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Why No Affordable Housing in Santa Cruz??

[N]o number of pleasant proclamations, supportive resolutions, or verbal utterances of support, ... change the fact that keeping housing high-priced is a form of cultural genocide against our community.
Why No Affordable Housing in Santa Cruz??


by Paul Wagner
September 2002

Affordable Housing: Santa Cruz County’s most-versed affordable housing activist explains why it is our issue, and why the Grand Jury recommended the County of Santa Cruz be sued.

Home, Home on the Range

We promised in the two previous columns to cover this summer’s shocking Santa Cruz County Civil Grand Jury report. The one in which the Jurors took a look at our local affordable housing mess and got so infuriated that they actually demanded that one part of our county government sue another for creating that mess. We’re keeping our promise to cover the report here, just a few paragraphs down, after running over a few facts which are crucial to understanding their viewpoint.

O, Give Me a Home Where the Bungalows Roam

We have an affordable housing crisis, despite the fact that some of our wealthier or subsidized might not feel it as much (and may their good fortune continue). Who says so? The Federal government’s Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), that’s who. They point out that while most Americans pay a quarter to a third of their incomes for housing, in Santa Cruz County nearly half pay 50% or more. A Diversity Center board member recently told us that her proud, well-dressed mother, pays 80% of her fixed income, every month. That, by any sensible measurement, is a crisis, both social and personal. That’s why HUD has deemed Santa Cruz’ state of housing “Critical.” And that’s just for the general population.

Where the Queer and the Poor Pay and Pay

It’s even worse for LGBT people. 65 75% of our community’s seniors live alone, and the majority’s earnings “correlate positively with the lower to moderate-income brackets.” Our seniors not only pay the rent with one income, but have less income with which to pull it off.
Another report finds “The national unemployment rate is at a current 4 - 5%, but the unemployment rate of transgender people is an astronomically high 70%.” Needless to say, this is not a population who can afford $1,500 a month for a one-bedroom apartment.
When it comes to young people, “Los Angeles County … reports that approximately 25 35% of their youth are GLB …. Seattle 40% … queer youth make up 40% of the homeless youth living on the streets of New York City.” Among those with AIDS, lack of stable housing is killing people, because without it they can’t follow detailed health regimens. Housing addresses “not only the need for shelter but … real and significant continuing effects on an individual’s health,” says the latest UN Habitat report, in its section on AIDS. Other sources include the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force and the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, and all are online.
In short, it’s our issue. In fact, affordable housing is more our issue than anyone else’s. No other group has a homeless youth component of 35 40%. No other large-sized community has a community who’s 70% unemployed. So when officeholders and bureaucrats plot to keep housing prices high, they are directly attacking us. And no number of pleasant proclamations, supportive resolutions, or verbal utterances of support, and I’ve received all of them, and yes, they’re pleasant, change the fact that keeping housing high-priced is a form of cultural genocide against our community.

What Affordable Housing Isn’t, and Is

A lot of people, especially activists who cut their community teeth in the 1960’s and ’70’s, think that the cure is public housing. Or set-aside housing. Or price-restricted housing. That’s because Federal funds for public housing flowed freely during their activist apprenticeships. But that was a fluke, and these types of housing were not, and are not, historically representative of affordable housing, important as they’ve proven to be. At no time in history has more than 2 3% of our national housing been publicly built, and no more than double that has been publicly financed or controlled.
In fact, over 90% of the providers of affordable housing have always been, and are now, private parties such as homeowners, farmers, and very small businesses. Divorcees offering rural bungalows, boarding houses, and backyard units. Older couples with married-off children carving up their houses and renting out sections. Businesspeople converting storage rooms to small apartments above stores. And good hotels, during lean years, becoming residential hotels, and often end up staying that way. These types of housing were the backbone of our affordable housing stock for centuries. Abe Lincoln, in fact, lived in several of each, perfect cheap lodging for a young activist on the go.
And this stock of housing, which rented or sold for less than 30% of median income (a common legal definition of affordable housing), did just fine in keeping each new generation safely and cheaply housed.

Where Often is Heard a Discouraging Word

So what happened? The McCarthy era is what happened. Many forget that Senator Joseph McCarthy’s first campaigns were not against “reds,” but against public housing. He attacked activists, singling out women, who backed affordable housing for workers, and declared all types of aided housing as “breeding grounds for communists.” Within a couple of years, he turned against all small-unit housing. He thundered against the outsiders, suspect immigrants, homosexuals, and leftist intellectuals, who would threaten our lovely local towns (sound familiar?). And he especially lobbied against the bypassing of local control, warning that it would force racial integration.
So it’s no coincidence that in 1954, when the Federal government first funded small town planning, and a huge proportion of US towns responded by forming their first local planning commissions and zoning boards, those bodies’ first actions were to ban virtually every type of affordable housing. Not only public housing, but all of it. In the name of “better neighborhoods.”
These bans, mind you, weren’t the kind that the Federal Housing Authority had earlier promoted to “exclude incompatible racial and social groups from housing developments.” Those kinds of racial restrictions had been declared unconstitutional back in 1948 by the US Supreme Court.
No, these were subtler. They didn’t say “No leftist students,” they simply banned small apartments above stores. They didn’t toss out poor seniors of color, they simply declared backyard units “incompatible.” Where outright bans had been found unconstitutional, they simply required such high fees and such long procedures that builders eventually gave up. Most dishonest of all, they often didn’t ban smaller units, but simply restricted them to certain zones, and then made sure that zoning maps contained no such zones.
To top it off, they made the bans permanent, so that if people of different color, culture, or habit had already moved in, all they had to do was wait for the aging housing stock to bite the dust and replace it, unit by unit, with the new larger richer stock, thus getting rid of the unwanted and despised by attrition.
This version of “local control,” however, didn’t sell very well for very long, because within just a couple of years, segregationists had stolen the motto.
So by the early 1970’s, the bans were repackaged as “neighborhood stabilization.” That phrase proved to frighten people, and so gave way to the 1980’s’ slogan of “neighborhood protection.” Half of those living in said neighborhoods, however, who suddenly found their every garden gate
regulated, didn’t really feel “protected,” so our hooded crusaders finally, after decades of fumbling, hit upon the perfect veneer for their bans on lower-status housing: like mid-century German politicians, they packaged their discriminatory restrictions as a set of “environmental concerns.” That version is transparent enough that it, too, is now beginning to fail. There is, after all, only so long one can claim to be “worried about water” while permitting hundreds of Jacuzzi-laden
Despite promotional difficulties, the underlying policies have succeeded in driving out the poor, the young, the old, the ill, the queer, and the nonconformists. In fact, by the late 1970’s, affordable housing starts had fallen in coastal communities by two thirds. In 1987, Scientific American published a report that found half of all affordable housing had been driven underground, and only existed because it was built where the law couldn’t find it. The Reagan administration’s sale of public housing, small as that important percentage of stock was, didn’t help either. And individual buyers continued to have to struggle to remove the racially restrictive covenants of a century ago.
By the 1990’s, the affordable housing shortage on both coasts, and in many mid-western regions, had grown so severe that anyone who’d previously bought a home was a millionaire, while entire families slept in shelters or under outcroppings of rock. The McCarthyite campaign to drive out everyone not of normative status, in short, succeeded, supported by both the old right wing in its red-white-and-blue golf jackets and the new right wing in its ‘green’ polo shirts, collars up.

But the Skies Are Not Cloudy All Day

In the last few years, though, people have begun to catch on that this campaign of social exclusion under the rubric of “local control” or “neighborhood stabilization” or “environmental balance” is a losing proposition. That it is in actuality, by displacing half the population and thus causing long commutes, massive pollution, and paralytic gridlock, anti-environmental. That its approach of ever-larger houses on ever-larger lots is setting off tsunamis of sprawl. That it doesn’t even serve the intended beneficiaries, the ever-smaller proportion of the landed white and wealthy.
More important, those long suckered by these discriminatory policies are starting to realize that exclusionary planning and zoning regulations constitute a massive violation of the most fundamental premise of our Constitution, equal protection under law. State legislatures have begun to act to reverse the exclusions. Courts, from state appeals courts to the US Supreme Court, have declared regulation after regulation and ban after ban to violate basic principles of American law. And now, finally, local institutions themselves are getting involved, and at a surprisingly rapid pace. Enter the Grand Jury.
Sometime in 1990 or ’91, someone (we don’t know who, and it wasn’t us) finally had enough, and complained to the Civil Grand Jury about the County, the last local proponent of discriminatory planning and zoning policies. The Jury spent a year taking a deep, well-researched look, and released its report this summer.
First, the Jurors cited the well-known fact that “the affordable housing situation in Santa Cruz County … [is] the worst in the entire United States.”
Next, they addressed the law. “California law requires each City and County to proportionally address all income levels,” that “Santa Cruz County has not complied since at least 1994,” and that “this non-compliance has resulted in severe financial and social consequences.”
They gave examples: “The number of homeless children in the County [has] more than doubled … In just four years, the number of families with children forced to double-up or triple-up in housing increased more than eight-fold.” They painted a picture: “Many employed individuals and families in the very low-income category live in condemned structures, abandoned vehicles, sheds, storage bins, and camps for the homeless … without plumbing, without sanitary facilities, without electricity, without heat.”
So who done it? Is it the Immigrant Hordes who might have enough money to skew the upper level home ownership market, but actually number only 300 per year from all points worldwide (source: Census 2000). Or is it this season’s favorite scapegoat, 17-year old students without money? No, says the Grand Jury. The Board of Supervisors is the cause. Their exact words:
“The Board of Supervisors, as the responsible executives of the County, with full knowledge and understanding are, and for a number of years have been, out of compliance with California and Santa Cruz County housing laws.” As a result, “the number of affordable dwelling units has actually been declining.”

What the Grand Jury Found

1. This crisis is unnecessary: “there are numerous options for relieving the affordable housing situation … without compromising essential health and safety requirements, environmental or coastal protections, agricultural lands, or services important to the quality of life. These options, sometimes individually, sometimes collectively, have been proposed to the Supervisors on many occasions but no action has been taken.”

2. Their ‘support’ isn’t real: “Instead, the Supervisors, while publicly voicing support for affordable housing, have instead directed further studies, directed additional analysis, requested additional reports, directed economic modeling, directed exploration of possibilities and routinely deferred considerations to future dates, often repeatedly, until they eventually failed to appear on subsequent agendas.” Meanwhile, even as the Board cleanses the community of us, it illegally waives its own planning and zoning rules to invite the ultra-wealthy, says the Jury, and they cite several examples.

3. They refuse to change: “Although repeatedly notified by State and County officials that the County is and has been continually violating these laws and the consequences of doing so, public statements … in the past five months have rejected any reversal of position.”

The Jury’s conclusion says that ultimately this period of lawless bigotry can, in fact, be brought to an end. How? “The Grand Jury recommends that a complaint … be filed with the Court by the Santa Cruz County District Attorney, or the State Attorney General … and/or by other interested parties as a class action.”
This is what the Civil Grand Jury said, the reasons they said it, the context in which it happened, and why they recommended that the DA and the citizenry sue the hell out of the Board. Next time, we’ll be covering the real-life results of these warmed-over McCarthy era policies, citing a remarkable study by one of California’s most respected planning institutions.
Thank you for your time in reading, and thanks to our Heroes of the Month, the members of the 2000 2001 Santa Cruz County Civil Grand Jury, for standing up under tremendous pressure to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
If you have a brief story about how these indefensible, illegal, and unconstitutional policies have personally affected you, and are willing to have them cited in public, either in part or in whole, please write to Paul Wagner in care of this publication or at paulwagner (at)

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