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December 20-27, 2006

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Nūz: Santa Cruz County News Briefs

30 Acres and a Duel

If a town or county's General Plan is its local constitution, then its Housing Element may well be its Bill of Rights.

Other general plan sections describe how local traffic flows, or what facilities will serve the residents. But the housing element details a far more basic matter: who will be able to live there.

And for that reason a number of states, including California, require all local governments to turn in housing plans every few years. Plans that detail who lives there, how well they're housed, what stands in the way of housing people well and what the locality intends to do about it.

Note the first part: "who lives there." Not every community must house every possible person. Monte Sereno, perhaps lacking farmworkers, might not need farmworker housing; Watsonville might not need to zone for megamansions. But those who are present must be adequately housed, and localities must prove it. That's state law--a law that Santa Cruz county government has failed to follow since 1994, and in that failure, lost not only state approval for its housing element, but the chance to grab some $3 million to $4 million in housing funds, as well as disaster relief funds, every year since, as only those with certified housing elements qualify for the big bucks.

This 12-year state/county gridlock appears to be ending, however. Over the last few weeks, the county has agreed to send the state the first housing element since Newt Gingrich came to the fore that might well gain state approval.

That's quite a shift, and Nūz decided to talk to a few movers and shakers to recount how that happened. First up: Gretchen Regenhardt, directing attorney of the Santa Cruz/Watsonville branch of California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA), who filed suit against the county--one instrumental in tipping the balance.

The basis of the legal action? "Low-income workers, people with disabilities and families with children come to our offices every day desperate to find decent, safe housing that they can afford," Regenhardt told Nūz.

And they can't find it.

"We see people living in chicken coops, storage sheds and horse trailers. And people evicted after complaining about severely substandard conditions."

"One client," she recalls, "was being evicted from a unit after he fell through the bathroom floor. Another was threatened with eviction for complaining about raw sewage coming up almost daily through the bathtub drain. Households live two and three families to an apartment, sometimes with as many as 28 people sharing a two-bedroom house."

People with disabilities, too, were suffering. "One client lived in an 'affordable' unit inadequate to her disability, and she constantly burned her arms on the stove burners because the stovetop was too high for her to reach properly from her wheelchair."

She could find no place safer.

And those were just the most horrific examples.

Moved by such stories, Regenhardt, then a lawyer for Legal Aid (since merged with CRLA) joined up with the statewide California Affordable Housing Law Project in the mid-'90s and filed suit against the county.

"This was at the time when the county claimed that it could meet all of the low-income population's housing needs with second units," Regenhardt recalled, citing the backyard units also commonly referred to as granny units, or ADUs.

"We challenged that. But the county asserted that we lacked standing because we didn't sue on behalf of a particular project." Which was ironic, she mused, "because virtually no one was proposing projects, precisely because no land had been zoned for them."

The county won its dismissal of the suit, but the state legislature broadened the law the year following, the local housing crisis deepened and desperately underhoused clients kept showing up at her offices.

So in July of 2004, Regenhardt--by then part of CRLA, and again with support from the California Affordable Housing Law Project--filed suit a second time.

And, as is the case with most sequels, the follow-up was longer and more expensive than the original.

First there was the battle of which court would hear the case.

"In this second suit, we included both state and federal fair housing complaints," Regenhardt recounts. "The county moved the case to federal court, which takes a lot longer. So we dropped the federal issues, and that moved the case back to the state court system." Namely, back to the superior court right here on Ocean Street.

And on what issue did CRLA focus its complaint? "On timeliness," she explained. "Years had passed and the county had done nothing to update its housing plan."

The county countered by doing something; namely, rushing through a new housing plan, skipping the usual county planning commission public hearing, because the changes it made to the older plan--all 83 pages of changes--were "minor."

That skippage also being a no-no under state law, Regenhardt went back to court demanding that the county void the new version. The judge agreed. The county appealed. And all parties hauled off to the Sixth Circuit California Court of Appeals in San Jose.

At least for the county, the appeal did not go well.

At one point in its decision, the court's judges answered a county point with a curt "Not so." At another, they stated, "appellants (the county) provide no actual support for their bald statement." And to rub salt, they referred to the county's case as 'this purported appeal.' Twice. In case readers missed it the first time.

So the case wended its weary way back to local court, down on Ocean Street, yet again.

This time, though, legal underbrush cleared away, the highly determined Regenhardt was able to focus on pure fact--namely, that the county had been out of compliance with state law for over a decade--and she managed to persuade Judge Robert Yonts to order the county to adopt a valid housing element within 120 days. This time, with actual specific sites for housing appropriate to lower-income people. Other than granny units. Or else.

And in state planning and zoning law, "or else" means that if localities don't behave, judges can take away their planning authority bit by bit until they can't approve even a shuffleboard court.

And thus, after 12 years' delay, the county began to assign specific sites for potential construction of affordable housing, and approved 30-plus acres of such sites a week ago.

So how do Regenhardt and CRLA see their long-sought victory?

"We remain concerned about the county's commitment to house its lower-income residents," Regenhardt told Nūz. "But we're encouraged that, for the first time in nearly 20 years, we will have some land zoned and some county money committed to affordable housing development,"

"The adopted housing element offers 30 acres of land zoned to allow low-income housing, and $15 million to support projects on those acres. It isn't perfect, but it's a potential of 600 low-income housing units that we didn't have before."

And thus, she concludes, "it's a good start."

Nūz just loves juicy tips about Santa Cruz County politics.

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