Did Santa Cruz Housing Measures Hurt Each Other?

Rent control, housing bond both poised to fall well short of passing

Construction has been underway for months at the 1547 Pacific Avenue condominium complex, where 12 out of 79 units will be affordable. PHOTO: KEANA PARKER

As election day neared, one of the big questions in Santa Cruz County was how a slew of housing-related measures crowded onto local ballots might affect one other.

At the statewide level, there were three housing-related measures, with two more locally.

This past summer, tenant activists in Santa Cruz were moving forward with a local rent control measure when affordable housing advocates officially decided to proceed with a countywide housing bond measure. Former Santa Cruz Mayor Don Lane and retired county Treasurer Fred Keeley had been working on the latter for the better part of two years.

Once the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors unanimously agreed to approve the bond measure, there was a concern that the various housing measures could confuse voters. Rent control, in particular, was expected to turn into a hard-fought, hotly contested campaign with negative mailers and big spending.

Housing bond supporters could have waited until 2020, but one problem with that, Keeley argued, was that a possible recession could doom the measure’s prospects at the polls.

After weighing their options, Keeley, Lane and dozens of other supporters made a bet on the Nov. 6 ballot. Many hoped that the confluence of housing measures would drive local voters of all stripes to the polls.

“We think this is the right ballot, because we think it’s the housing ballot,” Keeley said in July.

In hindsight, the “housing ballot” did not work out the way supporters had hoped.

With election day come and gone, both Measure H, the affordable housing bond, and Measure M, the rent control initiative, look poised to end up well short of passing.

While it’s too early for an autopsy report on either initiative, there is a sense that the two may have dragged one another down, with an ugly rent control fight taking some of the air out of the discussion over an otherwise popular housing bond.

Rent control supporters have not yet conceded defeat on the Measure M rent control initiative, but each measure is in a deep hole. Measure M has 33 percent voter approval as of press time. Measure H, the housing bond, is at 52 percent, but would need a two-thirds majority to pass.

Faz Fazilat, who campaigned in favor of Measure M, says tenant organizers are focused on preserving tenant protections in the event that rent control does officially fail. Many renters, he says, are terrified that they’ll see rent hikes or eviction notices the minute that the temporary rent freeze and just-cause eviction measure expire on Dec. 11, unless the City Council takes action.

During the campaign, some affordable housing supporters saw rent control as an ineffective—and yet also extreme—Band-Aid solution that would hurt many renters.

Supporters felt that they simply got drowned out by campaign contributions from Measure M’s opponents—who outspent supporters 10-1, with help from the California Apartment Association.

Robert Singleton managed the anti-rent control campaign, and says that the housing bond “got caught in the crossfire” of the rent control controversy.

Singleton, who serves as executive director for the Santa Cruz County Business Council, says that he would have focused his energy on the housing bond if the rent control measure hadn’t been proposed. He acknowledges that the debate over Measure M hit many low points, including when anti-rent control landlord Darius Mohsenin started distributing alarming fliers that even his fellow opponents viewed as bigoted and racist.

“It’s really unfortunate. Measure H is what we all agreed upon,” Singleton says.

As it was being crafted and finalized, Measure H got a wide range of buy-in from institutions spanning the political spectrum—Santa Cruz County Farm Bureau, Santa Cruz for Bernie, and local labor groups, to name a few.

Three-quarters of the $140 million bond would have gone toward affordable housing construction. The rest would have gone toward assistance for first-time home buyers and the construction of homeless facilities.

Entrepreneur Danny Keith, who voted against Measure H, viewed the initiative as deeply flawed. Keith, who serves on the county’s Human Services Committee, says that based on what he’s seen, no jurisdiction would want a homeless facility in the neighborhood—no matter how big the pot of money is. “We’re doing everything we can to help these people,” he says.

Keith says he does think about housing affordability a lot, and worries about his son getting priced out of the county someday. But the only real answer, he feels, is for local planning departments to cut red tape, streamline their permitting processes and let developers build housing. He also suggests to me that it probably isn’t fair that renters like myself get to vote on measures that will show up on the property tax bills of local homeowners like him. Keith estimates the measure would have cost him about $55 a year.

Alina Harway, one of the Measure H campaign’s more active volunteers, disagrees, saying that it’s a core tenet of modern democracy for all voters to be able to cast ballots on issues that affect everyone.

Harway, the spokesperson for Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California, notes that both of California’s statewide housing bonds passed, and she is optimistic about the future under Gov. Gavin Newsom, who casts himself as an ardent supporter of affordable housing.

Lane and Harway both say that one bright spot in the Measure H results is that the majority of voters did support it, although the results are well short of what was needed to accomplish anything concrete.

They are just beginning to muse about future solutions.

“I do think funding is one of the pieces of the puzzle,” Lane says. “We always said it was just one piece of the puzzle. Trying to figure out what those pieces might be is another approach. People do want solutions. It’s just a question of the best way to get the community to move forward.”

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