’m not overly concerned about where the farmers market will sit, or which of its trees are protected. (I was a wilderness educator for years and love trees, but find it hard to feel strongly about these second-growth isolated lovelies when stacked up against homes, sorry friends.)

I was frustrated that Measure O materials didn’t emphasize housing as a core element. I felt embarrassed to have shown my support publicly.

I began to more seriously compare the two stories. I learned that the initial objective for developers was a parking garage, and that the affordable units and the library were added only after the community complained about the city subsidizing parking for the hotel. Some described this as a healthy community dialogue; others call it insider baseball. I learned that the library was old and a renovation would be smaller. I learned also that the parking wasn’t even sort of necessary because according to the city’s own studies, city lots haven’t ever been fully used, even on busy summer weekends. But these are minor points, I thought, perhaps pressure from the community won us housing when we need it?

I started to feel a bit clearer when I noticed that the big developers were against O, the same folks who want to build the hotel and luxury housing. One thing I do trust: Developers know where their money is, and where it is going. They tend to think far ahead. They don’t just listen to their friends and act spontaneously, unlike me, apparently. What were they seeing in O that I wasn’t?

I think it is this: Measure O protects the available downtown city-owned lots for affordable housing (above the first floor) and when I learned that this adds up to a potential for 300-430 affordable units downtown, this really turned the tide for me.

But, as my skeptic of O friend put it, this was “potential housing,” with no planning behind them. We had a bird in the hand, and I was dreaming of a bird in the bush, he explained. Since then, however, I learned that the affordable housing in the garage project wasn’t likely to be funded for three to six years (Mike Rotkin called it funded; Santa Cruz mayoral candidate Fred Keeley said a minimum three to five years out) — it was far from a bird in the hand.

But more to the point, the bigger picture (the one the developers already had understood) was coming into view. It was about short-term versus long-term visions. I was beginning to see that despite its complexities and distractions, Measure O offers a long-term solution for Santa Cruz that is both green and affordable. Without it, we might get some affordable units more quickly, but the rest of the downtown would almost certainly go the way of the already planned, eight-story luxury hotel and the high-end housing the city has approved. Where are the low-paid service workers for the hotel going to live? (At this time, they were already proposing 1,600 units south of Laurel Street with 85-90% unaffordable.)

This kind of gentrification simply would mean more working people living out of town, more of my students living in cars because of rent increases, and more displacement as friends and neighbors move to get away from the wild costs of life in Santa Cruz.

With N and O together, we would have millions of dollars a year that could and should go to affordable housing. But more, we would have a mandate to put it there.

It’s the long game.

Josh Brahinsky is a lecturer at UCSC ‘s John R. Lewis College and vice president of organizing for UC-AFT, the union representing nontenured faculty and librarians at UCSC. He has lived in Santa Cruz for 15 years.

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