Andy Hartman, of the local electrical workers’ union, has noticed a strange irony when it comes to building affordable housing.
Oftentimes, the men and women laboring to bring a project to life make too little at the construction sites to afford to live in one of the finished units, explains Hartman, the business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 234.
That’s why he’s excited about a new $140 million bond measure headed to the November ballot to fund affordable housing, as it would require that workers be paid a living wage—which, for electricians, would be $46 an hour—instead of hourly wages that he says can run as low as $15.
“We want to see workers out there on projects,” he says. “We want to ideally have more local people going to work on the projects.”
It isn’t just the unions who are throwing their weight behind the measure, which would need a two-thirds voter majority to pass on the Nov. 6 ballot.
By last month, the coalition working on the November measure had grown to more than 70 people, including members of local city governments, affordable housing developers, the Community Action Board, Visit Santa Cruz County, Barrios Unidos, the Santa Cruz Farm Bureau, and Santa Cruz for Bernie, to name a few. On Tuesday, Aug. 7, the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors voted 5-0 to place the measure on the upcoming ballot.
During a public comment period that lasted more than an hour, Cathy Sarto, of Peace United Church of Christ, spoke on behalf of COPA, a coalition of more than 29 institutions, like schools and churches. Her voice trembling, she spoke about her five children—one of whom works for Hospice of Santa Cruz County, and another in mental health.
“These are Santa Cruz’s own kids, kids who did everything we asked of them,” she said.
“We asked them to get an education and contribute and give back to society. Our congregations are losing members and clergy. Our schools can’t recruit teachers. Our health institutions can’t recruit doctors and nurses.”
The rent for a two-bedroom Santa Cruz apartment is about $3,200, according to data from both Zillow and Rent Jungle, which is more than half the median household income.
Casey Beyer, the executive director of the Santa Cruz Chamber of Commerce, has been working on the measure and building a coalition for more than a year, since former Mayor Don Lane and former state Assemblymember Fred Keeley asked if he would pitch in to help strategize. Beyer says that when the chamber polls its members on top priorities, three things rise to the top of the list—housing, transportation and retention or recruitment of employees, in that order. When Beyer asks business owners about their recruiting problems, he says they tell him, “Well, if we can recruit someone here, we often lose that potential candidate because the cost of housing is too high.”
The challenge, he says, applies to both the public and private sectors.
Some progressives were understandably less than thrilled at the bond’s dollar amount, given that it would provide $110 million less than the $250 million measure Lane and Keeley had initially pitched. Keeley says the trick was finding that sweet spot between how much voters’ checkbooks will support and how much money was required to provide the needed impact. The last time that the Affordable Housing Santa Cruz County (AHSCC) coalition met, members in attendance voted unanimously to support the measure. They also voted unanimously to go “all in” on the campaign, meaning that even if someone is running a different campaign, the affordable housing bond should be their second-biggest priority.
“We gotta be number two, not number three or four,” Keeley explains.
In the measure, 75 percent of the funds are slated for affordable housing construction, and 15 percent would go to fund the brick-and-mortar construction costs for new homeless facilities that could be spent anywhere in the county. The final 10 percent would go to assistance for home ownership, like loans to first-time homebuyers.
Beyer says that in order to build units that are truly affordable, the community will need funding, and if Santa Cruz wants to compete for state grants, the county needs local sources like a ballot measure.
The measure’s money is split between the county’s five local governments, with a breakdown that the city managers and the county administrative officer agreed upon.
Recent polling paid for by AHSCC reveals some encouraging tidbits about likely voters’ compassionate interest on these issues—but also cause for concern. Only 60 percent of voters support the measure at first, with 3 percent more leaning in that direction. After hearing more information, that number jumps to 64 percent, with 2 percent more leaning toward supporting it, bringing the total number to 66 percent, still technically under the needed two-thirds threshold.
The measure includes language, recently mandated by state law, about the cost of the bond measure to property owners on their property tax bill. It would cost $16.77 per $100,000 of the officially assessed value of the property.
The pollsters told Keeley support could be 5 to 12 percent higher were it not for that language. Coalition members know they could wait two years and put the measure on the ballot in 2020, when they can count on higher turnout from a presidential election. But if a recession begins between now and then, Keeley isn’t sure that the climate would be any more favorable. He notes that coalition members have plenty of campaign experience, and that housing will drive voters to the polls in November, as there will be two statewide housing measures and two local ones.
With a short runway ahead, Beyer says campaigners need to craft a cohesive message and stay on the same page. “Now’s the time to play ball. We have 100 days to pull it across the finish line,” says Beyer, a onetime chief of staff to former Congressmember Tom Campbell.
In the AHSCC poll, county voters’ top three priorities were affordable housing, homelessness and mental health services. Those needs came in ahead of education, transportation, the environment and public safety. Eighty-four percent of likely voters agreed that local governments should do more do address the homeless problem in Santa Cruz County, with 60 percent strongly agreeing. Those numbers are up from polling in 2017. Not only that, but the numbers of those who were unsure, who somewhat disagreed and who totally disagreed went down.
The polling indicates that people are less concerned about being able to find a place to live for themselves than they are about other people. That indicates encouraging findings on what Keeley calls “the compassion meter.”
“The compassion meter in our community isn’t inexhaustible, but this isn’t so much about them,” he says. “It’s about what kind of community do we want to live in?”
Keeley stresses the campaign is in the business of securing money for affordable housing, not making housing policy decisions that local governments will figure out in the future.
“We’re not in the business of saying where it should go, should it be single-family or multi-family? Should we do four stories on Water Street? We’re staying in our lane,” Keeley says, “and our lane is forming capital, providing funding and community funding to make these pencil out.”
Update: A previous version of this story misspelled Cathy Sarto’s last name and misstated Tom Campbell’s former title, as well as the findings of a previous housing poll.