A ballot proposal aims to restrict tall apartment buildings in Santa Cruz
With eight new housing projects in the downtown area alone, Santa Cruz is in the midst of a building boom. But a new movement seeks to limit downtown development in favor of more housing elsewhere.
A grassroots organization called Housing for People says it has gathered enough signatures to place a measure on the ballot that would require a referendum on any new buildings taller than the current height limits — generally around seven stories — and raise the requirement for affordable units per development to 25% from the current 20%. If election officials verify enough of the signatures, the measure would go before City of Santa Cruz voters in the March primary election.
One of the group’s founders, retired state water administrator and environmentalist Susan Monheit, said nothing less than the character of Santa Cruz is at stake.
“Oh, the character of Santa Cruz is being remade,” she said. “If we model ourselves after San Jose, we will be like San Jose.”
Another of the group’s founders, teacher Keresha Durham, added that the ballot measure is not merely about aesthetics.
“It’s about providing housing within the community created height limits, the zoning that is current, and increasing affordable housing so our essential workers, our teachers, our firefighters, our police, our restaurant workers can continue to live in the area,” she said.
The proposal is in response to a plan by the city that would vastly expand housing in and around downtown to help comply with a state mandate to add 3,736 new housing units in the city by 2031.
The plan, which the city is still refining, would concentrate much of the new housing in a 29-acre corridor running south of Laurel street to Beach Hill, and stretching from the San Lorenzo River to Depot Park. Planners envision some 1,600 new housing units in the area, including high-rises up to 12 stories tall — roughly twice the height of the buildings currently under construction.
The plan also includes room for a new arena for the Santa Cruz Warriors.
“I’m concerned that it will just become a generic, gentrified downtown,” Monheit said.
But Santa Cruz Mayor Fred Keeley, who ran last year on a platform of increasing affordable housing, said that concentrating the development downtown is the smart way to deal with the state mandates.
“I think it makes much more sense to grow, in terms of density, in our urban core than it does to go into every neighborhood and say, 'you're going to take several hundred new housing units,' thus changing the character of every neighborhood rather than simply changing the character of our downtown,” he said.
But Housing for People says there is plenty of room to build housing elsewhere in the city. Organizers point to a raft analysis issued by city planners in March listing 8,364 potential new housing units citywide, with only about 1,500 of those downtown. Last week, the city revised that estimate to 5,454 potential units citywide, which is still nearly 50% higher than the numbers mandated by the state.
“We can very well meet them without going up into skyscrapers,” Durham said.
Housing for People also worries that the new housing corridor will displace low-income units already in the area.
“There is an affordable housing crisis, not a luxury second home ocean view condo crisis,” Monheit said.
Keeley said that is why the city imposed the requirement that 20% of new housing units be affordable, which he said was more than state planners initially asked for. He said Housing for People’s proposal to raise that requirement to 25% is unrealistic.
“It’s nothing more than a dream,” he said. “If you can simply pass a law ... and expect that that will be built, why not put even a higher number? It’s a ridiculous number. Not one affordable housing developer has said we can make that work.”
But Durham believes developers will be just fine.
“Not only are we a tourist destination location, we have a lot of demand from UCSC, and we’re the closest beach to the world’s economic engine of Silicon Valley,” she said. “There's a line of developers, I assure you, wanting to build here.”
The final word might ultimately come from the state, which is increasing pressure on local governments to build more housing. While Housing for People says its proposal is on solid legal ground, Keeley warns that if it passes, state regulators could declare the city’s housing plans to be invalid, leaving it to developers to choose where to build.
“The state is in control of this. We have very little discretion,” he said. “We are pretty much down to the place where all we're talking about is where does it happen?”