Home in the Range
Fears about greenhouse gases could point the way to a denser, greener, more affordable Santa Cruz
By Jessica Lussenhop
LET'S START by stating the obvious: people around here feel very strongly about housing development. Or putting a stop to it. This little coastal town has seen some big divisions and plenty of lines drawn in the sand when it comes to deciding how to house the new immigrants, students and trannies (as in transplants) that arrive in a steadily increasing stream each year. Some of the best-known players—the bitterati of the housing fight—have been battling for decades now along predictable factional lines: environmentalists vs. developers, progressives vs. business interests. Toss in the affordable housing advocates, the anti-university front and the people who just like things the way they are, and what you get is a turf war as heated as gangland. There is no shortage of drama here.
But that's not the kind of discussion Rick Longinotti wants to have anymore.
"This is an important time. There is a convergence in interests between developers and those interested in social justice," says the family therapist and co-founder of Nonviolent Communication Santa Cruz. "I think that some of the conflict has been based on understandings or beliefs that have now been changed or are changing."
The evolution in ideology has Longinotti hoping that Santa Cruz might finally be able to address a problem that has plagued it for decades: "Why are we losing ground on affordable housing? Let's not fool ourselves. It's just getting worse," he says.
For the last 20 years, Santa Cruz County has maintained the dubious honor of being one of the least affordable places in the nation. While the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development considers housing that costs 30 percent or less of one's take-home pay "affordable," over the last 10 years the Santa Cruz County Community Assessment Project has consistently found that at least half of county residents spend more than that. In 2007, 24.8 percent indicated they spent half or more of their income on housing; the figure has more or less held steady since. Rents have been on a runaway train for years, leaping 48 percent from 1995 to 2004 and 22.6 percent between 2003 and 2009. Even during an economic recession that saw the median price of a home plummet from $655,000 in 2007 to $347,000 in 2009, the average rent still rose; a two-bedroom apartment that cost $1,466 in 2007 commanded $1,713 last year. Meanwhile, our numbers creep relentlessly upward—CAP estimated the county population was 268,637 in January 2009, and AMBAG estimates that number to grow to 274,000 by 2015—and to 290,000 by 2030.
On the surface, this may not appear to be of concern to Transition Santa Cruz, the year-and-a-half-old grassroots organization Longinotti helped found. The group focuses on planning for a thriving post-peak-oil-era Santa Cruz, and its past workshops—on re-skilling, local food and land use—have been geared to that end. But Longinotti discovered last June at a TSC workshop that some of the regular attendees were also players in the ongoing affordable housing debate—people like developer John Swift, former mayor and environmental attorney Celia Scott and former chairman of the City of Santa Cruz Housing Advisory Committee (and Santa Cruz Weekly calendar editor) Paul Wagner. Longinotti noticed that, while they may not have always agreed with one another on housing issues in the past, ending Santa Cruz's reliance on fossil fuels was something they could all get behind. "It was people who had been enemies, on opposite sides of the issues. When there's a particular project, you go up and say your piece to city council and you don't talk to each other. This was a new experience for some people," says Longinotti.
It made him realize that the housing problem and building a post-peak-oil-era Santa Cruz are inextricably linked, and that these players had more in common than they might have once thought. It inspired him to plan "Housing Within Reach: Of Our Pocketbooks; Of Our Workplaces, Schools, & Stores," a five-week lecture series on making Santa Cruz County a more affordable place to call home. The first meeting, called "Overview of Housing Economics: Why we're losing ground on affordability and what we can do about it," is this Thursday, Jan. 14. Meetings follow every other Thursday night through March 11.
So what kind of issues could possibly get a for-profit developer, an environmental lawyer and an affordable housing advocate at the same table on the dais? "I think the scales have tipped. For many years, it was the environment at all costs. I think that shortchanges some of the social goals this town also holds dear," says developer Swift, who will be presenting in the third week of the series. "There is a legitimate environmental movement and a legitimate developer movement. The two are not at odds, ultimately." Although Swift is currently working on the controversial Golf Club Drive project that neighbors Pogonip—a plan criticized by enviros, who says it's wiping out farmland, and transportation advocates, who say it's not on a major corridor—Longinotti says that's not what he wants the discussion to center on. "I'm done arguing over the individual projects. The main idea is something people can agree on," he says.
The main idea, and why TSC is involved, is pretty simple: Santa Cruz has jobs. If it's too expensive for our baristas, field workers and stockboys to live here, they'll have to drive here from outside. Every person behind the wheel is pushing up greenhouse gases and fossil fuel consumption. Why not develop mixed-use communities along transit corridors dense enough to promote affordability and alternative transportation, and render commuting obsolete? "Appropriate density improves the quality of life," says Longinotti. "More housing in Santa Cruz is a good thing for the environment."
IF YOU BUILD IT THEY WILL CHARGE MORE: Former Santa Cruz Mayor Bruce Van Allen, who kicks off the Housing Within Reach series this Thursday, doesn't think more housing stock necessarily equals lower prices.
We're So Pretty
How did we get here? One of the main reasons is no one's fault: It's just too beautiful here. "If you're well off in California, you probably will move to the coast," says former Santa Cruz mayor and Week One series speaker Bruce Van Allen. "That means huge demand that is not going to let up for a long time. That demand is making it harder for people who work in Santa Cruz to be able to afford to live here."
The other indisputable factor is the arrival of the University of California Santa Cruz in the '70s, which caused a sudden 29 percent jump in population in the city of Santa Cruz. "The university put huge pressure on the housing market here. I don't think anybody disputes that anymore," says Van Allen. "Six [students] can afford a much higher rent than the family they pushed out with two working people. It works directly against tenants."
Beyond these two unchangeable factors ("What should we do to make this place less desirable—drop stink bombs?" says Van Allen) are the policies that arose in response to them. Measure J, passed in 1978, drew urban service lines to discourage sprawl and put a cap on the county growth rate (it also included a 15 percent affordable housing provision). Santa Cruz developed tight building restrictions and elected a series of picky, environmentally minded governments that created fewer spaces to build on and burnished Santa Cruz's reputation for knowing what it doesn't want better than what it does. The defeat of rent control laws in the late '70s and early '80s and the fact that UCSC only provides housing for about half of its students are also contributing factors to booming housing costs.
"Growth control was really important. It's why we don't look like Orange County," says Longinotti. "At the same time, it had an impact on the cost of housing."
But participants plan to skip the finger-pointing. "I'm going to do pure economics," says Paul Wagner, who kicks off the series with Van Allen this Thursday. Wagner plans to discuss zoning policies that have favored the construction of single-family homes over projects that would be able to incorporate some of the smart-growth, smart-density principles, while Van Allen will go into the history of policies on a national, state and local scale that subsidize home ownership but do little for renters. Week two features Carol Berg, manager of Santa Cruz Housing and Community Development, talking about city programs for housing affordability and their effectiveness; and Jan Lindenthal, vice president of the nonprofit developer Mid-Peninsula Housing, on putting public funds toward affordable housing projects. John Swift will focus week three on practical ways to make smart-density a reality, through regulatory changes, design and zoning changes. He'll be joined by Jeff Oberdorfer, executive director of San Jose–based First Community Housing, speaking about innovative public-private partnerships. Longinotti will touch on ways density and development can actually get cars off the streets, including specific thoughts on unbundling the cost of parking from rent or home purchase prices and lower parking requirements. In week four John Doughty, executive director of AMBAG, and Celia Scott will tackle the linkage between transportation costs and growth, in particular the widening of Highway 1 and the impact of S.B. 375, which incentivizes counties to plan transportation projects that curb greenhouse gas emissions. The series closes with David Foster, a Santa Cruz planning commissioner, on ways to partner up and move forward. "It's an invitation for the community to come together and say, 'OK, let's do this now, let's put some of these ideas into practice,'" says Longinotti.
But just because these thinkers have agreed to participate in a series of forums doesn't mean they necessarily agree on the solutions to our affordable housing conundrum. For example, while Van Allen leans more toward the idea of rent control and drumming up the political will to get more renters' rights, Wagner describes himself as being more of the "build, baby, build" persuasion. Longinotti wants to amp up the number of granny units, while Van Allen is skeptical about their ability to lower rents. And while some people equate "smart density" with "high-rise hell," Longinotti says that's not how he envisions things. "Once you get past three stories and you have to start putting in elevators and infrastructure, the sustainability sort of flattens out," he says. "There's a sort of a sweet spot at three stories that shouldn't be too obtrusive."
When asked to pick out a current or upcoming project they see as the right direction for housing in Santa Cruz, the participants give varying answers. Wagner likes the 40 percent affordable apartments at the 1010 Pacific and its sister project on Shaffer Road that were achieved through public subsidies. Longinotti likes the granny unit in David Foster's back yard where Foster's parents live. Swift likes the mixed-use 2120 Delaware project—which has stalled due to the economy but still has a sign stuck in the ground that reads "If you worked here ... you'd be home by now!"—and Van Allen likes the mobile home parks whose residents have formed cooperatives.
Nevertheless, Longinotti is hopeful that some new innovations and new blood will invigorate the Q&A sessions that will follow each meeting, and the local discussion as a whole. And he thinks all the speakers can agree on a basic vision of the Santa Cruz of the future. "It looks like a community where people can enjoy getting to where they want to go without heavily relying on the automobile, and where there's housing that meets the needs of all levels of income," he says. "It's not only people who work here that can't afford to live here, but people who grew up here, come of age and can't live in their community."
Swift agrees. "I think some people like a more vital environment where walking and bicycling and being more social in a socially dense environment is not a bad thing. I'm not saying every place in the county has to be that way, [but] this could be a good way to live close to your neighbors, sharing your community," he says.
HOUSING WITHIN REACH: OF OUR POCKETBOOKS; OF OUR WORKPLACES, SCHOOLS AND STORES starts Thursday, Jan. 14, 7–9pm, and continues Jan. 28, Feb. 11, Feb. 25 and March 11 at the United Methodist Church, 250 California St, Santa Cruz. For more info visit www.transitionsc.org.
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