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Laurel, Pacific, and Center where a new huge building will go up once the destruction is cleared.

California is undergoing some major changes and it sometimes seems like there's a race on to make us as inhospitable as possible, at least for those who have no control. The State is for sale (and on fire) and we're helplessly watching it happen.

Last week, two writers contributed opinion pieces to the Santa Cruz Sentinel and they have agreed to allow reImagine to post them here.

Lira Filippini goes over the implications of SB35, a bill passed by the State to promote affordable housing. but liable to have some disastrous effects.

Jeffrey Schwartz takes the position that it may not be a lack of housing we're facing but the fact that, no matter how many houses we have, they will always be unaffordable. He calls for the right for each local jurisdiction to determine their own plan for the future of their cities and county.

Santa Cruz residents have no say on developments because of SB 35

By Lira Filippini

Whether you want Santa Cruz to be an eccentric beach town or a buzzing high-rise city, don’t you think we – as a community – should retain an ability to influence how it changes?

Right now, our city is assessing its first ever Senate Bill 35 application for a large development at 831 Water Street. There is one great thing about Novin Development’s massive development application: 50% of the units will be set at “affordable” rates.

Unfortunately, there are also a number of major issues with this application that bring up substantiated concerns over public health, public safety, inequitable segregation, and the probable destruction of very important underground historical adobe foundations and artifacts from our intriguing Villa de Branciforte heritage.

But more on all that another time; right now, what is most concerning is that our community is facing unprecedented loss of any meaningful input on developments that achieve SB 35 approval. And no one seems to know about it.

SB 35 is a law passed in 2017 that had commendable “intent” in that it promotes affordable housing in areas that have not produced enough. The state keeps track of our housing production and annually reports which cities and counties will be subject to SB 35. Santa Cruz has worked hard on this front and fulfilled all market rate and affordable housing development categories, except one: the “very-low income” category.

This single deficiency, makes our city subject to SB 35 and what is called “ministerial streamlining” for developments that set 50% of their units as affordable housing. Ministerial streamlining means that the city will fast-track the approval and permitting process without public hearings, taking away your voice.

You might think we could benefit from removing barriers to building affordable housing, and build it fast. But let’s look at the implications in more detail. For instance, a developer can get SB 35 streamlining by only providing housing in the form of tiny studio apartments … and lots of them. A land of little boxes.. made of modular building sections in the “brutalism” architectural design. Sound appealing? Where’s the responsibility to provide for low-income families in that? And imagine sheltering in place in a tiny concrete box.

Quality of living, not requiring housing for families, and pandemic implications aside, SB 35 means no CEQA. CEQA is the California Environmental Quality Act and is an important law that dictates our need to be stewards for the health and safety of our built environment and our natural environment; it has been painstakingly set up for decades – by professionals in many industries – to ensure we don’t do irreparable harm when we create substantial changes to our infrastructure, including housing developments.

But who needs environmental responsibility? Also, who needs assurance that the due diligence has been put in to make sure health and public safety are considered in the development’s permitting process? Does it make sense to throw all that CEQA work out the door because we need affordable housing? How about that the entire project – including the expensive, market-rate units, at about the same size and packed density – will be geared almost entirely toward singles? What effect on the overall expense of living here per square-footage will that have? We can talk about AMI (Average Median Income) and how what’s technically deemed “affordable” is disastrously affected by all this another time, but I’ll just say for now – it’s not looking good.

That brings us to the final straw, the nail in the coffin for an engaged and equitable process for developing our community. If you identify ways in which an SB 35 development will harm you, your family, the environment, or community – too bad. SB 35 and city staff tell us we will have no say. But stay tuned, because our elected representatives, our City Council, have more power than they think in this process – and we’ll have to demand they use it.

Lira Filippini is a resident of Santa Cruz.

We can’t build our way out of lack of affordable housing

By Jeffrey A. Schwartz

Andy Schiffrin’s July 31 Op-Ed about the state’s response to the “housing crisis” is on target but the situation is substantially worse than he describes.

The Bay Area does not have a housing crisis. We do have an affordability crisis. They are not the same. The affordability crisis is because of the demand side of the supply and demand equation. The current buzz about people leaving California notwithstanding, this is one of the most desirable places to live, not in the U.S., but in the entire world. Our prices reflect that.

If we built 300,000 new Bay Area housing units in the next three years, which we cannot, prices would not fall substantially or approach “affordable.” The notion we can build to affordability is preposterous. Look how well Los Angeles did building itself out of traffic problems by creating more freeways.

While we can’t build out of this situation, we can ruin our quality of life in trying. Animal research demonstrates that increasing densities leads to dysfunction and even death. Why should we aspire to high densities, increasing wildfire risks and exacerbating water shortages, when both problems have already reached crisis proportions? We also risk homogenizing our communities and losing local control and local identity.

We know people can hold contradictory views, but there are some limits. We cannot endorse sustainability as a bedrock principle while continuing to support perpetual growth as an economic necessity.

In their wisdom, our state leaders and our unelected regional government (ABAG) have mandated that every city and county must create huge numbers of new housing units (the “RHNA allocation”) in the next 10 years or face severe penalties. In my suburb, Saratoga, RHNA means building 1700+ new units, an almost 20% increase in existing housing in a city that is essentially built out. Community after community across the Bay Area is struggling to meet the state mandate while residents are angrily opposed to what is being done. Even neighborhoods in our big cities fear community deterioration. An additional bill now being considered by the Legislature would allow up to a four-plex on any legal lot, overriding all local zoning restrictions.

Almost all of our elected state representatives cynically support these measures in spite of overwhelming local opposition. How cynical? First, these same representatives profess commitment to stopping climate change but Saratoga, for example, has no jobs and almost no public transportation. Second, ADU’s (“granny units”) count but in many suburbs, most ADU’s aren’t rented. Worse, a portion of the RHNA allocation must be “affordable housing.” How is that determined? The state says that if new units are built at minimum density of 20 units per acre, it will be assumed they are affordable. Really? In Saratoga, a three-story condominium project may be 20 units per acre but even a two-bedroom condo will sell for over a million dollars, while meeting our “affordable units” requirement. Who does that help besides developers and realtors? Certainly not low-income people or the homeless.

We are here because politics makes strange bedfellows. Years ago, the affordable housing folks found themselves in bed with the development community, and it worked. Disguised under appeals about homelessness and lack of affordability, local zoning ordinances were successfully attacked and essentially defeated (See SB35). Now our elected leaders are unwilling to admit the emperor has no clothes on.

What can be done? Likely, what is needed is a state-wide voter initiative preserving the right of local jurisdictions to establish local zoning and maintain local identity.

What about people who cannot afford to buy here? I have no pat answer but we should not socially engineer a non-solution worse than the problem.

Psychologist Jeffrey A. Schwartz has worked with police and correctional agencies across the United States and Canada for more than 40 years. He was a three-term community college Trustee and for years he was Vice President of the Board of the only homeless shelter in Santa Clara County restricted to women and young children.

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