‘H’ is for Housing

A proposed property tax increase to create affordable housing

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While Measure M has taken the spotlight,  a quieter competition simmers between Yes on H and No on H campaigners in Santa Cruz County. Measure H, the Santa Cruz County Affordable Housing Bond, is one of several pieces of housing legislation to appear on the Nov. 6 ballot.

“We need to have a huge community discussion — and I think Measure H begins that discussion — about how we envision building enough housing to address the needs that we’re currently experiencing,” said Raymond Cancino, CEO of Community Bridges, an organization that provides resources to vulnerable populations in Santa Cruz  County.

If Measure H passes with at least two-thirds of votes, $140 million worth of general obligation bonds will be issued and backed by property taxes. Essentially, property owners would pay about $12-17 annually per $100,000 worth of assessed property value for the next 35 years to repay the bond debt to the county. 

The $8.6 million annual proceeds would be primarily allocated toward providing affordable housing to eligible people, and  some funds would provide down payment assistance to first-time home buyers. 

“It opens up opportunities for those who are low-income, those who are disabled, those who are veterans […] to own a home,” said county superintendent to schools Michael Watkins. “That’s what’s missing in this community as we move  forward.”

According to a recent study from the California Housing Partnership Corporation, the wage needed to afford the median rent in Santa Cruz is $50.96 per hour, which is 460 percent more than the county minimum wage. As the cost of living outpaces pay raises and families are forced to leave the community, the need for affordable housing continues to grow. Without investment in development, many low- to middle-class households will be forced to relocate.

“As a superintendent of schools I see it first hand as [schools] lose teachers […] or I can’t pay enough to get somebody who has a specialty in this area,” Watkins said. “You also see — in certain pockets — enrollment in schools dropping because families are leaving the area.”

While proponents of Measure H are interested in preserving the existing community in Santa Cruz by making housing more affordable, they also emphasize investing in the future of the community by supporting first-time home buyers. 

“My hope is that first-time home buyers will become permanent residents because they’ll contribute a lot more to the tax base than people who are only here over the weekend or in the sunny months,” Cancino  said. 

With the future of the community in mind, Cancino acknowledged that part-time residents do not contribute as much as long-term residents. Though both sides are interested in community preservation, there was disagreement on how to achieve that goal.

Opponents argue increasing property taxes would have its own negative impacts on housing security and the composition of the community, particularly those who own houses but aren’t high income. 

“I think the people [Measure H] is going to hurt most are the ones who are on the edge, and I know those people. They’re my neighbors. It’s technically my family,” said homeowner Becky Steinbruner. “All of the bond issues and the special assessments have doubled [my family’s] property  taxes.”

Both proponents and opponents of Measure H recognize that people on fixed incomes will be negatively impacted by the tax increases. The effects of the measure on seniors were of particular concern. 

“There are a lot of seniors that are just barely hanging on,” said business and homeowner Kris Kirby.

While proponents argue that low-income seniors will qualify for affordable housing or tax deferral programs, opponents are not convinced that these programs will be as accessible as they’re made out to be. Much of this skepticism was rooted in their dissatisfaction with the language of the measure. 

“I think the measure is really poorly written,” Kirby said. “It’s vague and there doesn’t seem to be a real plan.”

Moreover, since Measure H doesn’t specify the amount of debt or the length of time taxpayers will be paying off debt, opponents argue that it isn’t transparent enough to satisfy laws pertaining to ballot  language. 

The perceived lack of precision with which Measure H was written leaves opponents considering alternative solutions. Some of their proposed solutions include relying on an existing affordable housing program, accelerating the permitting process for accessory dwelling units and encouraging UC Santa Cruz to build more housing to accommodate students.

Despite differences in opinion on Measure H, both sides hope to see construction on the UCSC campus in the near future.

“It’ll help the economy, it’ll put a lot of people to work,” Kirby said. ”It’ll be nice to have most of the students live up there, and it’ll ease up on the rental market in Santa Cruz.”