“People Matter” and “Save Our House” were among the many decorated signs held by protesters who sang and shared stories about recent evictions of city residents in front of City Hall on Oct. 7. The energy from outside changed as people filtered into the chambers to await commencement of the City Council Study Session on the Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) ordinance in Santa Cruz.
In response to strict ordinances regulating the construction and habitation of accessory dwelling units, protesters at Love Your Granny Rental Rally, an event organized through the Save Paula’s Cottage movement, demanded a moratorium on the required abatement of local units deemed unsafe to occupy. The steep fines and fees required to improve units caused owners, unable to afford these costs, to vacate tenants from the illegally-occupied units until the necessary upgrades are applied to the structure.
“Instead of attempting to work with the property owners so they can legalize the units and bring them up to code, the city took the position of just kicking out the tenants,” said rally moderator Mithrell Bowerman. “We would like [the city] to do more to provide affordable housing and address the rental crisis.”
The Rental Inspection Program was established in conjunction with the Title 24 zoning provisions on ADUs to ensure the safety and welfare of the units and occupants. The program requires all dwelling units to receive certification and annual inspection to be registered as legalized units.
“Our ultimate goal is to bring the unpermitted structures up to minimum building code standards by conducting inspections that provide safer housing,” said city code compliance specialist Jacob Rodriguez.
While housing safety is a concern for UC Santa Cruz and the city, many protesters attending the rally also acknowledged the effect the Rental Inspection Program has on the availability of housing in Santa Cruz. Due to high costs of student housing on campus, ranging from $1,400 to $1,900 a month, and the recent closure of university housing structures, many students are forced to search for housing options off campus.
“The university has a systemwide policy that is a bad neighbor policy,” said architect and city planning commissioner Mark Primack. “Rather than design appropriate student housing in appropriate locations, it’s the students who are living in large single family houses and it’s the students who are forced to compete with young families for single family houses.”
After a 2008 settlement between UCSC and the city, the campus agreed to provide funding and support for an inspection program focusing on the regulation of dwelling units.
“The city agreed to do this program to make university housing more appealing to students, but now university housing is full,” rally moderator Bowerman said. “The university cannot house its students. The locals are having the exact same problem, and in the middle of this, the city is evicting tenants from their units”
Over the past four years there have been 36 official abatements of city residences, Primack said. The abatements and resulting evictions of residents occurred after the 2010 implementation of the Rental Inspection Program.
“The Rental Inspection Program was something the university insisted on,” Primack said. “City Council members and staff, who supported this, pretty much sold us down the river. The ordinance requires that we go well beyond issues of safety and health and eliminate housing in the city.”
At the city council meeting, city planning commissioner and principal engineer Mark Mesiti-Miller explained these regulations were implemented to keep housing in Santa Cruz safe and efficient.
“It’s for the safety of life and property from fires and other hazards attributed to the built environment,” said Mesiti-Miller, “It also provides safety for firefighters and emergency responders during emergency operations.”
Many community members argue certain changes should be made to the inspection program to eliminate the unnecessary evictions of tenants. Bowerman calls the program “problematic” and suggested suspending the program in light of the “rental crisis.”
“I would support modifications of the program to allow more tenants to stay in their homes while repairs are completed, if repeal is not politically viable,” Bowerman said. “We need a pathway to legalization for as many existing units as possible. We simply cannot afford to have all of those units removed from the rental market. We face a terrible housing shortage in Santa Cruz as is.”
The Santa Cruz County Planning Department conducted a set of meetings over the past year to discuss possible amendments to the ADU ordinance to allow for more units to be legalized through the inspection program. These suggested amendments involve changes to certain ADU zoning requirements included within the ordinance and inspection process, such as lot size, setbacks, parking and owner occupancy.
“We need to make the Rental Inspection Program an honest ordinance and make it about health and safety. Take out all that stuff about zoning conformance. Zoning is not about health and safety,” Primack said. “I’m going to push for the City Council to understand exactly what is involved in legalizing a unit.”
Primack, a father who witnessed his daughter struggle for housing off campus as a UC student, understands the pressure placed on students and local residents searching for and trying to keep affordable housing. He believes these recommended changes to the zoning requirements of dwelling units will help alleviate, but not solve, the problems with housing in Santa Cruz.
“We need to wake up and acknowledge that we are a college town and that we are going to be housing at least half of the students who come to the university,” Primack said. “We need to find a sane way to do that.”