Quick Take:

What is a YIMBY? What do these “missing middle” edifices look like? How might new versions of them fit into the local housing situation? And what are the legal challenges facing their development? Lookout takes a look in advance of Wednesday downtown tour.

With affordable housing top of mind for everyone who lives in Santa Cruz County, local YIMBYs want to spread the word about their vision for what that looks like.

To that end, they are throwing a one-hour downtown Santa Cruz walking tour Wednesday night to spotlight what they call the “missing middle.”

That would include homes in the area that provide higher-density living arrangements than the traditional single-family home but are also not akin to the many multi-story developments springing up across downtown.

What is a YIMBY? What do these “missing middle” edifices look like? How might new versions of them fit into the local housing situation? And what are the legal challenges facing their development? Here’s what we know:

YIMBY vs. NIMBY — the California battleground

The California housing market has become more tempestuous over the past few decades, coming to a near breaking point in recent years.

With those continuing challenges, Californians came together in 2017 to form YIMBY — as in “Yes in my Backyard” — an organization focused on pushing through legislation to build fast-growing and affordable housing for all residents.

In the four years since, the group has grown to over 80,000 members and 20 community groups from Mendocino to San Diego, and has passed bills that enabled 1.5 million more homes to be built.

Yet, not everyone is onboard with the movement. Especially in fiercely provincial places like Santa Cruz, where longtime locals proudly wave their NIMBY (“Not in my Backyard”) flags.

Constituents of the NIMBY movement complain of the potential for increased traffic, crowded classrooms, and threatening neighborhood aesthetics.

As it becomes more unattainable for Californians to buy homes — only 31% of households could afford a median-priced home in the third quarter of 2019 — there has to be a solution.

The YIMBYism movement in Santa Cruz

California has six of the 15 most expensive rental markets in the U.S. — including San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose — but Santa Cruz is inching up that ladder. As of 2021, the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the city was $2,495, up 11% from the previous year.

These issues aren’t new, but they are a large part of why organizers formed the Santa Cruz YIMBY chapter in 2017. The local chapter — made up of all ages, incomes and abilities — has worked diligently to grow the housing stock in an equitable and affordable manner, with a focus on sustainability, public transit and community.

Downtown Villas on Washington Street has five units and was built in 1888.
Downtown Villas on Washington Street has five units and was built in 1888. Credit: Via SC YIMBY

Santa Cruz native Rafa Sonnenfeld returned to the area post-college 10 years ago, and has seen the continued issues of affordability since.

“It took me about a year to find an affordable place to rent, and I ended up living in a converted basement under a duplex,” he says. “I was always fearful of losing out on the meager affordable housing I had.”

Henry Hooker, another lead with the organization and retired architect, was fortunate to buy his home in the 1990s — but has seen the limited affordable housing stock directly affect his adult children.

“I want to do anything I can do to help people of my generation to understand that we need to do something about this, and we are a part of the problem,” he says. “It’s not that we should feel guilty about it, but we have to take responsibility for it.”

Understanding the “missing middle”

There are solutions for Santa Cruz’s housing stock — but they aren’t necessarily visible to the naked eye. Hence Wednesday night’s tour, geared toward bringing a greater understanding to the type of housing options that need consideration.

Santa Cruz’s “missing middle” homes include building types such as duplexes, fourplexes, cottage courts, and courtyard buildings, all of which have typically been illegal to build since the 1940s. They also present an option between a single-family residence and a mid-rise building, all while providing further potential for more housing and more affordability.

On Wednesday, Sonnenfeld and Hooker — along with YIMBY lead Elizabeth Conlan — will lead locals and city officials on a tour of these homes in downtown, demonstrating how such buildings have become less prevalent in the city over the past few decades.

These cottage court-style homes at Lincoln Court
These cottage court-style homes at Lincoln Court (Lincoln St), that would be illegal to build in most of Santa Cruz today, are part of the YIMBY tour. Credit: Via SC YIMBY

Conlan, a renter herself, notes that the YIMBY team has continued to pressure state representatives to protect renters and keep people housed through all methods possible. Currently, an estimated 53% of Santa Cruzans are renters.

“The most obvious (option) would be pushing for more state and local funding for affordable housing projects,” she says. “We’re looking at systemic reform at the state and county level to make it easier, faster, and less expensive to build housing.”

“The pandemic exacerbated a problem that we’ve already been experiencing for years, and made housing insecurity a more dire situation,” Sonnenfeld says.

Where Sacramento stands in all this

While the continued lack of affordable and accessible housing largely drove this event, it’s further timely because of two major state bills: Senate Bill 9 and Senate Bill 10.

SB 9 and SB 10 could create more middle housing across the state, without drastically changing the cities and counties that need additional housing. SB 9 would allow local zoning to build up to four units on what are currently single-family lots, with units totaling 2,400 square feet split into two separate units. SB 10 would allow cities and counties across the state to approve up to 10 units on single-family lots without notifying neighbors’ concerns.

Based on July 2021 data from the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at UC Berkeley, passing SB 9 could “open up new homeownership opportunities at more attainable price points for prospective purchasers.”

State Sen. John Laird, who represents Santa Cruz County via District 17, has vocalized his support of these bills. Santa Cruz Mayor Donna Meyers and Vice Mayor Sonja Brunner will also be in attendance on Wednesday.

While the bills are currently under review by the State Assembly, the bills will be voted on in the state senate after Aug. 16.

An Elm Street home with three units is part of the tour.
An Elm Street home with three units is part of the tour. Credit: Via SC YIMBY

“We’d like to see the most number of affordable units being built, period,” Sonnenfeld says.

How that translates in Santa Cruz

With the questionable results from SB 9 and SB 10 in the forthcoming weeks, it’s important to evaluate how these bills could affect future Santa Cruz housing efforts.

Per the Terner Center’s findings, Santa Cruz County currently has 54,817 existing single-family residential lots, with 43,522 eligible for SB 9. Yet, the potential growth and expansion of single-family residences into duplexes, fourplexes, or the like also depends on the homeowners.

As Sonnenfeld explained, however, less than 3% of Santa Cruz County homeowners would be eligible to add another unit.

“There’s been a lot of fearmongering about the threat to single-family homes,” he says. “It’s really a modest increase to add more modestly affordable units in our exclusionary single-family-zoned neighborhoods… it still represents a 40% increase in the development capacity across the state.”

“It seems like the best place to start is where you live,” Hooker says. “We’re actually talking about improving the city and the quality of life.”

Wednesday’s one-hour tour begins at Lincoln Court (315-323 Lincoln St) at 6:30 p.m.

Previous affordability coverage

Grace comes to Lookout from just over the hill, originally from Sunnyvale but with a variety of journalism experience from across the country.After doing her undergrad at Seattle University, Grace earned...