Instead of the usual three-minute blip per person for public comments at the close of city council meetings, on May 4 the public had the opportunity to communicate and interact with city staff at a town hall meeting for two hours.
Santa Cruz residents west of the San Lorenzo River were invited to interact with city leaders and staff at City Hall to YOU, a town hall meeting that took place at Peace United Church of Christ. The meeting series launched in 2016, and the recent meeting held space for 80 residents and 30 city staff members to discuss community concerns collectively.
The evening started off with tabling so residents could approach stations and chat with the city staff including the police department, fire department and UC Santa Cruz representatives. Residents also contributed to an interactive mural, which allowed them to write down and share what they love most about Santa Cruz, what they would like to see changed and thoughts on the city’s housing crisis.
Mayor Cynthia Chase emphasized the importance of communication within a city. Town halls like this reserve time for residents to talk with city staff. Chase believes this kind of interaction will improve unity in the community and ease those who feel like the government doesn’t do enough.
“It’s important for people to feel more connected to their city government,” Chase said. “It’s an opportunity for connecting with decision makers.”
After the tabling portion of the town hall, City Manager Martín Bernal gave a presentation highlighting three major community issues: housing, infrastructure and houselessness.
“Santa Cruz is one of California’s least affordable communities,” Bernal said to the audience of community members. He explained that because Santa Cruz is a vacation spot and a neighbor to Silicon Valley, Santa Cruz housing is in high demand.
On the interactive mural, community members also wrote about their concerns with the need for more UCSC on-campus housing, which would help lessen the high demand for neighborhood housing. Bernal acknowledged this concern with the mention of on-campus housing developments that will add 3,000 beds on the UCSC campus — the first phase happening in 2020. He also stated that in future enrollment, the university must maintain its growth cap of 19,500 students or the housing crisis will only worsen.
Bernal’s presentation also covered the upcoming renovations to Santa Cruz’s infrastructure. On the mural, residents wrote that some of their infrastructure concerns included the need for better sidewalks and more speed bumps to slow down traffic. Passed in 2016, Measure D provides over $500 million to projects that will make transportation improvements like fixing local roads, paving bicycle and pedestrian pathways, expanding highway corridors and dedicating revenue toward transit and paratransit.
About 30 percent of the revenues collected from Measure D will go toward neighborhood projects like fixing potholes, intersection and signal improvements and new sidewalks — all of which will increase neighborhood safety. Another 17 percent of Measure D revenues will pave the Coastal Rail Trail, a paved pathway that will encourage car-free alternatives for transportation. According to the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission, the agencies funded by Measure D will present five-year project delivery plans, which will be followed by a public hearing to finalize them. With Measure D being passed, he said there are transportation improvements to look forward to this year.
Another main issue discussed at the town hall was houselessness. Bernal said all the city has been doing is asking people to relocate or ticketing them, only moving people out of sight or punishing those looking for a place to rest. What should be done instead, he said, is actually providing solutions to help houseless individuals acquire permanent housing.
The Santa Cruz houseless community — 1,964 people according to the 2015 Santa Cruz County Point-in-Time Homeless Census and Survey — is grappling with the overnight camping ban. The ban penalizes those without a house to sleep in and failed to get repealed last year by Santa Cruz councilmember Don Lane. Because of this, the houseless still face the risk of receiving citations they often cannot pay off.
“We need to provide more services to help permanently solve homelessness,” Bernal said. Along with more shelters and health services, Bernal hopes the city will soon provide the houseless with jobs, such as cleaning up the city. Although Bernal believes these jobs will lead to more productive, fulfilling lives and a way to eventually afford permanent housing, no solidified city plans have been put forth yet.
Bernal said the city will be reaching out to community members and the state of California in order to efficiently deal with these major issues. Residents east of the San Lorenzo River will also hold a town hall in the near future, according to city staff.
“The city alone cannot solve these problems,” Bernal said.