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Out of Reach

news_tanneryWorkshop series targets the need for more affordable housing in Santa Cruz
I used to dream of winning the lottery so that I could one day buy a house in Santa Cruz—one of the nation’s most desirable and expensive coastal markets. But my last search for a local rental was a wake-up call.

First, my prospective roommate called about the marijuana operation he wanted to start in the back shed. Yes, the landlord was cool with it, and permits would be obtained. No, I wasn’t interested, but I appreciated the info—it would have been a sad discovery to make after moving in. Better to stay away and save my $1,600 deposit and $850 in rent—an amount that would make a monthly house payment on a decent property in my hometown of Salt Lake City, Utah. 

In Santa Cruz, you are lucky to get a studio for this much, according to the 2009 County Assessment Project (CAP) report. The mean rent for a one-room apartment with a kitchenette rose from $873 in 2003 to $1,034 in 2009. Average rental prices for a four-bedroom house rose from $1,998 in 2005 to a staggering $2,358.

This market reality is the force behind “Housing Within Reach,” a workshop series organized by the United Methodist Church and Transition Santa Cruz, a local nonprofit on a mission to “relocalize” Santa Cruz as it transitions into a future with limited resources. Economic sustainability, such as affordable housing, is part of their vision.

The next workshop is scheduled for Feb. 11, and will focus on private development and zoning laws. Among the presenters is John Swift, the land use consultant behind the mixed business and residency complex that houses Borders on Pacific Avenue. Swift is also moving a high-density project forward at Cayuga and Mission streets, where he plans to convert a weedy lot to an eight-unit condominium complex, complete with office and retail space.

“By my count there have been 20 residential units built in Santa Cruz County in the last 25 years,” says Swift. While the City of Santa Cruz has zoning laws that facilitate rental developments, the county is stricter. This figure does not account for granny units like converted carriage houses and garages, but it addresses formal rental complexes.

“We have to address affordability and increase supply, otherwise our kids won’t be able to buy and settle down in Santa Cruz,” says Rick Longinotti, co-founder of Transition Santa Cruz and the workshop series organizer. Thirty percent of Santa Cruz residents spend half of their income on rent, according to the CAP report.

Yet, the cost of renting is just the tip of the iceberg. The quality and cleanliness of local rentals is also a topic of concern that will be addressed in the workshop series—and an issue I came face-to-face with during my last move, when I looked at places with vomit-stained carpets, low attic ceilings, and filthy paint jobs.

It’s not that I couldn’t find a place to rent, or that I couldn’t cough up the $1,500 a month needed for a standard one-bedroom. I just couldn’t find anything that was worth it. One apartment that was deceptively advertised as a “two bedroom” turned out to be an attic with a hole cut in the wall. On the other side of the hole was bedroom number one—a plank built in the rafters (room enough for a futon mattress, said the landlady). The second bedroom was a screened balcony. When I squinted, I could see through the floorboards to the grass below. The place was rented out from under me while I was driving to deliver my deposit.

The first housing workshop held on Jan. 14 addressed rent control and the accessibility of livable spaces. The battle for affordable rents was lost during the ’70s when rent control measures failed at the ballot box by approximately 20 votes. No similar measures have come close to passing since. “Rent control isn’t politically possible in Santa Cruz,” says Longinotti. “There is a base of small-scale landlords that make this unlikely.”

Activists have instead begun to focus on high-density developments built with green materials. “Efficient use of the land is also important,” says Swift. “Putting people close to where they work and shop is the best thing you can do for the environment.”

Swift plans to discuss the importance of density development during the upcoming Feb. 11 workshop. Building a variety of unit sizes, and streamlining the permit process will also be topics. Most importantly, the burden of providing affordable housing must be spread more equally among the population of the community, says Swift. Models like the Tannery Arts Center live/work lofts are key. “They are completely filled up,” says Swift of the 100 units of low-income artist housing, marking the project’s success.

The workshop series will continue on Feb. 25 with a conversation about housing, transportation and greenhouse gases. Celia Scott, former Santa Cruz mayor and current environmental attorney, will discuss the proposed widening of Highway 1. On March 11 the series will conclude with a discussion of community strategies for preserving affordability.

“We want to get the community more involved in the planning process,” says David Stearns, who helped organize the workshop series. No plans for direct action have been proposed, and the workshop series has no policy impact. Yet the event serves as a much-needed conversation starter, says Stearns.

The market demand created by UC Santa Cruz students raised controversy during the first workshop. According to Eric Grodberg, a landlord who attended, university expansion will likely continue to inflate rents as long as enrollment increases. “The university is the market maker, and their housing policies determine rent prices in town,” he says, “and no amount of new development will solve that problem.” Currently students pay about $1,000 per month per person to share a double dorm room on campus, leading many to seek rooms in houses near town. Student enrollment is expected to increase by 4,500 by 2020.

Swift agrees that the housing problem is bigger than any one development, yet he says new projects will still help. “I agree we probably can’t solve the problem in its entirety, but it’s important to make marginal improvements and implement the solutions we can,” he says. “This workshop series brings diverse community members together to attempt to find common ground.”

In the meantime, local young professionals and families will have to take what they can get. My last landlord “forgot” to finish my place before I moved in. I slept on his couch for five weeks while construction crawled along, all the while paying full rent. Depressing? Indeed. But no worse than the seasonal pond that formed under my first house off West Cliff Drive. I paid $1,600 in 2004, and rent is now up to $2,200, according to my former neighbors—and yes, the pond is reportedly still there.


The “Housing Within Reach” events will be held at the United Methodist Church, 250 California St., Santa Cruz, from 7 to 9 p.m. on the following dates: Feb. 11: A Developer Perspective on Affordability with John Swift, developer and land use consultant and Jeff Oberdorfer, FAIA, ED, First Community Housing. Car-free & car-lite development for Santa Cruz, With Rick Longinotti, Transition Santa Cruz. Feb. 25: Housing, Transportation & Greenhouse Gases with John Doughty, executive director, AMBAG and Celia Scott, former mayor & environmental attorney/planner. Mar. 11: Next Steps: A community meeting to unite on strategies that will increase and preserve housing affordability, led by David Foster, Capitola Housing & Redevelopment Project Manager; Santa Cruz Planning Commission.

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