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March 7-14, 2007

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Nūz: Santa Cruz County News Briefs


The image of the gated neighborhood is a potent one in today's America. The mere sight of a black wrought iron closure can bring whispering reminders of our accelerating differences in both class and privilege.

Place such a gate in the middle of a town in love with land use battles, and reverse its usual function--employ it to protect the poor--and the whispering is likely to give way to bellowing.

And so it did over the last couple of weeks, as the Santa Cruz City Council faced a gate-closing issue under dueling threats: one, from a property owner threatening to displace low-income tenants; the other, from biking/walking activists promising to sue.

The story begins 24 years ago, when in 1983 the Santa Cruz Riverfront Association built 71 units of housing, all affordable to very low and extremely low income tenants, and contracted with HUD to guarantee that affordability for a minimum of 20 years.

The resulting Riverfront Apartments, located at an official address of 146 Blaine St., but spanning several parallel streets along the San Lorenzo riverfront, turned out to be rather remarkable in several ways.

Not only is such a large number of units at such a deep level of affordability rare in a rural town, but all one-bedroom units are reserved for seniors, and five units are accessible for those with physical disabilities. In addition, Riverfront Apartments is one of the few local complexes recognized by the SPCA as pet-friendly, allowing (like its neighbors, the Casa Del Rio Apartments) "cats as companion animals." And to top it off, the Association constructed the complex, with no local or state help, to the standards of landscaped middle-class units. Including a riverside wrought iron gate that the city required.

Just one problem intruded on the tenants of the complex: crime.

By 1996, some 13 years into the apartments' operation, complaints by tenants and neighbors of criminal activity drifting up from the riverfront had become constant enough that a public hearing at that time noted, "The Police Department has confirmed that a drug related crime problem" exists. The solution? "Closure of the Kennan Street gate would facilitate with crime reduction in this area."

At that point, the Association asked for, and got, permission to lock the wrought iron gate from sunset to 7am each day. This, said the city, was a two-year test. No one, however, kept track, or told the Riverfront Association to put down its pencil at the end, so the nighttime closures continued for the next five years.

The overnight gate closures seemed to help, but day and evening problems continued to get worse. In August of 1998, an intruder entered a Blaine Street home and sexually assaulted a girl while the entire family was at home. "The attack was interrupted," note KSBW archives, "when the girl's parents heard her screaming."

Numerous incidents followed, including one in which a dozen tenants living at various addresses on Blaine Street ganged up on another in court to assure his eviction. One told the Sentinel that he had lived among "fights, hookers, all the stuff that goes with drug dealers--and that was just during the day." Another said that foot traffic, including prostitutes knocking on doors looking for work, was rampant. "There got to be such a stream it was unbearable."

So in 2003, when the Riverfront Apartments' 20-year contract with HUD to provide very low, extremely low and Section 8-income level housing was up, its owners fundamentally said, We give up. Let richer tenants--ones with lawyers--move in. They can deal with it.

Oh no you don't, responded the City of Santa Cruz, and made very serious noises about seizing the property to maintain the apartments' affordable status--by eminent domain if necessary. In fact, the city made $27,000 worth of serious noises, at least as measured by the Riverfront Association's legal costs.

Negotiations followed. And, along with negotiations, hearings. And in those hearings arose--not surprisingly--the issue of the gate.

The March 20, 2003, Planning Commission hearings, in fact, centered exclusively around the issue of the gate, and served as a virtual crash course in human subjectivity.

"Criminal elements use this access gate to walk from the levee to the Ocean Street corridor where [their] stores are located and where they park vehicles that store narcotics," testified Santa Cruz City Police Lt. Rudy Escalante via email. A city task force member responded, according to meeting minutes, that she "does not feel the criminal activity described ... has any bearing on whether or not to close the gate permanently."

Neighbors stepped to the microphone to talk of vandalized and stolen bikes, damaged cars and peeping toms. One lovely tolerant soul, however, "was surprised to hear about crime on Blaine Street ... only occasionally, if she leaves her car unlocked, she will find someone sleeping in it."

Overall, around 40 tenants and neighbors wrote or testified in favor of closing the gate at all hours, and approximately 20--including representatives of bicycling and pedestrian groups--spoke in opposition to any closure at all. Several members of the Planning Commission, annoyed that the two-year closure test had expired, that the city hadn't acted, and that the apartment owners hadn't come forward to demand action, managed to construct an alleged implicit breach of good faith by the apartment owners and voted that the gate be kept open 24 hours a day.

The City Council, hearing the issue on July 8, 2003, disagreed, and despite public testimony charging "extortionist tactics" on the part of the property owner, reversed and allowed the gate to be hypothetically closed up to 24 hours a day. In practice, however, the Riverfront Association has kept the original daytime-open, nighttime-closed agreement of 1996, with very rare exceptions, ever since.

Flash forward to 2007. The Riverfront Apartments' five-year affordability period is due to expire again, negotiations with the city to maintain it have restarted, and since HUD rules require that Section 8 tenants get a year's notice of deliberate change of use for any contracted affordable property, the Riverfront Association has started early in making known its bottom lines for continuing. And, sure enough, one of them is that while striving to keep the gate open during the day, it be allowed to close it altogether if necessary.

In the last five years, though, conditions have changed, yet again. The drug dealing has, according to apartment managers, eased a bit, but other crime problems, including those possibly emanating from the city's Blaine Street detention facility (a 72-inmate minimum-security building located at 141 Blaine St.), have generated concern.

"Blaine Street findings: Drugs and other prohibited items can be easily introduced into the facility by throwing them over the fence from the public sidewalk," notes the 2005-6 Santa Cruz County Civil Grand Jury." The county response: "The County partially disagrees with the finding. As a result of the minimum security setting, more frequent foot patrols are scheduled at this facility."

Yet the Grand Jury also notes six escapes (walk-aways) in the previous years, and on Nov. 22, 2006, at around 11 at night it happened again, when, according to the Sentinel, an inmate "took off running and escaped custody." Add to this the recent citywide redistribution of crime from known, limited nodes to larger, broader areas, and it turns out that the specific sources of crime in the Blaine Street/Kennan Street area are more difficult to detect.

"I've looked into the calls from that area," Santa Cruz City Police spokesman Zach Friend told Nūz, "and they're significant. But it's difficult to say whether closing the gate altogether would make a sizable difference."

The police "do patrol the levy, as it's wide enough for a vehicle," he says, and do find such activities on it, "but there are too many other factors" to point to levy activity as the sole source of neighborhood problems.

Ultimately, Friend says, "this has become a larger issue, and it's really up to the neighbors to find the balance."

And once again neighbors have done so, filling the City Planning Commission meeting of Feb. 15 of this year; once again, the commission voted for a 24-hour open-gate policy, and once again the issue headed off to the City Council, during which time the ultimatums multiplied in number and volume.

It's really simple, said the Riverfront Association's Rick Greenburg to the city: There's another levee entrance one block away; give us control over the gate or we'll end the HUD contract and turn the apartments high-rent market-rate.

It's even simpler than that, said Micah Posner of alt-transit group People Power to the city: Close the gate and we'll sue.

On Feb. 27, sandwiched not only between Greenburg and Posner but also between committee appointments and oral testimony charging that downtown merchants "are the equivalent of Hitler and David Duke," the Santa Cruz City Council heard the Riverfront Apartments affordability continuance issue once again. And once again, 'twas all about the gate.

Posner charged the council with the willingness to "barter away our rights on a dubious basis." Progressive activist Fred Geiger challenged "all these claims of alleged horrible crimes happening here."

One neighbor protested that "it ruins my neighborhood when you put up the Berlin Wall or George Bush's Mexican fence;" another asked "how much crime" the property owner speaks of "comes from his own property?" A third snarled, "And one more thing--if this affordable housing is lost, that's on the owner"--no doubt a comfort to wheelchair-bound tenants. And resident David Carlson, after averring that "the public opposition to this closure is overwhelming," followed with a statement eerily reminiscent of the 1980s: "Affordable housing is important, but must be balanced with other community values"--such as, apparently, the value of not having to walk a block to get to the river.

Around a dozen people spoke. The moment that the public hearing ended, Councilmember Mike Rotkin immediately sprang. Calling many assertions "inflammatory," Rotkin annoyedly critiqued "people who make light of the crime there," who he said "are living on a different planet." He directed his hottest flame, however, at those who had been "pretty cavalier with the suggestion that we play chicken with the owner over other people's affordable housing."

And from that moment on it was pretty much over. "I long for the day when I could be single-minded about things," noted Mayor Emily Reilly, "I wish I had the luxury," and went on to talk about the rarity of the deeply affordable housing at risk. Ryan Coonerty displayed displeasure with "the assumption that this is a choice by the City Council." Lynn Robinson suggested the strongest possible language to ensure good faith efforts by the Riverfront Association to keep the gate open as often as possible; Cynthia Mathews called the extension of the past arrangement a "good, cooperative solution," Tony Madrigal agreed, and Ed Porter observed that, as much as public access is an issue, "the sky is not falling."

In short, an approximate dawn-to-dusk open-gate schedule, with more frequent closures possible at the option of the Association, will continue.

The current five-year affordability contract for the Riverfront Apartments expires in 2013. Hearings on that extension--actually, if history is a guide, on the gate--will begin sometime in early 2012. Preparation is recommended.

Nūz just loves juicy tips about Santa Cruz County politics.

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