Let’s be real: Local government can’t fix everything, but Santa Cruz’s ‘laser focus’ on housing will benefit us all

Santa Cruz City Councilmember Donna Meyers
“Our city and council are arguably doing more to address housing than they have been able to do in a decade,” Donna Meyers writes.
(Via Donna Meyers)

Donna Meyers has spent four years on the Santa Cruz City Council and takes issue with a recent Lookout piece by Cyndi Dawson, chair of the city’s planning commission. Dawson misses the point of local government, Meyers writes. She also fails to take a long view or see that this council has raised close to $50 million to support affordable housing. Meyers thinks this council’s “laser focus” on affordable housing will be its legacy. Councilmembers are not “progressive,” “conservative,” Democrats or Republicans, she argues. Such labels are, she insists, counterproductive to the communal work of governing.

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One of the first conversations I had as a newly elected Santa Cruz city councilmember was with a devoted master’s swimmer who wanted the city to renovate Harvey West Pool and asked if I would be willing to work on that.

Yes! I enthusiastically replied, and as the weeks and months progressed through my city council term of four years, I learned so much from my community and what they wanted me as an elected official to work on. They wanted Harvey West Pool to be fixed and updated, a new lifeguard facility on the wharf, new stop signs, a new home-beekeeping ordinance, more plastics reduction in the city, and rules they could better understand about accessory dwelling units (ADUs) and short-term rentals. They worried about crime and safety, particularly downtown. They worried about our unhoused and how we can help them long term. They (for the most part) didn’t want new development in their neighborhoods. They were upset about vendors and chaos on Beach Street. They were over the moon about the rail-trail segment on the Westside.

In short, city residents wanted us to fix up our town, help our neediest and keep Santa Cruz as affordable as possible so their families and future families can have a chance to live here. They also wanted amenities they could enjoy now.

This is the job of a coucilmember. To serve the daily needs and the future needs of a community and to balance all with a limited budget.

Cyndi Dawson’s recent Lookout piece points fingers at those of us who serve currently and those to come. She has decided that current electeds and the residents of the city of Santa Cruz are at fault for “failing to act” to solve our most pressing issues. In reality, she is upset because electeds are not doing things her way.

Her piece, I think, misses the point of local government. It also misses a long view.

At the moment, our city and council are arguably doing more to address housing than they have been able to do in a decade. City councils don’t just have extra revenue lying around. We have to spend for current needs, but also push to move an agenda forward.

For us, the top priority has been housing.

Even during the pandemic, we always pushed to move affordable housing forward. That included designing affordable housing, fast-tracking permitting, and supporting applications for market-rate projects that included affordable units.

For the past three years, the council has been laser focused on housing. That will, I believe, be our legacy. We have even created two projects — at the Metro center and downtown library — where we are building our own affordable housing. That is about 300 units of city-supported housing.

These units will start to appear over the next five years. Our job has been to get these projects through and started.

When I walked into the election of 2018, I had already spent more than 20 years serving our city, including four years on the water commission, four years on the parks and recreation commission and 10 years on the clean river, beaches and ocean fund oversight committee.

In 2018, I saw the need for housing, a sustainable water supply and climate change as priorities. Homelessness was also increasing with large encampments growing around the city. Measure M was on the ballot and the new downtown library project was under threat of being killed.

In my years in office, I have tried to balance what community members asked of me with the realities of hard choices that had to be made during the pandemic-driven financial crisis for the city. There are never enough resources for the competing demands. Many of my colleagues also leaned into tough decision-making and policy development and we began to get things on the books. To move forward in ways we believe benefit our community and will sustain it.

Donna Meyers, a member of the Santa Cruz City Council and mayor in 2021
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Part of being a councilmember is listening to complaints. When cities make decisions, someone generally disagrees. Receiving angry emails and disappointing some constituents is part of elected office. So is arguing civilly with colleagues.

Dawson has never reached out to me to discuss any of the ideas for bringing more affordable housing online and certainly did not discuss the empty homes tax she championed.

I wish she had. I would have welcomed that conversation.

I did have a conversation with one member of the planning commission about a vacancy tax. We did not agree on where such a tax should be placed — I favored a commercial tax first — but we had a productive discussion.

That is the work of a councilmember.

Once elected, we don’t wear the label of Republican or Democrat, progressive or conservative, Green or Libertarian — local government is nonpartisan and our city charter is clear — we are to serve all the residents of our community with city services. For me that has meant using our dollars strategically to leverage housing and improvements downtown, maintaining and enhancing our beaches, parks and open spaces and maintaining our infrastructure.

No one drags anyone to the polls during an election to create harm to others — this I believe deeply for Santa Cruz. But they do vote for what they think are appropriate policies in the town they support with their tax dollars. In this election, they overwhelmingly said yes to investing again in our local schools, yes to a state-of-the-art library and over 100 units of affordable housing. And they voted to have our visitors pay their fair share for the services they use in Santa Cruz.

In the past three years, our city and its nonprofit housing partners have raised close to $50 million to build housing. We should be celebrating that, not blaming electeds who supported city staff, created coalitions and politely tugged on our state and federal officials to deliver.

We are working together, not against each other. Please appreciate what this community is creating.

Donna Meyers is a 35-year resident of Santa Cruz. She is a UCSC alumna who works in water and environmental protection. She served as mayor in 2021 and is a current member of the Santa Cruz City Council. Her previous piece for Lookout, “It’s election season: Let’s respect our public figures and their privacy at home,” appeared in May.

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