State Bills Address CA Housing Crisis

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The Santa Cruz community and government straddle opposite ends of a spectrum in response to California’s housing crisis. After the recent approval of 15 affordable housing bills, it is now up to Santa Cruz to take the next steps — and local activists want their voices to be heard in these decisions.

The city has had trouble contributing to affordable housing developments in recent years, said Santa Cruz Mayor Cynthia Chase. This started when the California Department of Finance’s Redevelopment Agency, the single source of consistent funding for affordable housing, was eliminated in 2012.

It came as a great relief to many local governments when Gov. Jerry Brown recently signed 15 bills into law, which could raise about $1 billion a year in bond revenue to subsidize new homes for low-income residents. Government officials and lawmakers claim this year’s set of bills are only the start in tackling the housing crisis.

“These bills are going to contribute significantly to us having some additional resources that will allow us some flexibility and give us some options to actually begin to address the housing crisis,” Chase said.

The money to build these subsidized homes is expected to come from two bills, Senate Bill (SB) 2 and SB 3. SB 2 provides local governments with $250 million annually. Other than home construction, half of the money raised in the first year will go to cities and counties to update neighborhood development blueprints and other planning documents. SB 3, a $4 billion housing bond needs approval on the 2018 ballot, will be allocated to the construction of new homes for low-income residents.

The remaining 13 bills require cities to plan for more housing and give them the ability to implement low-income requirements. Cities who say ‘no’ to housing projects or do not follow through with housing plans could face legal action by California’s attorney general.

These 15 bills could add up to 14,000 homes each year in California while the state needs 180,000 additional homes each year to keep up with its growing population, according to the California Industry Research Board and California Department of Housing and Community Development.

While these bills may seem like a step in the right direction, activist groups like the Santa Cruz Tenant Organizing Committee say it is important to stay wary of the city’s intentions, as profit may still be its priority.

“If profit is the motivating factor in the development of new housing in the kind of market that we exist in this city, then new housing will always be expensive unless it is subsidized,” said Zav Hershfield, an organizer of the Santa Cruz Tenant Organizing Committee. “It is a little more expensive to do in the short run, but in the long run you have permanently affordable housing.”

On top of constructing affordable housing, activists like Hershfield are calling for rent regulations such as a rent freeze — temporarily capping rent increases — to help resolve part of the issue. The city has heard calls for rent regulation, but City Manager Martin Bernal said Santa Cruz is still trying to assess whether such a policy would benefit the city, citing a need for further analysis.

When making these decisions, Mayor Cynthia Chase said it is also up to UC Santa Cruz to tackle the growing student population, which greatly impacts the local housing market. The UC Board of Regents approved a budget plan in 2015 to enroll an additional 10,000 California undergraduates over three years across all the UCs.

Although the university plans to increase the number of beds on campus, students without housing guarantees or who simply cannot afford on-campus housing are left with the burden of finding affordable housing in the third most expensive city in the U.S.