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Santa Cruz County To Vote On Affordable Housing Bond

California’s expensive housing market is pushing people out. That’s a top concern for some as they head to the polls. In Santa Cruz County, voters will weigh in on Measure H. It taxes property owners to pay for affordable housing. 

Lisa Erickson depends on her service dog Rig’s every day. He’s a big yellow Lab, Golden Retriever cross.

“He knows over 50 different commands and he is helping me with my independence. I use an electric wheelchair,” says Erickson.

Erickson grew up in Santa Cruz and is now a grandmother. The 57-year-old never thought she’d need her service dog Rig’s. She spent most of her adult life working as a nurse.

“I worked for hospice, that was my specialty, and I worked the night shift. I just thought I was going to retire. I had the complete plans on retirement and my 401(k) was set up. It was there,” Erickson says.

All of that disappeared when she was diagnosed with a disabling autoimmune disorder. But she considers herself lucky to have a home she can afford and where she can age in place. She lives at Schapiro Knolls. It’s an affordable housing complex just outside Watsonville that has 88 apartments. Schapiro Knolls is home to individuals and families who earn between 30% and 50% of Santa Cruz County's Area Median Income.

On a warm afternoon, Erickson sits in the living room of her one-bedroom home with Rig’s curled up at her feet.

“They call it workforce housing because there are people that let's say work at Orchard Supply or work in the hospital as an aid or, you know, regular people that you see in Safeway you go shopping with,” says Erickson.

The nonprofit housing developer MidPen Housing built Schapiro Knolls with funding from the county redevelopment agency. That funding source dissolved when the state closed those agencies in 2012. Meanwhile, Santa Cruz County's need for affordable housing has increased.

According to a recent report by the nonprofit California Housing Partnership Corporation, renters in Santa Cruz County need to earn more than four times California’s minimum wage to afford the median monthly rent. According to Zillow’s August numbers, that median rent price is $3,270. The report also found the county is in need of nearly 12,000 more affordable rental homes.

Measure H would provide enough money to build at least 1,000 affordable homes. 

“There really is just so little local funding to subsidize affordable housing and these kinds of projects just do not get built without some public subsidy,” Don Lane says.

Don Lane is Co-Chair of the Yes on H campaign and a fomer mayor in Santa Cruz. He helped organize a coalition called Affordable Housing Santa Cruz County about two years ago. Their work culminated into Measure H, which the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors placed on November’s ballot.

Measure H asks Santa Cruz County voters to approve a $140 million bond exclusively for affordable housing. It would create housing opportunities for low and moderate-income working families and vulnerable populations.  

"It's going to make a couple thousand people's lives a little bit easier. Even when I'm not the one who's getting a new affordable unit, that might be the person who I get served by in the restaurant, or who works in the medical office at my doctor's office. They're an integral part of our community and we need to have a place for them here," Lane says. 

The money would be divided among the county’s cities and unincorporated areas and would do three things. First, the majority would be allocated for developing affordable rental housing. This could be anything from multifamily housing to accessory dwelling units. Second, some money would go toward housing for the homeless with supportive services. The rest would help first-time homebuyers struggling to make a down payment.

The $140 million bond would be paid back by property owners through a property tax increase.

“Many of our supporters, like myself, are homeowners. And compared to some of the other things that I pay taxes for, I'm particularly excited about this. This is really solving a specific problem that everyone acknowledges exists and that really is worth it,” Lane says.

Not all property owners agree, like Kris Kirby. She’s lived in Aptos for over 20 years and owns a small sign-making business. In the middle of her studio is a big drafting table. This is where she makes signs and banners.  

“I started this 18 years ago out of my garage. I stayed home and raised my four sons and I've worked very hard to build it up,” Kirby says.

Hanging on the studio’s wall is a picture of her four sons. Kirby says two of them have left the area for Austin, Texas, where it’s more affordable. She and her husband are considering moving too because of the taxes.

“I mean it takes both of us to work full time for our house and all the expenses. Life's expensive. If you can't afford to live here or San Francisco or Paris or New York, you don't live there. And sometimes people might have to move to a less expensive area,” Kirby says.

Kirby says she plans to vote no on H because paying another property tax is overwhelming. Becky Steinbruner stands and nods beside her. She’s also with the No on H campaign.  

“It's at the point where people cannot afford to stay here because of the taxes,” Steinbruner says.

According to the Santa Cruz County assessor, the increase in property tax is estimated to be about $55 a year for the average property owner. The bond would take about 35 years to pay off. 

Steinbruner owns a home in Aptos Hills. Her property tax bill already includes four other bonds previously approved by voters. Those include two for the Pajaro Valley Unified School District and two for Cabrillo Community College. One of the Cabrillo bonds dates back to 1998.

“We are very fortunate to own our property, but the property taxes make it a challenge to stay there on top of maintaining it all,” Steinbruner says.

As California’s housing situation worsens, an increasing number of communities are turning to solutions like Measure H. The city of Los Angeles, Santa Clara County and Alameda County passed similar affordable housing bonds in 2016.

The Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California, or NPH, advocates for these measures. According to the organization, Berkeley, San Jose and Santa Rosa voters will also consider affordable housing bond measures this November.

Alina Harway lives in Santa Cruz County and works for NPH.

“If we don't do something now to keep Santa Cruz County affordable, we're going to lose so much. This should be a place where working families can raise their families. This should be a place where our teachers don't have to drive an hour to get to the schools,” Harway says.

If Measure H passes, bond proceeds would be deposited into a special account created by the county. An independent citizens’ oversight committee and an external auditor would review an annual report on the spending.

Measure H needs a two-thirds majority vote to pass. Election day is November 6. 

Erika joined KAZU in 2016. Her roots in radio began at an early age working for the independent community radio station in her hometown of Boulder, Colorado. After graduating from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University in 2012, Erika spent four years working as a television reporter. She’s very happy to be back in public radio and loves living in the Monterey Bay Area.