The Santa Cruz Housing Element: False Promises?
by Susanna Lynton Jennings
The people of Santa Cruz County truly believed in 1978 that by allowing the government to limit growth in the County, they would be able to preserve the small town character of the county that they loved. But, Susanna Lynton Jennings writes, by giving the County apparently unlimited control over the free market and building permits, they have created the opposite situation.
In the 1970's Santa Cruz was a sleepy seaside town, mostly retirees, but there were plenty of young people as well. The University was starting to grow. Students and residents alike appreciated the open space and uncrowded beaches. They surfed, swam, hiked, biked and enjoyed the natural beauty and mild climate of the area. The Victorian-style buildings in the downtowns were reminiscent of any small town in America. In the city of Santa Cruz, a variety of shops catered to the students and the county -- on a trip downtown you could drop into a hardware store and pick up some paint, you could visit Ford's department store and find a variety of items from clothing to house wares. For the students, some new shops opened, there was a clothing store for women, the Cooperhouse had several trendy retailers and where shoppers could take a break in a popular restaurant and listen to live jazz in the afternoons. Parking wasn't a problem, and it was a pleasant pastime to spend the afternoon browsing the shops and dining, or staying late to catch live music at one of the nightspots in town.
Those days were very good indeed, so some people in the county decided that life that way should be preserved.
That attempt at preservation ended up on the ballot as Measure J in 1978. The people at the time were convinced by the county government that putting a cap on the number of new homes that could be built would help keep the small town atmosphere and rural look of the county that they loved so much. A seemingly benevolent clause was also added to this proposition, which would make a percentage of the new home projects within the cap "affordable", reducing the number of homes built on the open market to an even smaller number.
By passing Measure J, the people of Santa Cruz County gave the county government exactly what it needed to begin to regulate all aspects of growth and construction here. Through Measure J, the county moved from a free housing market to a market controlled by a government bureaucracy and not the people. Measure J established a planning commission in order to make sure that every project was reviewed and that no more than the prescribed number of building permits was issued.
The ability to own a home within the county remained a possibility for most people for the first few years. Then the University started another growth spurt, and soon pressure mounted on a housing market already being artificially manipulated by the county government. At the time, families who could afford to build homes could not get permits to do so because of the cap on building and the high costs of the permits. Students who could take roommates to help lower their individual housing costs put pressure on the rental market and drove prices higher, squeezing families from the market.
The number of people moving into the county really didn't slow down, so Measure J did not really limit growth as the people had been told it would. What Measure J did was throttle the free market principles of supply and demand. By restricting the supply of housing county bureaucrats boosted demand to a point where Santa Cruz County has become one of the most unaffordable places to live within the state of California.
As for the sleepy small town atmosphere where young families could buy a home with a yard and raise their children in quiet neighborhoods, they are no longer guaranteed preservation. By controlling the housing market, the county controls the type of housing that may be built in the county, and in the latest revision of the county's General Plan, the Planning Department is dramatically changing the type of housing they will permit to be built in this county.
The Planning Department has put together a book-length draft of the "Housing Element", which will be included in an upcoming revision of the County Plan, and it is, in essence, a long and complicated discussion of the goals of certain pressure groups in the county. The ideal housing for the county at this time, claims the Planning Department, is high density and mixed use. Permits to be issued in the future will be heavy on high-density units and extraordinarily stingy on the single-family homes that helped Santa Cruz and the county keep its small town appeal.
If this housing element is approved, residents will begin to see the "densification" of Santa Cruz County in earnest, which means that more people must live in a much smaller area, and housing must be 2, 3, or 4-story apartments. Because most of the permits that will be issued under this new Housing Element will be part of the densification plan, single-family homes simply will not be built, which deeply affects the ability of people in the county to own property. After all, how many young families starting out can afford to buy their own apartment building?
By restricting permits to mixed-use developments, families will no longer have access to quiet neighborhoods away from the noise and crime that comes with commercial development mixed in with housing. By restricting permits to mixed-use "affordable" developments the county is taking property ownership for most new development out of the hands of private developers, and into the hands of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), which receive grants and tax incentives in order to make their investment in these developments profitable.
Finally, the Housing Element rewards developers of these mixed-use units for eliminating parking spaces for the tenants. In other words, the County will pay developers to build insufficient parking spaces to meet the needs of the development. This will force parking out into the other neighborhoods and streets and cause problems for shop owners who rely on street parking for their customers to get access to their stores.
The people of Santa Cruz County truly believed in 1978 that by allowing the government to limit growth in the County, they would be able to preserve the small town character of the county that they loved. But, by giving the County apparently unlimited control over the free market and building permits, they have created the opposite situation. When people are lured into dependency in a controlled dense environment, individuality is stifled and “compliance” becomes the norm. In the next 10 years, families will flee the county because single-family homes, the ideal place to promote property ownership and to raise children, will become as costly and rare as a purple diamond.
Copyright 2004, Advance Bulletin
The Advance Bulletin is a publication of Freedom 21 Santa Cruz
Draft Housing Element Herds Residents into Dense Communities
Santa Cruz County officials claim that the Housing Element is necessary to solve a housing shortage problem, but once it is approved and goes into effect, residents will not have many of the common amenities now available. By Colleen Shaw's analysis, the only housing choice available to most families will be dense multi-family units with limited parking.
At first glance the Housing Element prepared by the Planning Department of Santa Cruz County seems to have best interests of its' local citizens at heart. Most individuals, including me, would initially view these goals as legitimate and needed, since Santa Cruz County is experiencing a shortage of affordable housing. However, after reading the 220-page draft of the Housing Element, it is clear that the County of Santa Cruz is trying to implement a plan that forces citizens into designated and dense living units.
The Planning Department sets forth six housing goals in the Housing Element Draft, which will hinder individuals' choice of where to live. These goals include promoting the production of affordable housing units, promoting the use of available sites for construction, preserving the existing housing programs, maintaining and increasing funds for affordable units, increasing the production of special needs housing, and improving conservation of energy and natural resources.
How the Draft Will Limit Housing Choices
According to the Draft Housing Element, individuals who chose to live in rural areas within the county will be punished. Properties within the rural services line are not promised services such as water, sewer, fire protection, and road maintenance, yet these vital services are promised to those living within the urban services line. The lack of services may prompt people to move into the city.
In order to build and maintain affordable housing, the Draft proposes removing constraints that have a negative impact on the development of multi-family units and housing for low- and moderate-income households. No mention is given to loosening constraints for single-family homes, which gives an incentive for individuals to live in multi-family units. The Draft also proposes amending the height restrictions for multi-family housing, but not single-family housing, further favoring dense neighborhoods.
Adequate parking is critical, especially when living in dense areas. The Draft stresses that parking should not be considered an obstacle for the affordable housing plan and calls for two off-street parking spaces per bedroom. This seems reasonable. However, the Draft continues to note that at any time the County can make a reduction in the number of parking spaces, based on demand. The County plans on lowering parking demand with "transit passes, carpool programs, and documentation of reduced need." In addition, elderly housing units are not held to the same parking standard as other housing units; they are regularly "granted" reduced parking spaces. Examples include Vista Prieta, Paloma de Mar, and Pajaro Vista.
Santa Cruz County officials claim that the Housing Element is necessary to solve a housing shortage problem, but once the Housing Element is approved and goes into effect, residents will not have many of the luxuries now available. In essence, the only housing choice available to most families will be dense multi-family units with limited parking. There must be a better way.
Copyright 2004, Advance Bulletin
The Advance Bulletin is a publication of Freedom 21 Santa Cruz
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