Joe Thompson, candidate for District 5

Santa Cruz voters will choose a city council member to represent District 5 in the March 5, 2024 election. The district includes parts of the Upper Westside and part of the UC Santa Cruz campus. 

Joe Thompson is one of two candidates running for District 5. The other candidate is Susie O’Hara.

Joe Thompson (Contributed)

Meet Joe Thompson

Age: 20.

Residence: River Street near Downtown Santa Cruz.

Occupation: Starbucks union organizer, UC Santa Cruz undergraduate class of 2024.

Experience: Thompson began working as a Starbucks barista in Santa Cruz at age 16. He organized his co-workers, and his shop became the first Starbucks in California to file a union petition. Store employees joined Starbucks Workers United.

“A lot of my co-workers talked about not being able to afford rent, not being able to afford basic necessities like food and gas,” Thompson said. He said he realized he wanted to get involved in politics. “People deserve to have their basic needs met.” 

Thompson worked as a campaign field director for Rep. Gail Pellerin, D-Santa Cruz, and for state Sen. Aisha Wahab, D-Fremont, in her district office.

“That’s where I really began to learn about how state government works, dealing with constituents and addressing their issues, and wanting to make government work for them,” Thompson said.

Read about Joe Thompson’s positions:

Some UC Santa Cruz students said they are forced to live off campus after their first year. Should the city council push UCSC to house more students on campus? If so, how? 

Joe Thompson: “As a UCSC student, this was a very big problem for me in my first and second year. I was very grateful to have housing my second year, but it’s not a given. I had to really fight and advocate for myself to get that housing that I personally needed. Otherwise, I would have become homeless. Luckily after my second year I was very fortunate to move into the El Rio Mobile Home Park where the rent is stabilized and fairly cheap compared to the majority of Santa Cruz. The city council should absolutely put pressure on the UCSC Chancellor Cindy Larive and also the UC President Michael Drake. And this is because we’re experiencing a major housing crisis. Nine percent of students at UC Santa Cruz are housing insecure or homeless [according to a 2020 student survey]. That is a staggering number for one of the top research institutions in California.” 

Thompson said, “It’s clear that our housing accessibility and affordability needs are not being met, both on and off campus. If elected, one of the first actions I plan to take on the council is exploring how we can begin to work with the university to build truly affordable housing for students on campus. Additionally, I hope to see the city be an ally toward UCSC’s efforts to build more housing on campus because we still need to make sure that all students are housed.”

Several UC Santa Cruz students in District 5 said they felt disengaged from city government. What will you do as a District 5 city council member to inform and engage them?

Joe Thompson: “This is absolutely true. It’s hard to think about being involved in local government when you’re 18, 19, 20 years old. My goal is to be an advocate for those students who feel underrepresented, who feel like their voices aren’t being heard. I hope to really show them that this is the new fifth district, this is the first opportunity that students have to elect a city council member that can represent their interests. And of course, I want to represent the interests of students, seniors and working families throughout the district. But because of my background I think it’s important to recognize that a lot of the issues that I plan to fight for and advocate for are issues supported by students. 

“I grew up very poor and I worked two, three jobs in high school just to get by. I understand where they are coming from. Students are having to make those difficult decisions of whether they can afford to live or eat in Santa Cruz. Having someone like me who has lived that experience, will really be able to reach them at a different level than someone who hasn’t.”

What will you do to make housing more affordable for families in the City of Santa Cruz? 

Joe Thompson: “I really support building denser housing and transportation corridors. I’ve been really excited about the new development happening all over the city,” Thompson said. He said many new units in District 5 have been for “low” and “very low” income tenants based on state income limits. “We need to continue this. I’m excited about the potential of the new housing bond that’s being discussed in the city. I think it has the potential to expand the number of units that we’re building all across the city,” said Thompson. 

Thompson added, “I also think we need to enact more protections, rent control measures, and other ways to make housing more affordable. We need to work to help keep families housed, and make sure the city is doing everything it can to make housing more affordable. We’re not doing that now. We’re trying, but we can do more. I hope to be a housing champion on the city council for students and for everyone else in the City of Santa Cruz.”

Would you support more housing density in Santa Cruz City Council District 5? If so, where specifically would you support it and how many stories? 

Joe Thompson: “Yes, I think it’s very important to support denser housing. It works for lots of different families. I think it depends on the neighborhood. I don’t want to see an 18-story building being built right next to a single-family home. That doesn’t make sense for anyone. I do think that looking at how we can build different types of homes, townhomes, duplexes, maybe some smaller apartment complexes, something that looks like it will still fit in the neighborhood and have a good feel. I think that would be best.

“I think developing more density specifically in the downtown part of the district and then also more the Harvey West Park and Costco area of the district will be really important. This is because we’re seeing that development kind of already happen, and so far, it has been very successful in this district. As we’re building more density and getting people off the street and housed, it is leading to this trickle-down effect where people are starting to see—slowly but surely—housing becoming more affordable and more accessible for all different types of incomes.”

What short- and long-term strategies would you support to address homelessness in your district and across the City of Santa Cruz?

Joe Thompson: “I think this goes back to my role on the county’s Substance Use Disorder Commission. I think we need to tackle this by addressing the short-term and long-term issues of mental health, substance use, and then the lack of affordable housing. What’s currently happening in the city is there are measures that are criminalizing the overnight parking of [large] vehicles. It’s absolutely not OK to criminalize homelessness. I think we need to approach it with a compassionate solution, making sure we’re actually addressing the root cause of issues and getting people into housing as a housing first model. That means we need to make sure we have more social services available for our homeless population, and make sure we have the ability to treat any medical issues that are happening, and make sure that people are getting their basic needs met.

“As a barista at Starbucks, I would hear stories. Homeless people were asking for change, so they could buy a mat to use for sleeping on the sidewalk, because it’s too cold on your skin. I think living out on the streets and experiencing homelessness is one of the most traumatic things somebody can go through. I hope to be able to work to have the city do more, to see this as a housing problem, as a substance use problem, as a mental health problem, and use those three combined as a strategy—to get people into safe housing and really start to make a dent into this huge problem that everyone in the city is experiencing.”

Measure M would create two new requirements for housing developers in the City of Santa Cruz:

  • For housing proposals of 30 units or more, it would increase the required percentage of affordable homes to 25% from 20%.
  • For a developer to construct a building higher or denser than current limits, city voters would have to approve a change to the city’s zoning code. A height or density change could include a specific parcel or a larger area.

Do you support or oppose Measure M, the Housing for People ballot initiative

Joe Thompson: “I am opposed, unless it’s amended. I agree that housing construction needs to be affordable, and we need to promote great urban spaces. I do fear that this specific measure’s potential to help is kind of outweighed by its potential to sabotage our ability to build much-needed housing at all levels of affordability.”

Read why Joe Thompson is running for city council

What local issues in your district affect you that make you want to run for office?

Thompson said the most pressing issue is housing, and this is something he hears from local residents daily. These include students, working adults, and seniors. 

“I think this is because of the policies that have been in place in Santa Cruz for the last 50 or so years. And the lack of new construction of new housing and the lack of density has caused a lot of problems.” 

Another issue important to him relates to his current service on the County of Santa Cruz’s Substance Use Disorder Commission. Overdoses related to fentanyl have greatly increased in recent years, Thompson said. He said he wants the county to declare a public health emergency. 

“My family has been severely impacted by substance use disorder,” Thompson said. 

Workers’ rights are also very important to Thompson.

What is your dream for your district?

Thompson said he would like a community where we are all able to live, thrive and be in a safe place—one where you can walk with your kids or bike to school, and all of our local problems are addressed so people can build community together. 

“I think that’s already happening all over the city,” Thompson said. “I want to make sure people have a good place to live.”

Fun fact about Thompson

When Thompson was in middle school he came to Santa Cruz with a few friends and visited the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. They went on the Haunted House ride. “We ended up breaking the ride!” he said.