Susan Monheit at Pacific Avenue and Laurel Street in downtown Santa Cruz.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Opinion from Community Voices

Santa Cruz needs to stay a beach town: Let the people vote on high rises

Santa Cruz housing activist Susan Monheit believes Santa Cruz’s iconic status as a beloved beach town is endangered by planned development. Here, she responds to critiques by economist Richard McGahey, who, in a recent Lookout piece, called her advocacy and a petition by Housing for People circulating for the March 2024 ballot “misguided.” Below, she unpacks what Housing for People does and does not do.

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I would like to respond to the article, “Santa Cruz needs more housing density; misguided advocates are making our housing problems worse,” by economist Richard McGahey, published Sunday.

McGahey names me and Housing for People, a group I belong to, in the piece. I am compelled to correct some misconceptions he has stated about the group and the initiative. Foremost, Housing for People does not oppose increased housing density.

Let me explain what it does do.

The Housing for People ballot initiative increases the affordable housing component of large new developments in Santa Cruz (30 units or more) from 20% to 25% — just like the City of Santa Cruz Planning Commission recommended to the Santa Cruz City Council last year.

Second, the initiative gives every resident a voice of what the future of this city will look like, by requiring a vote of the citizens before developments exceed current zoning height limits.

Please realize that only developments exceeding current zoning height limits (like the downtown plan expansion) would be put to a vote. The vast majority of currently proposed developments fall under current zoning height limits (plus density bonus extensions).

An affirmative vote on the initiative will secure residents’ future right to vote on rezoning the city for taller buildings. It will reflect whether people feel the higher density and height already planned under current zoning in the city’s general plan are adequate, or if they want higher, high-rise buildings.

It raises a question if people are comfortable leaving those decisions to developers and the city council.

Under the current General Plan, which was developed over seven years with considerable citizen engagement, the south of Laurel area is zoned to build 1,200 new units with increased building heights of five to eight stories (with building density bonus).

This is already very dense.

The initiative does not, as McGahey suggests, stop dense housing from being built.

The city’s own analysis shows that we have more than ample potential new housing sites under existing zoning to meet the current Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA) cycle of 3,736 units by 2031, and probably the next cycle as well (i.e., through 2040). So it is not true that the city has to build high-rise buildings in order to increase density and meet state housing requirements.

Currently, the city council is positioning itself to amend the general plan to rezone the south of Laurel district for massively taller high-rise buildings than current zoning allows. Previous proposals included 20 stories (developers’ initial proposal), the city council approved 17- and 15-story high-rises, and Mayor Fred Keeley’s current proposal is for multiple 12-story buildings.

These heights are a dramatic departure from the iconic beach town, branded for fun and sun, that makes Santa Cruz renowned.

As soon as the environmental impact report (EIR) for the downtown plan expansion is finalized, the city council will vote on the high-rise buildings proposals before it.

Keresha Durham, Frank Barron and Susan Monheit discuss the Housing for People petition in downtown Santa Cruz.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

If Housing for People waits for the November 2024 election ballot, the decision on rezoning our city for high-rise development south of Laurel Street will likely have already been made.

This is why we are trying to get the initiative on the March 2024 ballot — not because primarily rich white landowners predominately vote in off-season elections, as Richard McGahey insinuates in his article.

Densely packed housing is important for future urban planning, but so is livability.

In areas with multiple high-rise buildings, light and solar radiation between the buildings can be limited to a few hours a day. Look at the long shadow cast by just the six-story Anton Pacific building at Laurel and Front streets and imagine what is happening on the ground level with buildings twice as tall, closely packed together. This is not a place visitors would want to sit at an outside café.

This is what I meant when I spoke to Christopher Neely and referred to San Francisco’s Financial District being a place no one wants to go or be in.

Many people still have no idea of the major changes being decided for the city right now.

Having a vote of city residents before current zoning is amended to allow for unprecedented heights will wake people up about what is happening with high-rise development in our town and create an opportunity for conversation about what we value, and what we want for the future of Santa Cruz.

This conversation has not happened yet on any appreciable scale.

The question of whether high-rise buildings are in the community’s best interest and what the long-term impacts will be on city residents need to be better understood before a decision is made to rezone the downtown extension.

I believe the changes in zoning to accommodate multiple proposed high-rise buildings south of Laurel Street will have a dramatic and irrevocable effect on the timbre of our town. If the area south of Laurel is rezoned for high-rise buildings, it will set a precedent, and we fully expect to see the rest of downtown rezoned. It could also open the door to rezoning other residential neighborhoods.

Having a vote of city residents before current zoning is amended to allow for unprecedented heights will wake people up about what is happening with high-rise development in our town and create an opportunity for conversation about what we value, and what we want for the future of Santa Cruz. This conversation has not happened yet on any appreciable scale.

— Susan Monheit

With the current housing formula where only 20% of the developer’s base project goes to some category of affordable housing, effectively 85-90% of the units being built are high-market rate. This equation is driving up the area median income (AMI) of residents in the city, pushing the income that qualifies someone for affordable housing up exponentially.

That is why a person making well over $100,000 per year can qualify for the upper tier of “affordable housing” in Santa Cruz. As more high-income people move into Santa Cruz, which will happen if we build luxury high-rise towers, affordability brackets will move upward.

This formula is not helping the affordable housing crisis, it is making things worse.

The question of whether we trust our city elected officials to make zoning decisions in our best interest and not the best interest of developers is something each of us must decide.

I suggest looking at the contributions of outside developers to our city official’s (re)election campaigns to determine the extent of developer influence on their decisions. Those of us who are aware of the scale of the proposed development south of Laurel Street and are commenting on it at city council meetings have been met with blank stares.

Jan Gehl, the renowned Danish architect and urban designer focused his career on improving the quality of urban life, emphasizes the importance of building to a human scale. In his book “Cities for People,” Gehl points out that when buildings exceed five stories, people get disassociated from what is happening on the ground level and social fabric and connection start to fall away.

In his piece, McGahey says recent research strongly supports that increased housing supply brings down costs.

Santa Cruz, consistently ranked as one of California’s best beach towns, would be an exception to that rule because of its proximity to the biggest economic engine in the world — Silicon Valley. High-income earners working in Cupertino or Mountain View who are willing to make the relatively short commute (or work remotely) or want a second vacation home, or college students (with rich parents) attending UCSC, where there is inadequate student housing, will continue to put unending pressure on Santa Cruz’s housing market.

Increased supply will never outstrip the unlimited demand and prices will remain high.

The lucrative short-term rental investment market (aka Airbnb) also drives demand and exacerbates our housing crisis by making these units unavailable for people who live and work in Santa Cruz. This also drives up rental costs.

When the demand does not cease, the cost will not go down.

At $4,000 per month for the typical studio or one-bedroom apartment, these units are not going to house families or people who are essential workers in our city: teachers, firefighters, doctors, pastors, mechanics or food-service workers. Many of those units will be rented or purchased as second or vacation homes, which will lie vacant much of the year, much like what McGahey does, as he moves back and forth between New York City and Santa Cruz.

Building mostly market-rate housing does not solve California’s housing crisis, even when it is in high-rise buildings. We are not having a luxury-second-home housing crisis. We are having an affordable housing crisis.

I keep saying it, and I will say it again: We cannot build our way out of an affordable housing crisis if we do not build affordable housing.

Housing for People volunteers are working to increase affordable workforce housing and empower people to push back on the corporate developers and their paid YIMBY lobbyists whose profit motive supersedes our real need for more middle- and low-income housing.

Susan Monheit is a retired state water regulator and environmental scientist, with 30 years’ experience working in environmental protection. She has published two scientific papers in the peer-reviewed journal Human and Ecological Risk Assessment dealing with pesticide exposure issues to Native Americans and honeybees. She is a graduate of UC Santa Cruz and of the environmental master’s degree program at the University of San Francisco.