New housing is coming to our communities — be part of the process

Construction along Front Street in downtown Santa Cruz
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The next six months will be transformative for Santa Cruz County. In that time, each city council and the county board of supervisors (for the unincorporated areas) will be adopting “housing elements” that will serve as a blueprint of how each community meets its state-mandated housing needs. The process is complex, write housing advocates Don Lane and Elizabeth Madrigal. But the decisions will affect everyone. It’s in everyone’s interest, they say, to get involved now.

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Over the next six months, each of our local communities will adopt a detailed housing plan (called a “housing element” under state law). Each housing element will create a blueprint and specific policies for how we will meet our housing needs — especially affordable housing and workforce housing needs — and ensure equitable housing policies for all of our residents.

We encourage you to follow the process and get involved.

If you live in a city within Santa Cruz County (Capitola, Santa Cruz, Scotts Valley, Watsonville), your city council will be adopting a housing element this year. If you live in a part of the county that is not within a city, the county board of supervisors will be adopting your housing element.

These housing elements will almost certainly be transformative for our communities.

For some, this transformation will be quite positive — more housing opportunities — for members of our community. Others are concerned that something negative — more buildings — will pop up near them.

This will be fundamental to the future of our county — but it isn’t simple. The issues are complex and so is the policymaking process.

For decades, most communities around California severely restrained the creation of new apartments and houses and did little to restrain rising rents. This led to a housing affordability and availability crisis. This persistent crisis has displaced local residents, created overcrowding, caused many working people to commute extremely long distances, contributed mightily to California’s high level of homelessness and pushed disadvantaged individuals and neighborhoods into greater poverty.

These new housing plans will move us in the direction of addressing these problems — problems that have done significant harm to many people in Santa Cruz County and to the county as a whole.

These plans will also determine the specific locations of many new housing complexes and developments. This will affect the shape of our communities and neighborhoods — including the addition of new, taller buildings.

So … we all have an interest in these plans and have a role to play in designating the best locations and policies for housing to meet our community needs.

This process for shaping and finalizing housing — your community’s housing element — is happening right now. (Find links in the accompanying box to housing element work in each local government jurisdiction.)

Many active affordable housing advocates (and, there a lot of us these days!) have been asking local governments to meet ambitious goals as they develop and adopt local housing elements.

Here are guiding principles many of us support so that housing elements can advance meaningful, impactful housing policies:

  • Designated housing sites should represent realistic opportunities for housing development and allow us to meet our numerical housing objectives.
  • Zoning and density rules should maximize housing production and minimize sprawl and the long commutes associated with greenhouse gas emissions. This includes allowing greater building heights, a reduction in unnecessary parking and setback requirements, and reform of units-per-acre limits to encourage more family housing.
  • Fully affordable housing projects should take top priority as we designate housing sites, especially sites on public land and church properties. And then we should set high site-density minimums to ensure these opportunity sites create the highest number of affordable homes.
  • Affordable housing sites should be distributed throughout the community to ensure equitability and fairness. Lower-income residents should not be isolated from other segments of the community.
  • Requirements for commercial space in new housing projects should be reduced or eliminated if demand for such space is low.
  • Government approval processes, especially for 100% affordable projects, should be streamlined and ministerial approvals and realistic timelines should be made available to developers. We can maintain good standards without endlessly dragging out the approval process.
  • A reliable and plentiful local funding stream for affordable housing should be created. The private market is not producing enough housing for the families and workers who live here now.
  • Renter protections, such as eviction protection, emergency rent assistance and reasonable limits on rents, should be included in housing element policies.
  • ADU (backyard cottage) and duplex rules should strongly encourage production of these housing types. These are some of the most popular and least impactful housing opportunities.
  • Permanent supportive housing should be facilitated and encouraged to ensure that vulnerable individuals and families can attain housing and remain housed in the community. This is the top solution for chronic homelessness.

There’s a lot at stake and this will affect your life and the lives of people around you for many years to come. Follow the process. Attend a meeting. Write emails to your elected representatives. Talk to your family and neighbors.

This process is going to happen with or without you. We’ll achieve better results with your participation.

Former Santa Cruz mayor Don Lane serves on the governing boards of Housing Matters and Housing Santa Cruz County. He is a nearly full-time volunteer advocate for equitable housing policies and housing-focused solutions to homelessness.

Elizabeth Madrigal is an affordable housing development professional and a lead organizer with Santa Cruz YIMBY. She rents a home on the Eastside of Santa Cruz.

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