A project at 3911 Portola Drive in Pleasure Point includes 33 homes and includes four affordable units for people with very low incomes. (Stephen Baxter — Santa Cruz Local file)

SANTA CRUZ >> Santa Cruz County and city leaders on Wednesday began to refine priorities as they plan for a state housing goal of more than 33,000 new homes in the Monterey Bay area through 2031.

State leaders set housing construction goals for regions such as Monterey Bay. The Association of Monterey Bay Area Governments, or AMBAG, met Wednesday evening to discuss regional housing requirements and where homes could be built. AMBAG is the federally-designated planning organization for the Monterey Bay region.

State law requires groups like AMBAG to essentially pick priorities from a state list to create a methodology for how it allocates housing goals to cities like Santa Cruz, Watsonville, Capitola, Scotts Valley and unincorporated Santa Cruz County areas. 

Some factors could include:

  • More housing near job centers, based on the group’s discussions in August. Its aim is to reduce commute times and vehicle emissions. New housing near job centers was also a priority in the last round of housing planning.
  • Housing near public transit could be a lower tier priority.

Some other factors on the state list include:

  • Capacity for sewer and water service
  • Maximizing transit and transportation infrastructure 
  • Places of high housing-cost burden 
  • Rate of crowding in homes
  • Farmworker housing needs 
  • College student housing needs 
  • Housing needs of individuals and families experiencing homelessness 
  • Loss of homes during an emergency
  • State greenhouse gas reduction targets

Justin Cummings, a Santa Cruz city council member on the AMBAG board, asked whether water availability and demand were factors in the state’s regional housing construction targets. 

“We are experiencing a drought at this time, but, you know, this is a plan that goes out to 2030,” said Tom Brinkhuis, a senior policy analyst for the California Department of Housing and Community Development. “We can’t not address the region’s housing needs. I mean, people are still going to, you know, need places to live in these regions even though there may be drought conditions.”

Santa Cruz County leaders have said that as water connections rose and the county’s population grew by about 32,000 from 1997 to 2020, water demand fell in that time. Some factors included water conservation, more efficient appliances and drought tolerant landscaping.

A chart shows water production, or use, in acre feet and the number of water connections in Santa Cruz County. (County of Santa Cruz)

Because the CZU Lightning Complex Fire destroyed more than 900 homes in Santa Cruz County in 2020, state leaders were asked at Wednesday’s meeting whether that loss factored into the regional housing needs assessment. 

Tom Brinkhuis, a senior policy analyst for the California Department of Housing and Community Development, said the fire did not factor in specifically. State leaders instead use an average of the homes lost in the past 10 years, Brinkhuis said. “Hopefully folks can rebuild,” he added. 

A member of Santa Cruz YIMBY, or yes in my backyard, asked during the meeting whether Silicon Valley projected job growth was factored into the housing target for Santa Cruz County. State leaders said that it was not part of the equation. 

Why it matters

One new way cities are encouraged to meet state housing goals is that they will have more latitude on which housing projects they can alter. 

If cities do not meet all their requirements for affordable housing, Senate Bill 35 allows developers to get streamlined approval of projects that meet affordability and construction labor requirements. City councils then have limited power to change these projects. 

Because the City of Santa Cruz, for instance, did not make adequate progress toward its Regional Housing Needs Assessment goals and didn’t set aside enough zoning for “very low income” affordable housing, developers can use SB35 streamlined zoning through at least 2023, AMBAG leaders said. 

Santa Cruz city leaders submit its housing element to state leaders who then decide whether SB35 rules are satisfied. 

Next steps

  • In the next few months, AMBAG is expected to develop a plan that distributes the regional housing production goals to the cities and counties.
  • The methodology is expected to be approved by November. AMBAG staff plans to give allocations to cities in January 2022.
  • After the plan is approved by AMBAG, then each city and county in the region will be expected to submit a “housing element.” The housing element is part of each jurisdiction’s General Plan and is meant to ensure that local zoning allows the level of housing production called for by the state.

An artist’s rendering of a 53-unit apartment complex and play area at 1482 Freedom Blvd., Watsonville. The Watsonville City Council approved the project this year. (Eden Housing)

Local representatives on AMBAG’s board are: Capitola City Councilmember Kristen Petersen, Scotts Valley Mayor Derek Timm, Santa Cruz City Councilmember Justin Cummings, Watsonville City Councilmember Eduardo Montesino, and Santa Cruz County supervisors Manu Koenig and Greg Caput.

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Stephen Baxter is a co-founder and editor of Santa Cruz Local. He covers Santa Cruz County government.