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December 5, 2023

Addressing our local housing crisis

By ZACH FRIEND, Santa Cruz County Supervisor

Our state and local housing crisis can be measured in many ways: From the more than $70,000 one has to earn to afford the rent of a two-bedroom apartment locally to our state’s 78,000 unsheltered homeless (nearly half of the nation’s total), to county median home prices hovering around $850,000. 

It’s easy to see why many in our community find it difficult to afford to live there. 

Many of us fortunate enough to own homes locally wouldn’t be able to afford our home if we had to repurchase it today. Stories about children moving away for cheaper housing, neighborhood character changing (as more second homes and vacation homes come on line) and even people working longer than originally planned because of a high mortgage are all too common.

The high housing costs have real social, environmental and economic costs. High housing costs lead to displacement and even changes in community diversity and cohesion as working families are forced to live further away from their jobs. Longer commutes have real environmental impacts as well as impacts to a family’s quality of life. 

At the local level the county has taken significant steps toward modernizing and improving affordable housing regulations to help encourage the creation of affordable housing. It’s an important step, but more can be done.

Affordable housing policy can’t occur in a vacuum. It requires reviews and policy changes in everything from transportation policy to economic development regulations. After all, no matter how affordable a house is it won’t be affordable if there aren’t jobs in an area to allow someone to pay for it in the first place.

At the state level a number of affordable housing and regulatory streamlining bills have been proposed to help spur the creation of housing. One of the most notable is Senate Bill 35, from San Francisco area Senator Scott Wiener. SB 35 works to ensure that all communities in the state create housing (sharing the responsibility throughout the state) by streamlining the approval process for specific housing types. The housing types are for income-based criteria. For example, if a county is meeting its state goals for housing development for above moderate-income housing but not its low-income housing goals, streamlining would apply to projects that focus on lower-income units. 

Overall it would streamline approval of urban housing that meets zoning and affordability in communities that aren’t meeting local needs. It excludes sensitive areas such as the Coastal Zone and historic areas. While no bill is perfect, it’s important to take a serious look and have a serious conversation about how we meet the current and future needs of our residents.

It’s clear we can’t simply “build our way” out of the problem — and that is not being proposed. Unfortunately, some of our local residents will be priced out of the rental and ownership market no matter what policies are adopted.

But we need to do something. 

The poorest 25 percent of California households spend four times more of their income (67 percent, on average) than the top 25 percent of income earners.

To not act is the most regressive policy option. 

It took years for our state and county to be faced with the housing issues we have today so there will be no quick or immediate fix. However, I believe the changes at the state and county level are important steps toward putting us on a path toward improved options for future generations.


Zach Friend is a Santa Cruz County Supervisor. His opinions are his own and not necessarily those of the Pajaronian.


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