Santa Cruz needs to break old habits when it comes to affordable housing. That means local elected officials have to approve projects — even ones their constituents oppose, writes Don Lane, former Santa Cruz mayor and an affordable housing advocate. Lane says he has revised his own thinking on affordable housing and aims to push others to do the same. The consequences of not building, he says, are catastrophic for our community.
As a former councilmember and mayor in Santa Cruz, I used to believe I served as a champion of affordable housing in our community. I led the charge on apartment projects specifically built — with subsidies — to house lower-income families and individuals. I believed if I supported affordable projects at carefully selected sites in the Beach Flats, Neary Lagoon and downtown, I was doing enough to address our housing affordability challenges.
That old approach, which maintained the “integrity” of the neighborhoods populated by homeowners, also maintained deep inequities and failed to provide housing for many residents and workers. Many people, including me, now realize that to have a thriving, healthy, equitable community, we need to change our thinking about housing and housing development.
Let’s consider how we got here.
It started with the race-based exclusion of people of color from most single-family-home neighborhoods back in the mid-20th century and the denial of financing for home ownership. Even though race-based funding denial and neighborhood exclusion have greatly diminished, the wealth inequities these terrible policies created persist today.
Here’s an example of a familiar community dialogue:
Housing developer: I want to build multistory apartments on the busy street near this neighborhood.
Neighborhood residents: This will be bad for me. I’ll have unattractive new buildings near me. There will be cars. I’ll lose the vacant land and view I like. I’ll be bothered by noise and construction. The builder is profiting off disruption to my neighborhood. And, of course ... Sketchy people will move in near me and my family.
As this played out, local officials voted to please their neighborhood constituents. This made perfect sense. The neighborhood homeowners were the main voting constituency, and that’s whom the local elected officials responded to.
Maintaining nice streets and property values is a legitimate desire for homeowners. So while developers built some housing, many projects were rejected or limited to the point of infeasibility. Homebuilders often soured on communities that imposed constraints. The local population continued to grow, and the number of new homes didn’t keep up.
This dynamic has played out for decades across our county — and state — and has resulted in our current housing mess. It’s contributed to making Santa Cruz one of the hardest towns in the nation to find affordable housing.
The negatives do not end there.
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We also got more congestion and more greenhouse gas emissions. More working parents spending more hours driving and fewer hours with their children. We achieved a perpetuation of wealth inequities that has resulted in, among other things, more people living in vehicles and open spaces. Our local employers are now facing labor shortages. More of our kids and friends and caregivers are moving away. Too many live in overcrowded homes, and the fortunate renters who do find homes face escalating monthly payments and financial stress.
A shift began in response — and it’s growing. More folks started seeing the harm in our past approach to housing.
More people who’ve been left out by this imbalanced system started making “good trouble” to call out the inequity and demand change.
This is why our state legislature stepped in.
It’s no surprise that many policymakers at the state level no longer support the old housing system. It severely disadvantaged people of color and others whom lawmakers had neglected. Now, we have a state mandate for greater equity in housing and more housing for the families and workers in our county.
For instance, California Senate Bill 35, passed in 2017, pushed Santa Cruz City Councilmembers to approve the 831 Water Street project, despite localized opposition. Our community was falling short on affordable housing targets, so the state stepped in. Now this five-story project, with half the apartments mandated as affordable for lower-income people can be built.
This represents a breakthrough. The first of its kind in Santa Cruz.
We will face more state consequences if our local communities fail to meet housing objectives. And those objectives are daunting, especially considering the meager housing production this region has achieved in the past couple of decades.
Santa Cruz County as a whole must build or approve 12,979 housing units by 2031.The city of Santa Cruz needs to reach 3,736. The numbers are big because the need is so profound. We’ve waited too long. We have to change.
Luckily, more people are recognizing that new buildings that house humans are good things — even if the buildings bring some side effects we might not like.
If we build more housing, my children and yours will have a shot at remaining in the community. My kid’s great teacher Ms. Sanchez will likely stick around, rather than moving to Fresno. Maybe you can find a local caregiver for my 88-year-old mom here in town. The unhoused family living in the car around the corner from me will perhaps be able to move inside. Fewer people, like my dental hygienist and waitperson friend Sonia (yep, two jobs), won’t have to commute long distances. Students won’t have to pack into houses. Most important, we’ll have a stronger, healthier, inclusive community that has a decent home for every person that lives or works here.
Please join me in making “good trouble” on housing. The people of Santa Cruz County, and the community as a whole, will be healthier for it.
Don Lane has lived in Santa Cruz for 49 years, first as a UCSC student, then as the founder/owner of the Saturn Cafe, and then as a city councilmember and mayor. He currently serves in a volunteer capacity as chair of the governing board of Housing Santa Cruz County and vice chair of the board of Housing Matters. He also goes camping with his wife, teaches part time at UCSC, writes a blog about housing and homelessness issues, plays basketball with the Santa Cruz Geezers, and makes ice cream at home. Both his daughters grew up in Santa Cruz but have now moved away.