NORTH COUNTY SUPES PART 2:  How would they take on homelessness, affordability and climate change?

Justin Cummings, Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson and Ami Chen Mills are the 3rd District candidates.

With longtime politico Ryan Coonerty bowing out from his duties overseeing most of Santa Cruz and areas north such as Bonny Doon and Davenport, three new, diverse faces are vying for the chance to replace them. Lookout asked them to respond to a wide-ranging set of questions so you can compare them as we go to the polls on June 7.  In Part 2, they take on homelessness, affordability and climate change.

Editor’s note: If you already read Part 1, scroll straight down to the questions below:

In the blink of an eye, the governing body that guides the future of this unique swath of seashore, redwoods and farmland, will look much more like the community it serves, one that is 34% Latino and 50.5% female.

There hasn’t been a female member of the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors since 2014 — that could change with two candidates who are women in District 3.

There hasn’t been a person of color on the board since 2010 and that will change, as all three 3rd District candidates are diverse, as are the majority of candidates in District 4.

It is heartening news for each of the 3rd District candidates, who hope to govern the majority of Santa Cruz city and the North Coast, and will perhaps serve as a consolation to the two who don’t win.

As Ami Chen Mills, Justin Cummings and Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson expressed in first-person opinion pieces for Lookout, their diverse experiences will help match the county dynamics of the moment.

3rd District Supervisor Race

Ami Chen Mills

Age: 53
Place of birth: Coral Gables, Florida
Years in the county: 30
Party affiliation: Democrat
Homeowner/renter: Homeowner
Family: Married, with a husband and two teenage daughters
Education: Bachelor’s in communications, Northwestern University
Occupation: Nonprofit director, educator, author

Chen Mills is an avid climate change crusader who has also worked extensively in mental health and homelessness in the public sector. Cummings, an environmental scientist at UC Santa Cruz, is the most experienced politician, joining the Santa Cruz City Council as the highest vote-getter in 2018 and serving as mayor during a tumultuous 2020. Kalantari-Johnson parlayed a career as a doer in the public health, education and social services worlds into a seat on the council in 2020 and has cast herself as more of the centrist among the three.

And on the campaign trail, with less than four weeks until the June 7 primary, the three candidates are staying active. They will take the dais together in person at the Hotel Paradox on Thursday night in a candidate forum hosted by Lookout that will also be accessible via Zoom. The event (6-8 p.m.) will also include a forum of the State Assembly District 28 candidates.

As for the three Democrats vying for the job of the departing Ryan Coonerty, it is Kalantari-Johnson — who was the first to declare her candidacy — who has won the fundraising game. Her $44,862 in campaign contributions to date more than doubles Cummings’ total ($21,295) and Chen Mills, who was a late entrant to the race, has tallied just $9,648.

The Kalantari-Johnson awareness factor is highest, given her spending ability. And her supporters say they’re confident because of the quality of campaign she has run and the fact the environmental-heavy slates of Cummings and Chen Mills could be working against one another.

But yard signs, pamphlets and websites never tell the whole story. So in advance of Thursday night’s forum, Lookout asked each of the three candidates to answer a slate of questions to help voters better understand the choice they will make June 7, one that is expected to send the top two vote-getters into a November showdown (unless one candidate procures more than 50% of the vote, which isn’t considered likely).

All responses have been edited for equal length and clarity.


Justin voted against moving forward on the 831 Water Street project and Shebreh voted for it. What are the key issues with that project and others like it?


It’s not by accident that our community is faced with projects such as 831 Water Street. For decades, largely due to many of the folks who are Councilmember Cumming’s biggest supporters, we have denied projects, been tied up in lawsuits, and refused to build housing to meet our community’s needs. My opponents are both supported by the primary anti-responsible-growth advocates in Santa Cruz — people who have sued the city multiple times to block new affordable housing projects no matter where they are proposed. They claim they are for affordable housing but they have never met a project that meets their standards. The 831 Water Street project and other projects like it arose from years of housing projects being denied the permits to build in Santa Cruz. The developers of 831 Water Street took advantage of newly passed state laws that were designed to force anti-growth communities like Santa Cruz to approve qualified new housing projects to address our state’s affordability crisis.

3rd District Supervisor Race

Justin Cummings

Age: 39
Place of birth: Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Years in the county: 13; August 2007 - October 2013; November 2015 - present
Party affiliation: Democrat
Homeowner/renter: Renter
Family: Jacqueline Wilson (mother); Kenneth Cummings II (brother); Kenneth Cummings (father; deceased)
Education: Bachelor’s in Spanish and bachelor’s in biology from Eastern Illinois University; Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology from UC Santa Cruz
Occupation: Environmental scientist and conservation program head at UCSC; city councilmember since December 2018.

Chen Mills

That project has very specific issues with geology and water flow, as well as problems with the first iteration of the project, which proposed two “segregated” buildings of low-income and market-rate housing. While I very much support low-income and affordable housing, we cannot sacrifice safety and stability, nor equity for housing. California is losing population and, except for UC Santa Cruz, our county is, too. We must work to provide housing for those who live and work here, those who need shelter and those now moving away because they cannot afford “market rate” housing. These people are my first priority.


The developer did not work with the community to address many of their concerns, but that is not the only issue with that project. In addition to that, the affordable units were segregated from the market-rate units, which is something that was against our city policies. Further, the project came forward with a number of studies that had not been conducted related to slope, traffic and stormwater. Most important, the application was incomplete and the developer continued to submit revisions even at times when we were in meetings to try to get us to rush the project along. This is not a good example of transparency, and we need to set standards so that we’re not wasting time and tax dollars when projects are coming to us for approval. This was the first project that has gone through the Senate Bill 35 process here in the city and it demonstrated the problems with the policy that need to be amended.


What will you do to address the homelessness crisis in which District 3 has become ground zero in the county?


The growing crisis of homelessness in our community and the level of individual suffering is urgent and unacceptable. We need to take a regional approach to bring attention to the devastating and growing challenges around homelessness. One of the first steps is to move people out of unmanaged encampments and into safe transitional shelters/bridge housing with supportive services that are located throughout the county. The city of Santa Cruz cannot meet the needs of street homelessness alone. The other is unmet mental health and substance abuse needs. We need to examine our existing resources and programs, what outcomes they are producing, and where there are remaining gaps. Nearly a third of our most recent homeless count were youth and young adults under the age of 24, many having exited the child welfare system. We also need to address our housing crisis. We have failed to build enough housing for our middle-class and low-income community members. All of this will take more financial support from the state and federal governments, and I will look to partner with our local officials to make this happen.

Chen Mills

The county must work in close coordination with the city, county staff and nonprofit agencies to create both interim shelters and low-income and affordable housing, as well as permanent supportive housing. We must look at options across districts so that the burden of providing monies and services does not fall only to the cities of Santa Cruz and Watsonville. A robust and accurate database of our unhoused population is in the works and is very needed so that our overall population — as well as agencies — can learn more about who is here and what is needed. It is clear we need more shelter, but also mental health and recovery facilities. Some of these are in the works, and I will work very hard to support these efforts and seek funds to complete them.

3rd District Supervisor Race

Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson

Age: 44
Place of birth: Sari, Iran
Years in the county: 24
Party affiliation: Democrat
Homeowner/renter: Homeowner
Family: Married to Brian Johnson. Two sons — Shyon, 12; Darioush, 14
Education: Bachelor’s in psychology and French from UCSC; master’s in social work from San Jose State
Occupation: Direct service provider, community organizer, grant writer, project manager and facilitator in the fields of public health, education and social services. Santa Cruz City Councilmember since November 2020.


The 3rd District is ground zero because we have many of the services to address homelessness. This must be equitably distributed throughout the county, and that is something we need to address. Given the City of Santa Cruz’s commitment to providing homeless services, we also need to have a positive working relationship with the city to ensure that we are meeting the needs of all those experiencing homelessness. A few of the crucial needs will be expansion of case management and mental and behavioral health crisis response. I am working with Supervisor Zach Friend to develop a survey for both law enforcement and mental health outreach workers to assess the effectiveness of the mental health liaison program. I am very much in favor of a 24/7 non-law enforcement alternative emergency crisis response program, but want to make sure we do it right. I am also in favor of expanding the current program as we build out the non-law enforcement program.


What will you do to address the ongoing affordable-housing crisis?


We have an opportunity to plan differently as we revise our county’s Housing Element. We must pursue a new model that encourages both housing, safety and environmental sustainability. After adopting a strong housing element, we can revise our zoning ordinance to facilitate the approval of housing projects on sites identified as suitable for affordable housing for low- and middle-class individuals and families. This could include considering special fast-tracking for 100% affordable projects or expediting and removing barriers to building backyard accessory dwelling units (ADUs). Through this process, we must ensure transparent community engagement so that we are listening to community needs and shaping projects so that neighborhoods don’t feel imposed upon.

Chen Mills

I will propose a bond measure in conjunction with a very specific product tax (sugary drinks, as an example) to construct low-income and permanent supportive housing on county lands wherever this is sound and feasible. I am currently working with a list of roughly 300 parcels the county has jurisdiction over. Pension-fund investors are inclined to fund “workforce” or “missing middle (income) housing” with deed-restricted covenants and therefore the financing for these projects, and building, can happen quickly. I am interested in supporting renter protections that are reasonable and will pass muster with a broad constituency. We can also explore a reasonable parcel tax that has been floated by local landlords already.


I will move forward policy so that new housing development has at least 25% affordable units. I’ll also work with regional partners to create workforce housing and advocate for funding to produce housing for people who are a part of our workforce. I will also work with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to address the fact that we have over 10,000 people with Section 8 housing vouchers who are unable to find adequate housing. We must incentivize the production of housing that will get people from this program into housing where they can be supported. I also want to create opportunities in which the county can have programs to help provide financial housing assistance to their workers to ensure workers are incentivized to live where they work.


How can we balance the needs of owners and renters — including a large population of UCSC students — on the Westside?


Tenant protections are important, but they have to be effective and not result in a significant reduction in the number of rental units on the market. We need housing that is affordable by all members of our community, and we need to find ways that are not punitive to landlords. If landlords stop renting, our housing crisis deepens and our affordability crisis grows. We must start by building enough housing that allows rents to stay feasible for our middle class and UCSC students. We can also look at best-practice strategies that other university towns put in place such as building mixed-use housing along urban and transit corridors and incentivizing the building of backyard ADUs. Furthermore, the university has an obligation to build more housing on campus before accepting additional students so that the burden of creating more housing isn’t borne by the community.

Chen Mills

I support restricting enrollment growth at UCSC. The regents can certainly focus on campuses in other areas where housing challenges are not as steep and where community development would be welcomed, such as at Merced and Riverside — where the UC system could also invest in greening, rewilding and beautification projects to make those campuses more attractive to students. I do not support excluding students who have already been accepted to the university and are planning to come in the next year. But long-range growth plans must be challenged. I support current development of housing on campus — within the current building envelope — which will be more likely to be completed.


We can push to have UCSC build enough housing for its students. The UC regents also need to work toward ensuring that housing is affordable. As a tax-exempt institution, there is no excuse for the university to not provide affordable housing for students, and we need to work toward ensuring that we are providing housing and education for young people that does not financially burden them for the rest of their lives. As a renter, the situation here is unsustainable. I am fortunate to have lived in homes where the property owners have kept their rents below market rate, but those days will likely be coming to an end. Planning for sustaining our essential workers is one of my top priorities. We also need to create opportunities to uplift people from poverty and provide them with good-paying jobs so that there is opportunity for prosperity.


What will you do for victims of the CZU fire who continue to struggle to rebuild?


We have issued just over 140 permits to those who have lost their homes — a small fraction of those who need to rebuild. I will do a deep dive into addressing the red tape that is causing the delays. Many of our barriers to rebuilding rest with state statutes (i.e., around fire roads, septic tanks, water). I have strong relationships with our state legislators and have worked with them over the years on addressing local issues (i.e., youth homelessness, substance abuse prevention, health care). I will leverage these relationships to reduce our local barriers to rebuilding for CZU fire survivors. Additionally, I will look internally at ways that the board can expedite these efforts. This could include waiving of certain standards (without impacting safety) and fees to allow people to build more quickly.

Chen Mills

I will be very engaged with the community via weekly and biweekly meetings in Bonny Doon and the Davenport/North Coast areas as well as deeply engaged and hands-on with staff and managers/admin in the newly reorganized “unified permitting center” at the county. If the contract with 4Leaf needs to be renewed (likely), I will fight for this. I will also fight for those who do not have the money for full rebuilds but need to build or live in smaller units/alternative forms of housing, with composting toilets, for example (all approved by environmental health). Large felled trees must be removed where possible and fuel-load reduction must continue, including controlled and cultural burns in appropriate areas only. The county must also support the work of the several community emergency response organizations to promote ham radio networks and emergency preparedness in general.


I plan on having one full-time staff member whose priority will be supporting the CZU survivors and North Coast issues. The trauma people have endured, not just by the fires but by the red tape in rebuilding, is unacceptable. The fires might have happened in 2020, yet the impacts are still felt today and as county supervisor, we will need to work together to ensure that people are not being run in circles and that people are able to rebuild and move back into their homes. We also need to bring this to the attention of our state and federal representatives because this is just the beginning, and we need to make sure we are learning from previous mistakes. We need to ensure that people are able to help fight fires, given that there was a lack of resources statewide in 2020, make sure that the Federal Emergency Management Agency will provide adequate funding for fire victims, and that the state insurance commissioner is working to ensure that people will have coverage and that the coverage people have is adequate.


What will you do to combat the effects of climate change and how they are wreaking havoc along District 3’s — and this county’s — crown jewel in West Cliff Drive and the eroding cliffs that prop it up?


The great work of the City of Santa Cruz on the West Cliff Drive Adaptation and Management Plan is foundational to how we think about places like West Cliff Drive, our beaches and coastal roadways, bike trails and other infrastructure throughout all of District 3. I will focus on getting support from federal and state agencies to monitor sea-level rise so we can measure the speed of the damage to come. Then we can design a system of response for our public infrastructure. We also have to better understand the impact on our water supply intakes and look for solutions for areas like the Beach Flats, which is already experiencing localized flooding. We must address this crisis by standing up with vision, plans and coordination among all levels of government. That’s what I do in my day job — bring people together and raise money to solve seemingly intractable problems. My record of securing over $30 million for Santa Cruz County sets me apart from my opponents. As a supervisor, I will apply this experience to make a large-scale difference on protecting our precious resources from climate change.

Chen Mills

The county must engage with current fuel-load reduction efforts in conjunction with the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band (already working on this) to prevent out-of-control wildfires across unincorporated areas, including District 3 and all districts. We must do all we can to encourage unincorporated residents to join the Firewise program. We must ensure freshwater supplies as we are already experiencing saltwater intrusion due to drought and sea-level rise. Regarding West Cliff Drive and coastal erosion, 10 or so years ago our county worked with state and federal agencies to install a seawall beneath East Cliff Drive between 32nd to 38th Avenues, which goes from the base of the cliffs down to the bedrock. We should try to protect and preserve public access to the coastline. I will work with Dave Reid and Tiffany Wise-West of the city to find the right solutions for West Cliff.


I have over 20 years of experience working and studying topics related to climate change. As a councilmember, I have served on the West Cliff management plan’s technical advisory committee since 2019, served on the Santa Cruz city climate action task force since 2019, served on the Central Coast Community Energy board in 2020, served on the Association of Monterey Bay Area Governments since 2019, among others. I would be the first environmental scientist to serve on the board of supervisors, and this is crucial as we continue to monitor the impacts of the fires, create a plan for fighting future fires, minimize the impacts of development on our environment, protect our national marine sanctuary, and contribute to our efforts to reduce our carbon mitigations.


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