The second of three Lookout election forums brought together those on both sides of two key ballot measures facing voters in the city of Santa Cruz. Max Chun and Christopher Neely break out key moments of Monday’s debate, moderated by Wallace Baine, with video from Kevin Painchaud.
Measures O and N, two key measures on the November ballot for voters in the city of Santa Cruz, have drawn spirited, and sometimes bitter, debate. Disputed claims of fact and of accuracy, the only thing the proponents and opponents of both measures agree on: Santa Cruz needs more affordable housing. That need streamed through the forum Lookout hosted Monday evening at Hotel Paradox, with correspondent Wallace Baine moderating and putting tough questions to the panelists.
Cyndi Dawson represented yes on N and Lynn Renshaw no on N.
Lira Filippini represented yes on O and Don Lane no on O.
If residents of the city of Santa Cruz vote to pass Measure N, residential property owners would be liable for a new...
Lot 4 could become one of the most significant downtown Santa Cruz construction projects since the 1989 Loma Prieta...
Our correspondents Christopher Neely and Max Chun covered the evening’s events, filing dispatches for On the Campaign Trail. Below, they’ve picked out the most telling segments of the evening, and explained why they thought they were revealing. You’ll find links at the end of each section to video of the debate in its entirety.
And you can find video and analysis from from our first candidate forum — featuring the races for Santa Cruz mayor and 3rd District County Supervisor — here.
Next up, Monday, Oct. 24, our third forum, focusing on state Assembly District 28 and Santa Cruz City Council races; sign up here for free in-person or Zoom access.
MORE PEOPLE IN HOMES MEANS A STRONGER COMMUNITY, DAWSON SAYS
Dawson and Renshaw kick things off with both making their cases for why the measure is or isn’t necessary.
More than just building affordable housing, Dawson believes that incentivizing people to use their property will foster a greater sense of community.
“Empty homes hollow out neighborhoods and destabilize our workforce,” she said. “Community has drawn a lot of us to Santa Cruz, so we want more neighbors, community, and to make sure that workers can live where they work.”
Renshaw, however, said she thinks the benefits would not be great enough to constitute the tax, once the exemptions are applied.
“Once you take all those out, it’s a very small number of empty houses,” she said.
IS IT JUST THIS MEASURE, OR EMPTY HOME TAXES IN GENERAL?
Renshaw does not directly answer whether she opposes empty home taxes as a concept, or just this one. She says she sees two major flaws that make this measure unappealing: audits and broad misdemeanor penalties.
“There’s no mechanism to say that the only people that get misdemeanors and fines are those who don’t pay the tax,” she said, adding that she thinks more public input could have addressed these points. “These severe flaws could have been identified and fixed, but instead, here it is in its flawed way.”
She did previously tell Lookout that she is not fond of the idea, but in a post-forum interview, emphasized that “this one is particularly flawed.”
Dawson rebuts Renshaw’s talking points by saying that the auditing process would be no different from other taxes, and shows that the Santa Cruz school bond Measures K and L’s literature would establish audits, too.
AUDITS RAISE A MULTITUDE OF ISSUES FOR RENSHAW
Here, Renshaw digs a little deeper into why Santa Cruz Together is pushing the narrative that the tax is “too invasive.” That reason: Audits that would require too much personal information.
She worries that the exceptions requiring proof from the homeowner, such as medical absences and any transition to assisted living, represents unnecessary information that the city does not currently collect.
Dawson seeks to exhibit the rarity with which people are audited, even by the IRS, and takes the opportunity to jab at Measure N opponents.
DISILLUSIONMENT A KEY POINT FOR MEASURE N — AND SPEAKS TO RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN CITY LEADERSHIP AND SANTA CRUZANS
Dawson speaks to her feeling that Santa Cruzans are “disillusioned” with city leadership, and how she reconciles that with holding the position of planning commission chair. That sense of distrust appears to permeate much of the political dialogue heading into the November election, particularly as it pertains to the ballot measures. Proponents of each measure make affordable housing a key component of their campaigns — and make the case that the city’s elected officials and planning department are not doing enough to address the growing problem, and residents are taking notice.
Though there are affordable housing projects in the pipeline, and a couple have even broken ground, Dawson’s feelings are clear.
“It’s not fast enough. There’s absolutely more that we can be doing,” she said. “We might have a foot on the gas, but we need both feet and both hands on the gas.”
IS THIS ABOUT “ENDING CAPITALISM”?
Dawson responds to an audience question asking her to explain how the measure would further the “Democratic Socialists of America goal of ending capitalism” by saying that the measure requires capitalism to work.
She adds that bringing the political affiliation of those working to promote Measure N is irrelevant, because she sees the effort as a way to bring everyone together around what is perhaps the city’s biggest issue, despite the fact that the measure itself has proven divisive.
Renshaw, however, notes that she finds it far-fetched that the tax could hold that kind of weight after sharing a previous quote from Dawson that sees her calling the measure part of the long term goal of “ending capitalism.”
“This is remarkable, of course, because capitalism is a federal system, and there’s not going to be ending capitalism through city laws,” she said.
Just as the measure itself is divisive, it’s increasingly clear that there is an ideological divide that has taken hold in Santa Cruz.
SIDES SET THE STAGE WITH COMPETING VISIONS
Here, the leader of the pro-O campaign, Lira Filippini, and the voice of the resistance, Don Lane, explain what brought them to the debate stage Monday night. It all has to do with their own visions for the Santa Cruz of the future. The interesting point here is both sides meet in their claim that affordable housing is the city’s most crucial priority; however, they diverge on how to address it.
The downtown library mixed-use project planned for Lot 4 sits at the center of the Measure O question. Lot 4 is the location of the weekly Wednesday downtown farmers market that has gone on for the past 20 years. The mixed-use project, which goes back a decade and has yet to break ground, includes a new library, a three-level parking structure and 123 units of affordable housing.
A yes vote on Measure O would abandoned that library project, housing included, keep the farmers market on Lot 4 as part of a downtown commons vision still in the conceptual phase, keep the library in its existing location, and require, to the “maximum extent feasible,” affordable housing on eight city-owned parking lots.
Santa Cruz is on the precipice of great change, Filippini says, and on that precipice there is much to gain and much to lose, especially when it comes to her side’s vision of Lot 4.
Lane argues that he wants to be positive, but says there is no way to say “no” to “bundle of bad ideas” — especially when those ideas abandon an affordable housing project as far as long as the one planned for Lot 4.
THE “BIRD IN THE HAND” ARGUMENT, DEBUNKED
This is a long one, but certainly one of the most clarifying moments in the debate, and it comes in a moment of agreement.
The library mixed-use project proposed for Lot 4 has been called an “affordable housing bird in the hand’’ by supporters, meaning that to move forward on this project guarantees 123 units of affordable housing downtown. However, both Lane and Filippini agree that the project is not guaranteed.
Filippini explains that the city still needs to acquire Toadal Fitness in order to build the project, for a sum that has yet to be determined. Lane explains that, correct, this project is not yet guaranteed, but that is no reason to abandon it for a gamble on affordable housing in the future.
“It’s not a bird in the hand, but it’s so far along from starting over,” Lane said. He explains that even if the project moves forward it could still take years, but he guarantees that it will move faster than an affordable housing project that begins the planning process tomorrow.
IS MEASURE O REALLY ABOUT SAVING THE FARMERS MARKET?
In a moment that offered some sparks, moderator Wallace Baine asked a pointed question: Did the messaging that Measure O would save the farmers market hurt the measure’s cause?
Filippini argued that the Yes on O campaign has never used saving the farmers market as a carrot to draw people in support.
“I encourage anyone to find, anywhere, a place or something physical or on the website archives, that we have ever said ‘Save the farmers market,’” Filippini argued.
Baine replied: “It’s on the sidewalk of Pacific Avenue right now.”
Filippini: “Yeah, I didn’t put it there — maybe someone from the other side put it there, I don’t know.”
Lane uses his time to recall the petition’s signature-gathering process, in which petitioners allegedly were telling people that, in order to save the farmers market, they needed to sign the petition.
“Your people, those signature-gatherers are part of your people, did create an incredible amount of understanding in the community that Measure O was going to somehow save the farmers market,” Lane said to Filippini. “That’s really harmful to people’s understanding of what they’re voting on.”
WHAT DOES THE COMMUNITY STAND TO LOSE WITH THE PASSAGE OR FAILURE OF MEASURE O?
Herein lies the great paradox of Measure O: A yes vote on Measure O is a no vote on an existing affordable housing project, yet, at the same time, it is a yes vote on affordable housing. To vote no on Measure O is a yes vote on an affordable housing project, but it is also a no vote on a plan to secure more future sites for affordable housing.
It presents itself like the classic Stanford marshmallow test — do voters want a marshmallow now, or do they want to reject the marshmallow in front of them in favor of multiple marshmallows down the line?
In Santa Cruz’s case, just as for those children in the Stanford test, it seems to come down to trust in the powers that be. The affordable housing project in front of them is not guaranteed, but far into the process. Do they trust the government to make it happen? The affordable housing down the line, which presents itself as more abundant, would be, by many estimates, 10 years into the future. Do they trust the government to make that happen? Santa Cruz has an immediate need for affordable housing, and it will far into the future.
In her closing remarks, Filippini argued that a failure of Measure O means the city loses its “absolute best place that we have” for a downtown commons area, as well as the confidence that the city is prioritizing its own land for its most crucial needs — affordable housing chief among them.
Lane argued that a Yes on O would abandon an affordable housing project that is sorely needed. He said he doesn’t believe Filippini is a NIMBY, but that the Yes on O campaign is pulling its arguments straight from the NIMBY playbook: “We want affordable housing … but, wait, no, not there,” Lane said. “That’s how this has worked for decades, in lots of places, but especially in this community.”
Find all the video of Monday’s debate between the Measure O sides here.