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The dark and mysterious concept of affordable housing

Updated: Nov 6, 2020

By Erica Aitken


The Riverfront Housing Complex will span over a section of Front Street, three tall buildings of condominiums. With this project comes the familiar negotiations and compromises made to eke out a paltry number of affordable units. We don’t need luxury condos but developers do because that’s how they make their money. With nobody in City management questioning the premise, luxury projects are passed using the grudging and not always awarded promise of a few affordable units. And please, let’s remember to thank them for the generous gift.

What exactly is affordable housing?

We run into a smoke screen trying to understand what exactly is being “given” to us. Only a few know that “affordable” keeps moving with the ever fluctuating rate of the Average Median Income* (AMI). It’s ironic that, when new luxury housing attracts wealthier outsiders, the AMI shifts upwards, leaving Santa Cruz workers forever mired in their insufficient incomes and unable to afford living where they work.

Two criteria decide how many affordable units have to be included. One is the Inclusionary Housing Ordinance which protects low income residents from being priced out. The other is the Density Bonus Ordinance, which is an density increase over residential density. The latter allows for fewer affordable units than the inclusionary ordinance and so is preferred by developers. The question is whether the density bonus should override the inclusionary ordinance or whether they should stack up in order to bring additional and much needed affordable housing to Santa Cruz. With the density bonus allowance, the Riverfront Complex can build 175 units. The Planning Commission majority recommended that the inclusionary requirement and the density bonus affordability requirement be added, which would total 35 affordable units, or 20% of the total units. Under the City staff's recommendation, the project's affordability requirement would be 11% or 20 units. Is the City really on your side?

How residents define affordable housing.

We asked what affordable housing means on various Santa Cruz Facebook pages and got over a hundred answers in less than a day. This is a sensitive, difficult topic.

Many defined affordable housing as [or should be] 30% of their salaries. This used to be the rule of thumb a few decades ago and was a practical number because one could immediately calculate how rent impacted income. But today, rents are over 100% of some Santa Cruz workers’ incomes and easily 65 to 80%.

Not everyone understands that affordable housing is based on numbers that move all the time. These numbers are designed to separate low incomes requiring assistance– from higher incomes.

But when higher incomes are themselves divided between workers whose incomes are earned from the tourist industry, service, teaching, all absolutely essential to society– and those high tech salaries for whom we build our luxury buildings, we should stop talking about affordable housing as it is currently defined, and talk about what we can afford as essential workers in our community.

City Council should rethink the concept of affordable housing and come up with a new formula that not only reflects the real conditions of workers in Santa Cruz, but is repeatable, stable, and easy to understand. In other words, throw out AMI and percentages of units in luxury condos and replace them by a set portion of the minimum full time wage, like 30%. Once defined, require that all housing projects include a majority of units under this new definition until everyone who qualifies is housed.

We must begin thinking about our future before it’s decided for us. Let’s take control of our town again.

* For Santa Cruz County, in 2020, AMI is $110,000.

Eligibility for low income is up to $88,000. Very low income is $ 55,000, and extremely low income is $33000. Keep in mind that, at $15/hour, your full time salary is $30,000 and you must make $55/hour full time to make AMI.

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