Westside divide: In District 6, Renée Golder and Sean Maxwell differ in tactics to solve the day’s problems

Renée Golder (left) and Sean Maxwell, candidates for the Santa Cruz City Council's District 6 seat.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

As Santa Cruz’s Westside gets its own city council seat, a carpenter and a school principal square off. “If we had to move tomorrow, I don’t know if we would be able to live here,” says Sean Maxwell, a planning commissioner who pushes for more affordability. Renée Golder sees public safety as her foundational issue. “If you’re not safe, you can’t really do anything else. Everybody deserves to live and thrive wherever they are,” she says. Their race mirrors much of our local politics today.

Election 2022: Santa Cruz County

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In between their sharp contrasts, there are some areas where Renée Golder and Sean Maxwell actually agree.

Unprompted, the two Westside residents, both parents, bring up the importance of pedestrian and cyclist safety.

They say they would vote against 15-story residential buildings in downtown Santa Cruz, but would support eight to 10 stories.

They want to see the creation of a Westside businesses organization.

They support some version of an oversized vehicle ordinance that would curb the proliferation of recreational vehicles along city streets.

The affordable housing crisis is urgent for both. And of course, they are also the type of people who would run for a volunteer city council seat in a place with a bevy of big and pressing issues.

Still, despite the bridges linking the two District 6 city council candidates, their divisions run deep.

The winner in November will be the Westside’s first directly elected city councilmember, representing about 10,500 residents as part of the new district-based form of governance approved by Santa Cruz voters in June.

Golder, the incumbent, is seeking her first full, four-year term on the Santa Cruz City Council. She rose to the council dais after voters recalled former councilmembers Drew Glover and Chris Krohn in 2019. Within a year, Golder, a lifelong resident of the county, was one of many volunteer city council members throughout the country tasked with leading their community through a deadly pandemic. In between taking votes on how to keep the city running and its residents safe, Golder has been also leading a separate ship on the fly as principal of Bay View Elementary School.

Maxwell enters the race two years into his tenure as a Santa Cruz planning commissioner, appointed by Councilmember Justin Cummings, whose term on the council is now expiring and who is running for District 3 county supervisor. Last year, Maxwell, a carpenter by trade, opened up a one-man contracting business called Cornerstone Construction. Now in control of his own schedule, city council seems to him like a place where his voice might have more influence. He said the affordability recommendations he and the majority have passed through the planning commission — which, to his dismay, have been overridden by the city council — form a key part of his campaign.

An incumbent’s introduction

Golder arrived 15 minutes late for her interview on a mid-October afternoon, but with good cause — it’s parent-teacher conference week at Bay View Elementary, a demanding slog even for a self-admitted workaholic.

“I’m glad you called, I would have stayed at the school until my secretary kicked me out or someone called me to come home,” Golder said, her blonde hair pulled back and falling on a white Oxford shirt. Her diminutive height takes a back seat to a prodigious enthusiasm. She is fast-talking and self-certain with a voice that, if pressed, can definitely reach booming. In other words, an archetypal elementary school principal.

Renee Golder, incumbent and candidate for the Santa Cruz City Council's District 6 seat.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Between sips from a can of blood orange seltzer water, she explained her reasons for running, and it doesn’t take long for Golder, whose husband is a San Jose firefighter, to start talking about public safety, which she considers her foundational issue.

“If you’re not safe, you can’t really do anything else. Everybody deserves to live and thrive wherever they are,” said Golder, who subsequently shared personal anecdotes of her encounters with violence during her lifetime in Santa Cruz. “I don’t feel safe in this city, to be honest. I feel scared sometimes walking around, and I feel scared for my kids. Honestly, I think we have a lot of room to grow.”

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Golder, whose knowledge of city issues befits her three-year incumbency, sees herself as part of an informal moderate slate up against a more progressive run of candidates — her opponent included — in this year’s election. However, she notes that in Santa Cruz, a city where 85% of voters supported Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election, that kind of moderate liberal vs. progressive liberal storyline is nothing new.

Finding a carpentry angle in politics

A black and yellow tape measure sat next to an iPhone on the table in Abbott Square as Maxwell, his right hand gripped around an iced coffee from Cat and Cloud, began explaining why he threw his name into the race for District 6 city councilmember. Maxwell sports a husky build with a full beard that shows more salt than pepper. A black, flat-brimmed trucker hat matched his black T-shirt in advertising his contracting business, and dark circular earrings pierce both earlobes.

“People have to have a choice in an election, right? That’s what democracy is all about,” said Maxwell, his eyes set behind a pair of boxy sunglasses. “It’s also about knowing the incumbent and the issues we differ on. I wouldn’t have run if there was someone on the ballot who I resonated with.”

Sean Maxwell, candidate for the Santa Cruz City Council's District 6 seat.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

As a builder and a renter, Maxwell sees himself on the front lines of the city’s growing housing and affordability crisis. He considers himself lucky — since moving to Santa Cruz 13 years ago, he has had to rent only two places. His current landlord, whom he described as an old-school skateboarder, has offered his family reasonable rent for years. This, he said, plays a huge factor in the ability of his family — Maxwell has a wife and two children — to stay in Santa Cruz.

“If we had to move tomorrow, I don’t know if we would be able to live here,” Maxwell said. “I’ve seen families that have lived here their whole lives have to leave because they can’t afford it.” He cites a friend who recently had his first child just moved to Portland, Oregon, in search of more affordable pastures.

Maxwell’s campaign is his introduction to electoral politics, but he has been surprised to see skills from his contracting work transfer over to the campaign trail. “You’re taking care of people’s houses, their needs, you need to organize, set limits, set a budget,” Maxwell said. “I would have never thought there were any similarities between the two.”

The big issues: Housing

Golder and Maxwell both want to see more housing in Santa Cruz across the economic spectrum, but especially for low-to-very-low-income levels. However, they propose different routes to providing it.

This is Golder’s vision for the end of her term: a Santa Cruz where people who are looking for housing can find it without having to constantly worry about bidding wars. She supports the Six Blocks development happening along Front Street and is a proponent of the downtown expansion plan for south of Laurel Street, where a new Warriors stadium and 1,600 new housing units are proposed.

A rendering of the development planned at 530 Front St. in downtown Santa Cruz.
(Via City of Santa Cruz)

However, Golder said the 15- and 17-story buildings in the early proposals for the downtown expansion are too tall, instead favoring dense eight- and 10-story residential buildings.

Santa Cruz needs to have 3,736 new housing units planned by 2031 as part of its state-mandated Regional Housing Needs Allocation, or RHNA number. Golder wants to see the city offer incentives, through streamlined permitting or other programs, to property owners who turn their single-family homes into duplexes or triplexes, or add accessory dwelling units to their lots. She said there are opportunities for this kind of conversion in existing neighborhoods throughout the city.

As for her own District 6, Golder sees an opportunity for the Westside to welcome a significant portion of new housing units.

“There is plenty of opportunity to redevelop vacant lots off of Delaware Avenue, and there is room for expansion near the Mission Street extension and Swift Street and Swanton Boulevard,” Golder said.

When it comes to meeting the city’s affordable housing needs, the incumbent prioritizes working with affordable-housing developers such as Housing Matters. She is firmly against raising the inclusionary zoning rate, which currently requires 20% of a development’s housing units to be reserved for low-to-very-low-income tenants.

“That hasn’t penciled out anywhere else in the country. People try that, and nothing gets built. Thirty percent of nothing is still nothing,” Golder said. She believes support for higher inclusionary rates — a position held by her opponent — is a strategy for people who want to see no growth.

On these issues, Maxwell distances himself significantly from Golder. In his two years on the planning commission, Maxwell said he has seen the city too often bend to developers who make the penciling-out argument. He also railed against the city’s practice of not applying the inclusionary affordable housing rate to the additional housing units projects that are sometimes granted through density bonus allowances.

The density bonus program works like this: If a developer of a 100-unit project sets aside 20% of the units (20 units) for low-income tenants, the developer can increase the project’s total units by 35% (35 units) without increasing the total affordable units. Maxwell’s argument is that in the end, only 20 units (14.8%) are affordable in a now-135-unit development.

“I think it would be interesting to see if we could get the rate to be higher than 20%. There is this thought that it’s too progressive but I feel like that is part of this attitude of not trying things,” Maxwell said. “There needs to be more openness to doing test runs. We want developers to build, and we want them to make a profit. But instead of seeing how much affordability is realistic, let’s see how much profit is realistic.”

Similarly, Maxwell does not want to see 15-story buildings downtown and sees 10 stories as more palatable. He doesn’t see a necessity of bringing large-scale development projects into existing neighborhoods and instead supports development along the city’s main corridors.

“You’re going to have NIMBYs that don’t want anything, and then YIMBYs that want everything. I don’t consider myself either, I think I’m a realist,” Maxwell said. “We need to build along corridors where there is bicycling access and good public transportation.”

Maxwell also wants to see the city prioritize city-owned land for affordable housing, as it is the only way, in his experience, to get projects that are 50% or 100% affordable.

The measures: O and N

It’s Maxwell’s vision for affordable housing on city-owned property that helped form his support for Measure O, which seeks to abandon a library mixed-use project with 123 affordable housing units planned for the existing site of the downtown farmers market.

Getting to a “yes” on O wasn’t easy for Maxwell. He says the affordable housing is attractive, but feels betrayed by the city’s application of 2016’s Measure S. Like many O proponents, he says voters in 2016 wanted renovation, not a new building in a new location, as the country library system was modernized.

“There is a trust issue right now between the community members and the people who make the decisions,” Maxwell said.

Maxwell said he is willing to trade the 123 affordable units in the in-progress library mixed-use project in order for the city to try to lock in city-owned lots for future affordable housing. Part of Measure O calls for requiring eight existing city-owned surface parking lots to be first considered for affordable housing and would prevent anything other than surface parking on them.

“It’s not an easy ‘yes’ on O. I understand why the community is torn, but at some point you have to decide,” Maxwell said.

An approved design for the downtown mixed-use facility.
(Via City of Santa Cruz)

Golder opposes O.

“I don’t want to throw away a project that we worked so hard on in order to save a few trees,” Golder said. “Do you know how many years it took to get here? How much money has been spent? That’s ridiculous, are you kidding me? Throwing it away for a maybe of a maybe of a maybe?”

She plans to similarly vote against Measure N, a proposed empty home tax on residential properties occupied less than four months out of the year. Golder’s criticism aligns with the wider criticism of the measure: the new law would assume all residential properties are vacant until proven otherwise by the homeowner.

However, Golder said her issue is not with an empty home tax in theory, rather, just the way this one is written.

“I support keeping the conversation [around an empty home tax] alive, I just think parts of this one are poorly written, and that’s why I don’t support it,” Golder said. “There are missed opportunities for revenue that could be used on low-income housing.”

Maxwell agrees the language of Measure N is not perfect, but he believes it is something the city could work on retroactively if it passes. He plans to support it as a “step in the right direction.”

“I’m fine with people who have second homes, but it’s causing housing supply levels to be lower than they have to,” Maxwell said. “We need to figure out a way for the people who can afford to have a second home or vacation home to help solve the housing crisis rather than ignore it. If you’re not going to voluntarily help the problem, then we need to apply pressure. We’re trying to find ways to balance the scales and I see this as a balancing measure.”


When talking about her passion for public safety, Golder quickly jumps to a story of her niece, who she says was knocked off her bike by a homeless person who then stole the bike. The bicycle, she said, was found in the Benchlands and the person was arrested. Golder said the judicial process revealed the suspect “had, like, 17 previous felonies and a history of mental health and drug issues.”

“The fact that we don’t know who these homeless individuals are, living in our encampments, that’s concerning,” Golder said. “People are like, ‘Oh, they’re just poor.’ No. Maybe some are. Maybe some aren’t. But we don’t know that makes people feel really unsafe.”

For Golder, homelessness is an issue close to her heart. She said her father-in-law, who suffers from bipolar disorder, was living in a Pogonip tent for five years. She said his name kept coming up for housing, but he regularly rejected it. Then, after the city cleared the camp during the CZU fire, he was sleeping on sidewalks in downtown Santa Cruz, which he hated. Finally, she said, he accepted the housing.

“Some people need a little bit of a stick and not a carrot. He needed a kick in the ass,” Golder said. “We should be doing whatever we can to get them out of those conditions. Sometimes it’s offering housing and shelter and people take it. Sometimes, I’m sorry, it’s being locked up and a forced detox. It depends on the situation.

“It’s not necessarily that I want to make it uncomfortable for people. I want them to take advantage of the housing and shelters we have. But if someone has 17 felonies and they’re out stealing bikes and throwing little kids to the ground … they need to be locked up or take medication to get clarity of mind and become healthy.”

Golder helped pass the oversized vehicle ordinance aimed at keeping RVs from lining city streets. She said she is “disappointed” that it is held up in court; however, she said the ordinance was the only way to see progress in clearing the growing crowds of RVs, especially in her district.

RVs parked along Delaware Avenue on the Westside.
The logjam along Delaware Avenue on the Westside in 2021.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

As for housing, she agrees the city needs more facilities and services but doesn’t believe a “huge shelter” is the way to go. “I think there are different people with different needs and we need different kinds of supportive services,” Golder said. “And, yes, those need to be sprinkled throughout the city.”

Maxwell isn’t ready to say the city is lacking in its response to homelessness. Instead, he believes the city is “misguided right now.”

“We can’t just keep moving people from camp to camp. We need to be working with the county to come up with a more permanent solution and get people who want it connected to affordable housing,” Maxwell said. “Having a homeless camp right next to the river is not a good idea. This cycle doesn’t seem like a good way to go as far as caring for people.”

Maxwell tosses around ideas like tiny home lots and creating a new position within the government to be a homelessness liaison of sorts — someone who can get to know the people living in encampments and their needs.

Maxwell was on the planning commission when it passed a recommendation to implement the oversized vehicle ordinance; however, he said the city council ignored key language from the commission that said as long as there is nowhere for the RVs or the people in them to move to, then they cannot be ticketed or forced to move.

“I support an OVO law, but it’s the way we go about writing it and enforcing it,” Maxwell said. “There is a bad issue of RVs stacking up along the road on the Westside. It’s unsanitary and they are dumping waste. We need a place for them to go that is not there.”

As for a proper location for the RVs? Maxwell said the city and county need to work together in order to find lots, in and out of the city’s boundaries, where RVs can legally park and set up camp.