An overhead view of downtown Santa Cruz.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Affordable housing ideas in the spotlight: Forum to detail two possible Santa Cruz ballot measures

On Thursday, the people behind two potential ballot measures will explain how their plans would increase affordable housing in the city of Santa Cruz should they get on the November ballot. Some city officials and activists, however, aren’t so sure.

On Thursday, a forum will discuss two potential ballot measures that proponents say will increase affordable housing in the city of Santa Cruz.

The organizer, Erica Aitken, planned the event as part of Reimagine Santa Cruz, a group she launched in August 2020 focused on the issue. She had seen the challenges herself, as her adult children had a much more difficult time than she did in the 1990s of finding their own homes in the unaffordable market that is Santa Cruz. Though she called it a “fact-finding” event, Aitken has been a volunteer for the more controversial of the two measures — Our Downtown, Our Future.

“This is a generation getting shafted — their opportunities are so much less than ours, and they can’t find jobs as easily as we did,” she said. “It’s just not right — I would like to be a part of what changes that for them.”

The initiatives — the Empty Home Tax and the Our Downtown, Our Future plan — offer different options. The former aims to put money toward affordable housing development — an estimated $3 million annually — by taxing homeowners who live in their properties for fewer than 120 days per year. The latter calls for a dismantling of the current plans to develop downtown’s Lot 4 into a mixed-use library project, and instead focus on creating affordable housing on Lot 7.

Though both are controversial in their own ways, the Our Downtown, Our Future has created the most pushback. Specifically, city officials, business owners and community leaders have said that denying the project could delay the future of affordable housing development even further — and would even lose the city money.

Under the new design, the long-awaited project — proposed for the downtown parcel Lot 4 — will now include more...

“People can have the black-and-white answers on issues right then, or at least as close to that as possible, and people will be able to ask their own questions at the end,” said Aitken.

Cyndi Dawson, one of the leaders behind the Empty Homes Tax initiative, said her desire to get the idea passed goes back over 20 years, as she’s seen friends and colleagues have to leave the area due to the rising living costs. Similar taxes have seen success in Vancouver, British Columbia, and Oakland, and the forum will include Oakland Vice Mayor Rebecca Kaplan to talk about how the tax has affected her city’s market.

“I’ve been working with this increasingly broad coalition of community members, kind of from all political stripes that are coming around to rally around this idea of an empty home tax being very reasonable, very easy to understand,” Dawson said. “This is just one tool in the toolbox to make solutions on the ground.”

A sketch of a building, with a library in front and housing behind
A sketch of the downtown mixed-use library project from Jayson Architecture.
(Via City of Santa Cruz)

John Hall and Lira Filippini of the Our Downtown, Our Future plan said that the forum will be a chance to share their group’s latest push. Both said the group is now calling for eight of the city’s downtown parking lots to be committed as land for 100% affordable housing development, something this has been incorporated into its current petition.

“One of the things that a lot of us have witnessed over the years is the discussion of why affordable housing is so expensive to build, with one of the top costs being land,” Filippini said. “To us, that makes it clear we should try to preserve all of our city-owned parcels for affordable housing and not have them be developed for things that are for-profit.”

According to City Clerk Bonnie Bush, both groups are required to submit 3,848 signatures — 10% of the registered voters for the city of Santa Cruz — within 180 days of filing their intent with the city to be considered for the November ballot. Dawson said the Empty Homes Tax initiative has garnered 2,100 signatures thus far for a deadline of April 20; Hall estimates the Our Downtown, Our Future initiative has nearly half of the required signatures for a late-May deadline.

While the initiatives have built some momentum, one major group that is missing from the forum’s panel is the planning department, and other city officials dealing with various downtown plans. City spokesperson Elizabeth Smith said that while the city had not reviewed the Empty Homes Tax plan, the Our Downtown, Our Future assessment would have an “adverse impact” on affordable housing development.

“The public should be aware that the Library Mixed Use project is very real and underway, and there are significant areas where the affordable housing imagined in the potential measure is theoretical and has no funding or developers behind it,” she said. “The city will continue its robust community engagement and outreach on round two of community outreach on schematic design of entire project early next month.”

A mixed-use project under development review by the Santa Cruz City Council has become increasingly controversial....

Former mayor and Housing Santa Cruz County co-founder Don Lane — who will be on Thursday’s panel — said he also has concerns about the Our Downtown, Our Future plan.

“If the Downtown measure had some strong realistic affordable housing opportunities, then having a funding source [from the Empty Homes Tax] would help with that,” he said. “But I’m not really positive on the notion that the Downtown measure is actually creating important opportunities for affordable housing…I think if you’ve talked to affordable housing developers about developing all these parking lots, that’s just dreaming.”

Despite the questions and concerns, Aitken said her goal is to provide better information for Santa Cruzans about the measures.

“My goal was for people who were interested, who wanted to make a rash decision or whether or not to sign petitions, and to have factual information to allow them to get what they need from this conference,” she said. “Then they can decide what they want to do in favor or not in favor, and that is the only goal.”

If you go: The event takes place Thursday from 5 to 7:30 p.m. Participants can register for a Zoom link via Reimagine Santa Cruz.