A screenshot from Tuesday's Santa Cruz City Council meeting.

‘Flexible density units’: Another tool to increase Santa Cruz’s housing supply

The Santa Cruz City Council has approved another option in the city’s housing toolkit, with planners saying FDUs would increase the housing supply primarily around the downtown area and in the corridor along Soquel Avenue.

On Tuesday, the Santa Cruz City Council approved a new housing model type: the flexible density unit, which aims to give developers more options in terms of the size of the units they can bring to the city’s housing stock.

The addition of FDUs to the city’s housing palette would help as developers make their building plans. It:

  • allows them to plan for larger units (more square footage) than had been permitted in new projects;
  • allows them to make use of otherwise empty space;
  • allows them the chance to add units.

The city’s planning department said the new measure would increase the housing supply primarily around the downtown area and in the corridor along Soquel Avenue. It would also provide more options for renters and buyers.

A chart breaking down "small housing unit" types in Santa Cruz

Based on the most recent regional housing needs allocation estimates, Santa Cruz needs 3,400 additional housing units by 2031 to meet expected demand. Planners held two community meetings last fall to gauge interest in FDUs, and developers expressed interest in the new unit type.

“We’re going to see changes coming out of Sacramento, there’s no day in the next 25 or 30 or 40 years when they’re going to stand still about housing … if we wait for them to stop, that means we stop planning for our community,” senior city planner Sarah Neuse told the council. “There may be some folks that would prefer that, and that’s not what you’re going to hear recommended from our department.”

Additionally, Neuse reminded the council and the public that if the city doesn’t produce the needed housing units, the city of Santa Cruz could see the state override city approval and discretion, such as with the recent 831 Water Street proposal, made possible by Senate Bill 35.

“We’re interested in maintaining whatever local control the state allows us to have, and one of the ways we do that is by allowing housing to be built and finding ways where we can get units created,” she said.

Councilmember Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson, who supported the FDU measure, noted that the addition of units like these to the development toolkit would help the city’s housing goals in both the near and long terms. By acting now and approving this type of development, she said, there wouldn’t be as much of a threat to have more SB 35 developments, which can override local authority, across the city.

A map of proposed Santa Cruz mixed-use development areas.

“Where’s the intersectionality of the decisions we make around housing and land use if we’re committed to climate change — that’s just one area. Where’s the commitment to that if we’re not thinking proactively and putting forward innovative solutions?” Kalantari-Johnson asked. “If we want to grow sustainably, let’s be proactive and not get our hand slapped by the state.”

Two councilmembers dissented in the 4-2 vote, with Councilmember Renee Golder absent. Councilmembers Justin Cummings and Sandy Brown, joined by five calls from community members, raised questions of affordability and increased density.

“What more can we do to make these units actually affordable and not just affordable in concept?” Cummings asked, saying that developers could still potentially charge more money for the FDUs.

Community members on both sides of the issue called and wrote in to the council. During public comment, seven said they were in favor, with five opposed.

Local activist and FDU proponent Kyle Kelley said the FDU model would provide a lot of options, particularly for small families or older adults looking to downsize. On the other end, opponent Lira Filippini, speaking for Santa Cruz Tomorrow, mentioned her group’s concerns about how an FDU ordinance would affect long-term sustainability and equitable access to affordable housing.

The ordinance will next go to the California Coastal Commission for authorization of development within the coastal zone. Should it be approved, the ordinance could go into effect within 30 days.