Main Street, Salinas | Provided photo
By Cade Johnson
Salinas voters this month elected a decidedly young new City Council, picking candidates pushing for change and for improved housing opportunities in the city.
At only 21, Anthony Rocha cruised to a victory in the District 6 Salinas City Council seat race, while Orlando Osornio, 31, also won a seat representing District 4. Osornio succeeds Gloria De La Rosa, who was a District 4 representative for 22 years. And Carla Viviana González, a 27-year-old educator, appears to have squeaked out a narrow victory over incumbent Scott Davis in District 1, though the outcome of that race might still be in doubt because she won by 82 votes, and a recount is possible.
While not part of the youth movement, Kimbley Craig won the mayoral race with 16,635 votes out of a total 46,006 votes cast.
Rocha may be the youngest of the bunch, but he’s already a hardened veteran to Salinas politics. He won election to the Salinas Union High School District Board of Trustees two years ago.
González is a prominent activist in the community who ran a campaign based on what she called progressive and social-justice issues, while calling Davis an “institutionalist” who aligned with powerful groups. She feels, however, that her election shows that a successful candidacy is not determined by your funding or the institutions behind you – it’s about “putting your ear to the people” and prioritizing those concerns first.
The city is facing a $19 million deficit, which is largely attributable to the COVID-19 crisis, and business leaders in Salinas see Craig’s experience as suited to meeting the task. A former Salinas councilwoman who took a couple of years off before running for mayor, she has served as president and CEO of the Monterey County Business Council, focusing on cross-sector partnerships between public and private businesses.
Housing was a top priority issue for most all council candidates in the Salinas election. Salinas is one of the most expensive places in the world, according to a 2019 Harvard housing study. Less than 15 percent of homes in Salinas are affordable to households earning a median-level income.
Farmworkers in the region earn an average of $17,500 a year, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, and a 2018 California Institute for Rural Studies report found that many lived in situations of extreme crowding. There are more than 90,000 farmworkers in the Salinas Valley and Pajaro Valley regions and a need for 47,937 additional units.
It may not be surprising, then, that young new activist councilmembers are pushing for a bigger voice in the housing crisis. If the problem persists, young people looking to find their own homes may not be able to afford Salinas any longer.
The Future Growth Area, a region of Salinas north of Boronda and east of San Juan Grade roads, is central to the discussion of housing in Salinas. The area is slated to be the site of some 11,000 new housing units, and has been planned for about 20 years, according to Craig.
Craig and the council’s new members may usher in the start of construction in the area, with housing that addresses the community’s needs. And Craig says that medium-density housing, like four- to five-story condo and apartment style units, are “more useful” to the community right now than single-family homes.
Osornio also said his focus will be on affordable housing, a need he said he recognized while campaigning in his district and seeing how homes and streets are overcrowded due to the “unaffordability of homes” in Salinas.
Rocha said he’s been working with affordable housing advocates for a couple of years. Along with more housing, he said he wants to prioritize “community-oriented” developments, tenant protections and giving local residents priority for available housing units.
Additionally, Rocha and González both emphasized the need for strong inclusionary housing ordinances and community benefit agreements. Inclusionary housing policies require builders to include low-income homes in their developments, while community benefit agreements are contracts between developers and cities that spell out exactly the sort of amenities developers will be responsible for including in their subdivisions.
González also said she supports creating a “sustainable housing network” for farmworker families.
Meanwhile, community policing policies were also discussed at length during the campaign. Since the police killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and the several other Black Americans earlier this year, people across the U.S. have responded en masse, calling on local governments to consider diverting funding away from police budgets and toward community resources, Salinas included. During the June City Council meeting in which the city budget was approved, the council received more than 500 public comments, many of which were about the police budget, according to the Salinas Californian.
Craig described herself as a “big advocate, with caveats” for the city’s police department. She graduated from Monterey Peninsula College’s Police Academy and has a master’s degree in homeland security studies. She joins a council that has historically had predecessors with involvement in police organizations, such as the late Joe Gunter, the mayor she will replace, and Davis.
Craig noted that the 2020–21 fiscal year budget has already passed, but she said she understands community support for reinvesting in the community.
“I think there’s common ground with (Craig) on housing and local economic development,” said Matt Huerta, a community housing and social-justice advocate. “But I share others’ concerns with her track record when it comes to her community policing and community engagement.”
Rocha said the council needs to have an open conversation about the Salinas Police Department’s current policing practices and the impacts they have on people of color.
For his part, Rocha said he is “going into City Hall with a restorative justice mindset, with an accountability mindset and with a reform mindset.”
González said one her main priorities during the campaign was crime prevention, but with an emphasis on “refunding the community.” According to González, the city should reorient its crime prevention practices toward community reinvestment, rather than policing.
“I think … those of us who live in East Salinas, we’ve all been affected by gang violence, gun violence in some way,” González said. “I have a student that passed away as a result of gun violence. I know that they are the ones most at risk.”
González said most of the crime that occurs in Salinas is theft.
“That denotes to me a community that is in need,” she said.
The infusion of young enthusiasm in Salinas comes at a time the city is staring at major budget issues connected to revenue lost this year during the pandemic and to increases in pay to city employees.
“I’m walking into the job with a $19 million deficit,” Craig said. “While that [amount of] money might seem far away or unrelatable, the reality is that it equates to quality of life for our residents.”
Craig elaborated that an unaddressed deficit could mean future cuts to services like libraries and parks, or fewer police officers on the street. She added that part of the solution is getting COVID-19 positivity rates down, which will allow people to go back to work..
In June, the city approved more than $12 million dollars in cuts to the budget and, in the budget report, staff proposed an additional $3.5 million dollar cut in the form of layoffs or furloughs.
Earlier this year, amid calls to “defund the police,” the council voted to pass the city’s budget with 45 percent of the funds being directed toward the police.
In addition to her comments on reallocating police funding toward community services, González suggested using a portion of police funding to help reduce the deficit. She also believes that the companies involved in Salinas’ agricultural industry, an $8.5 billion industry, should put some of their profits in the community.
“One of our most outstanding issues is economic disparity,” González said. “I would really like us to hold these companies accountable and say ‘Hey, if you want to be a part of our community, you need to find a way to reinvest into our community.’”
Rocha described taking a multi-pronged approach to the deficit that includes identifying new revenue streams and diversifying the economy, as well as using a “performance-based” budgeting process that scrutinizes whether the budget is aligned with the city’s goals or whether certain programs need to be restructured.
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