Housing Wars In Santa Cruz, a longstanding philosophy of no building, no problem reaches a reckoning point

Photo | Julie Reynolds Martinez

TALES FROM THE HOUSING FRONT: See all the stories, or tell your own

By Gretchen Regenhardt

You could say that the Santa Cruz rental housing market is a perfect storm. Santa Cruz is one of the most expensive housing markets in the United States, and according to one source is the fourth least affordable market in the world. At the same time, there is next to no rental housing inventory, especially for lower-income households, and no tenant protections in place to limit rents or require good cause for eviction. Low-income households cope by doubling or tripling up in housing to afford the rent. Seriously substandard housing abounds, with tenants afraid to complain for fear of retaliation and the risk of homelessness.

It’s Tuesday afternoon at the Watsonville office of California Rural Legal Assistance, a non-profit law firm serving low-income households in Santa Cruz County, and the lobby is full of people seeking legal help. Chances are that at least one of these families will have a 30- or 60-day notice terminating their tenancy for no reason and will have no available legal recourse.. Another family may be here because of an order from a city or county inspector to move out of their home because the conditions are so severely substandard that their health or safety is at risk. Local ordinances require a landlord to pay relocation benefits in such a case but it may be months before that family will receive any financial help if the landlord does not voluntarily pay. A prospective client may have a notice of rent increase — legal in any amount so long as proper notice is given — and another may be losing her Section 8 housing subsidy because she has been unable to find any landlord willing to accept it.

How did it come to this? In 1990, by voter referendum, “Measure C,” Santa Cruz County declared the 1990s the “Decade of Environmentalism.” In keeping with the view that development was bad for the environment, in 1994, when it was time to update the land use element of its General Plan, the county adopted the “low residential density alternative,” a sweeping downzoning of county land such that only 17.6 acres county-wide were left zoned at urban high densities — a designation which allowed a maximum of 17 units per acre — not dense by any measure.

Decades of slow or no-growth policies resulted in a scarcity of land zoned to accommodate affordable housing and an anti-development culture that continues to this day. Efforts to ensure a percentage of housing affordability in development were accompanied by limits on population growth overall  Establishment of a rural/urban dividing line, designating limited zones for development, were established with the understanding that future, more dense, development would occur within the “urban services line,” but neighborhood and political opposition made residential development of any kind nearly impossible. For a generation, from 1988 through 2008, the county refused to comply with state housing laws requiring it to zone enough land at suitable densities to permit affordable housing development, making it ineligible for state programs providing financial assistance to subsidize affordable housing

RELATED: See how much a house in Santa Cruz costs

In 2004, California Rural Legal Assistance and the California Affordable Housing Law Project filed a lawsuit against Santa Cruz County for its failure to adopt a plan for housing development as required by state law — something that was already two years overdue. The litigation lasted four years and the County was finally ordered to rezone 35 acres to densities of 20 units per acre in 2008.

With the exception of that court-ordered re-zoning, the county’s General Plan, with its low densities throughout, remains unchanged.

Everyone is talking about the housing crisis in Santa Cruz these days. The mayor of Santa Cruz has embarked on a listening tour and is seeking community input on the topic. Many community groups have sprung up, scrambling to influence local policy to improve housing conditions from every angle. Proposals abound — rent stabilization, just-cause eviction, landlord incentives to accept Section 8 vouchers, decriminalization of homelessness and housing-first programs, legal services for renters, prohibition of short-term vacation rentals, and adoption of increased densities along transit corridors. But solutions that are politically palatable remain elusive.

On December 5, the City of Santa Cruz will present its findings about the housing crisis and some plans for next steps. We can’t wait!

Data Sources: Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey; U.S. Census 2016; Santa Cruz County code; Saldaña, et.al. v. County of Santa Cruz.

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Gretchen Regenhardt

About Gretchen Regenhardt

Gretchen Regenhardt is Regional Director of California Rural Legal Assistance and works in its Watsonville office. She has worked in the legal services field for more than 30 years, representing low-income households in housing, labor, education, and public benefits matters.