Michelle Williams

Arts Council Director Gets Priced Out of Santa Cruz

Michelle Williams and her family have mixed feelings about leaving for Florida


Walking past the Tannery’s housing complex, Michelle Williams reflects on something her financial advisor said to her four months ago. Williams, who has served as executive director of Arts Council Santa Cruz County for nine years, gets emotional just thinking about it.

The advisor told Williams and her husband Jonathan Vaden that if they cut $10,000 annually out of their already-meager budget, they could begin seriously saving for one of three things eight years from now: a house, their retirement or college tuition for their two children. They would have to pick one.

“We’re going backwards, instead of forwards, in our financial lives,” Williams remembers thinking. “We have no hope of ever buying a home here.”

With that reality setting in, Vaden started looking for work. Not long after, he was offered a lucrative marketing position in Tampa, Florida. Vaden accepted it, and now he, Williams and their two sons will be moving at the beginning of their upcoming summer vacation. They’re already in escrow on a house.

“Our financial lives will change overnight,” Williams says, in near-disbelief.

Williams, who rents in Santa Cruz’s Seabright neighborhood, has seen the town’s housing crisis impact workers in every sector of the economy. She personally knows many artists who could not afford to live locally, were it not for the affordable units at the Tannery Arts Center, which is also home to the Arts Council offices. Away from the campus, Williams knows many other creatives who struggle to juggle various jobs while navigating stressful housing arrangements. She wonders how any service workers could ever survive here.

Educators are feeling the squeeze, too, Williams has noticed. The parents of one of her son’s friends are both teachers—and like Williams, they’ll be moving away in June. They’re headed to San Diego, where they’ve been able to find higher-paying jobs, as well as cheaper housing.

Williams stresses that, for all its flaws, she loves Santa Cruz as much as ever. The decision hasn’t been easy.

“It’s been a combination of love and heartbreak,” she explains. “It’s not like I was burned out. It’s not like I ran out of passion for this job. It’s math. It doesn’t work, and it hasn’t worked. We’ve got to make it work. We owe it to our kids and our futures.”

At the Arts Council, Williams’ announcement kickstarts the search for a new leader. The nonprofit oversees First Friday art walks, the Ebb and Flow Festival, grant programs for artists, and art education programs for 17,000 school kids.


It’s one thing to recognize that Santa Cruz is one of the least affordable housing markets in the country. Doing something about it is another.

Over the past year, the city of Santa Cruz has taken action—adopting a relocation assistance ordinance for tenants who see large rent increases, streamlining accessory dwelling unit rules and approving 205 new units of market-rate housing on Pacific Avenue and Laurel Street. City leaders have expressed hopes of building an additional 100-percent affordable housing complex next door.

Matt Huerta works as the housing program manager for the Monterey Bay Economic Partnership, which will host a housing-related discussion with state Sen. Scott Weiner at Peace United Church on Friday night. He says Santa Cruz’s leadership on housing has been mixed.

The city, he explains, needs to take action on more items—like making changes to fee structures on new housing construction. “They makes steps in the right direction and have demonstrated an openness, but there’s a lack of progress,” Huerta says. “There’s a lack of strong enough political will to get the big things done.”

Last year, local activists filed a lawsuit against the approved downtown development, alleging that the complex skirts affordable housing requirements. Huerta views the challenge as a setback for the city because the project is badly needed, he says, even if affordable units won’t be built on site.

Williams isn’t deeply familiar with all of Santa Cruz’s policy workings, but in visiting Tampa, she says she’s been impressed by how committed the Florida city is to solving whatever problems seem to arise. She gives the example of an intersection where the city did a large overhaul. The first didn’t improve traffic, so Tampa is breaking ground again, this time with a revised plan, she says.

“Tampa felt like a city that—through its infrastructure investments, its public transit investments, its cultural facility investments—was working really hard to make it a place where everyone felt welcome, and to make it as easy as possible to live there,” she says. “That was my experience as an outsider. I don’t know how to solve the housing crisis, but it seems like for some, there is this dedication to keeping Santa Cruz as it is, from whatever moment in time people got here.”


There were other aspects of life in Santa Cruz that tested the patience of Williams and her family.

Just over a year ago, Williams’ home was broken into, and the thief stole her purse, the family’s computers and their minivan. Her family probably left a door unlocked, Williams admits. The thief tossed pretty much everything from their van, including the middle seats. When cops found the vehicle, its interior was covered in blood and littered with syringes—prompting six weeks and $13,000-worth of repairs, she says.

After the whole ordeal was over, Williams says her family looked at the thief with compassion. She adds that they still felt committed to Santa Cruz, even though her kids would sometimes wake up in the middle of the night and say, “Mommy, can you go make sure all the doors are locked?”

This year, though, she says, the family has decided that it’s time to move on.

“You get to the point,” she says, “where you’re like, ‘I can’t live like this on so many different levels.’”

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