Justin Cummings, Ami Chen Mills and Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson

From left, Justin Cummings, Ami Chen Mills and Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson are candidates for District 3 Santa Cruz County supervisor in the June 7 election. (Photos by Devi Pride, Andrew Rogers and J. Guevara)

In the June 7 primary election, North Coast and Santa Cruz residents will choose a new District 3 representative on the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors. We hear from residents about their priorities for the election. Then we meet candidates Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson, Justin Cummings and Ami Chen Mills and press them on residents’ concerns.

We hear from the candidates on their plans to:

  • Develop affordable housing. [21:17]
  • Expand rent assistance programs. [27:47]
  • Address homelessness. [34:59]
  • Attract employers and create higher-paying jobs. [43:25]
  • Repair roads, expand law enforcement and improve cellphone service on the North Coast. [50:10]
  • Prioritize bike and walk projects and improve public transit. [57:07]

We also press Justin Cummings and Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson on their voting records on the Santa Cruz City Council. [1:03:40] 

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[AMBI: PATIO]

KMG: The Davenport Resource Services Center is tucked on a hill. I can see and hear the ocean from here. Across the street is an old church. Beyond that is farmland.   

[AMBI OF VOICES IN SPANISH] 

It’s a sunny Tuesday afternoon in March. There’s a line forming on the patio. People, mostly women, are waiting for groceries. Some have toddlers in tow. Workers stack bags of fruit, vegetables, cereal and tortillas on tables by the front door.

Nearby, clothes and toys are piled on tables to give away. 

[AMBI: Female voice speaking in Spanish, then ducks under]

KMG: The woman you hear is a Davenport resident. 

She’s 74. She and her husband have lived and worked on a Davenport ranch for decades. They’re retired, but still live on the ranch. She wants a stable home to enjoy their retirement. Our interpreter is Oscar Rios.

FEMALE VOICE: Hemos estado viviendo…

OSCAR RIOS: We have been living [there] for 45 years. Work, work, work in the fields, all the time. My husband, his eyes are injured. His back is injured from working so much there. And we don’t have nothing. We don’t have no money to go get housing or anything.

[Voices duck under]

KMG: The woman has asked us not to share her name. The ranch was recently sold. She’s trying to work out a lease with the new owner. Her home is at risk.

For decades, she and her husband were housed by their employer. In the 1980s, her husband made $2 an hour. When he retired about four years ago, he made $10 an hour, she says.

As a result, their Social Security payments are very low, she says. It’s their sole income. 

She’s a registered voter in Davenport. In June, voters will choose a new county supervisor to represent the North Coast and most of Santa Cruz. I asked her what she wants the candidates to talk about as they compete for her vote.

Help for poor families and seniors, she told me. Her family’s income and benefits cannot cover their medical bills, she says.

FEMALE VOICE: [SIGHS] Yo tambien veo la vivienda …

OSCAR RIOS: I also see housing, for seniors  — she’s a senior — we need housing. To pay rent today is so expensive. And with the money that we make [from] Social Security, it’s not enough. It’s just not enough.

[THEME MUSIC]

KMG: I’m Kara Meyberg Guzman.

This is Santa Cruz Local.

[MUSIC FADE OUT]

In today’s episode, we’ll learn what Santa Cruz and North Coast residents want from the District 3 county supervisor candidates. We’ll also meet the three candidates in that race. And we’ll press them on the priorities we heard from you.

District 3 includes Davenport, the North Coast and most of the City of Santa Cruz. This seat is now held by Ryan Coonerty. He’s not running for reelection. This race is for one of five seats on the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors. 

In the June 7 primary election, voters in this district will choose from three candidates. This race is important because the board of supervisors makes local laws and policies for areas outside the four cities in the county. 

They’re in charge of things like county roads, county fire protection, public health, the Sheriff’s Office, jails and county parks. They can also plan for construction and land use in unincorporated parts of the county, like the North Coast. And they have power to set countywide plans, like for addressing homelessness.

We wanted to understand what’s important to residents in District 3. Since February, we surveyed and interviewed more than 100 residents. We went to: 

  • Food handouts in Santa Cruz and Davenport
  • the Downtown Santa Cruz Farmers Market
  • A Santa Cruz Works tech meetup in Beach Hill
  • Westside Farm and Feed in Santa Cruz
  • Two Davenport businesses and 
  • The Davenport Post Office

We also had a survey on our website.

We asked everyone: What do you want the supervisor candidates to talk about as they compete for your vote?

Most people told us about a need for affordable housing and rent assistance.

Ciara Oriel works at the Davenport Post Office. (Kara Meyberg Guzman — Santa Cruz Local)

Ciara [see-AIR-ah] Oriel lives on the North Coast. She’s registered to vote in District 3. She works at the Davenport Post Office.

CIARA ORIEL: I’ve lived here my whole life, but I’m 35 still living at home. Yeah I’ve lived here my whole life but I’ve lived in the same house for 35 years. And hope to stay in it until I pass away whenever that may be. But I just see people coming and going all the time, and it’s sad.

KMG: Ciara earns about $27 an hour. She says she feels that wage is fair. But it’s still hard to live off of, she told me. She and her husband pay rent to her parents. They tried to find a place of their own. They gave up. She told me she wants the candidates to focus on affordable housing.

CIARA ORIEL: I’ve tried the whole moving away, living on my own. And it’s just too much. I mean what they’re asking for even just the smallest closet-sized apartment is a laugh. I mean, it’s literally a laugh. So, yeah. I would say that’s probably one thing they really need to focus on is getting it where cost of living again for anybody is reasonable.

KMG: We heard a range of ideas from residents on what types of housing should be built in District 3. We heard about tiny homes, in-law units, market-rate housing and deeply affordable units.

Some people called for more housing development, including market-rate. Others wanted only affordable housing, no market rate.

We heard from Elisabeth Morris. She’s a designer. She lives in Santa Cruz and she’s 25. She wants local leaders to build affordable housing near jobs and bus lines. 

She wrote, QUOTE I want a candidate who has come to terms with the realistic fact that Santa Cruz is growing and we need to handle the population influx with grace, foresight, and efficiency. END QUOTE.

Santa Cruz resident Deborah Lindsay, a tech executive, told us that she wants rent control and more in-law units. She said she knows a lot of people who have lived in Santa Cruz for a long time and can no longer afford it. She said QUOTE that’s including professionals that make decent money — people who can afford a Tesla but not a house. END QUOTE.

A few Santa Cruz residents said they were concerned about water supplies. They were worried it may not be enough to support housing and population growth.

I also spoke with more than 30 people who relied on a food bank. I met them as they waited for grocery handouts. I went to Barrios Unidos in Santa Cruz, Nueva Vista Community Resources in Beach Flats and the Davenport Resource Services Center.

I met house cleaners, restaurant workers, caregivers, farmworkers, construction workers, laundromat attendants and meal center volunteers. Most were Latino and spoke in Spanish. Nearly all said that rents are too high. Wages are too low to afford rents here, they told me.

Margarita Bonilla lives in Santa Cruz with her family. She works in a restaurant. She’s 47. Her husband lost his construction job during the pandemic. 

OSCAR RIOS (with Margarita Bonilla’s voice underneath in Spanish): The cost of living here is too expensive. One room is $1,000. And they make the minimum. And they have a family. And the money is not enough because everything is expensive. Food is incredibly high. The gas, forget it. It’s so high right now. Everything, everything. 

KMG: I heard similar stories from other parents. Like Erika Rosales. She’s 23. She lives in Santa Cruz with her toddler. Erika works part time in a restaurant. She earns $15 an hour. She wants to work more, but child care is too expensive.

She pays $1,500 a month for a studio apartment. She says most of her money goes to rent and child care.

Several people at the food distributions told us about how hard it is to find work. Like Jose Rodriguez. 

He’s 65. He lives in Santa Cruz. He works odd jobs when he can find them. He does construction and landscaping. 

He applied for single-room affordable housing. He’s waiting to hear back. For now, he sleeps in his truck. He pays rent to a friend so that he can cook meals and take showers at her apartment.

The pandemic has made it harder to find work, he says.

OSCAR RIOS (with Jose Rodriguez’s voice underneath, in Spanish): A lot of families are without rent, without nothing. We need apartments for low income.

KMG: These are the top needs we heard from District 3 residents, in order of frequency:

  • Affordable housing
  • Rent assistance
  • Long-term solutions for homelessness
  • Higher wages
  • And improved transportation options

On the North Coast and Davenport, several residents told us they wanted better road maintenance and improved cellphone service. 

Jasmine Sanders of Whale City Bakery Bar & Grill in Davenport

Bonny Doon resident Jasmine Sanders, 25, is the head baker at Whale City Bakery Bar & Grill in Davenport. Sanders wants improved cellphone service for Bonny Doon. (Kara Meyberg Guzman — Santa Cruz Local)

KMG: Davenport and North Coast residents also told us about a need for more law enforcement.

Mark Gonzales and Bernadette Delgado of Arro's Country Store in Davenport

Mark Gonzales and his mother, Bernadette Delgado, run Arro’s Country Store in Davenport. They want faster responses from law enforcement. (Kara Meyberg Guzman — Santa Cruz Local)

[TRANSITION MUSIC]

KMG: Let’s meet the District 3 county supervisor candidates. If you live in part of Santa Cruz, Davenport or the North Coast, you can vote for one of these candidates in the June 7 election. 

This is a primary election. That means a candidate wins if they get more than 50% of the vote. If no candidate gets more than 50% of the vote, then the top two candidates face off in the Nov. 8 election.  

There are three candidates for this seat: Ami Chen Mills, Justin Cummings and Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson. I interviewed them in March.

We’ll start with some get-to-know-you questions. Then we’ll ask each candidate the same six questions. These questions are based on the top priorities we heard from District 3 residents. Because Justin Cummings and Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson serve on the Santa Cruz City Council, we’ll also press them on their voting records.   

Ami Chen Mills

Ami Chen Mills (Photo by Andrew Rogers)

Ami Chen Mills is 53. She lives on the Upper Westside of Santa Cruz. She runs a coaching and training company. Her company works with schools, local governments and families. 

Until 2012, Ami was the executive director and co-founder of the Center for Sustainable Change. It was a national nonprofit network. It aimed to increase civic participation and create change in communities. It closed in 2018.

Ami served on the City of Santa Cruz’s Community Advisory Committee on Homelessness in 2019 and 2020. It’s known as the “CACH.”

I asked Ami: What local issues affect you that make you want to run for office?

AMI CHEN MILLS:  I have two teenage girls and working with the Youth Climate strikers, you know, breaks my heart. You know, that they feel like they can’t grow up in a world that is going to support them and just focus on their families and their working lives, you know, they can’t. And so that’s really driving me to be a leader on the board. I mean, a lot of people I talked to, you know, in my constituency, when I talk about the Board of Supervisors, they don’t even know what that is. You know, and so, with, there’s an $800 million budget in this county, it’s almost a billion dollars, you know, and it’s so it’s a very important role. And I think that, if I can engage young people in the climate issue, then they will be more engaged in local government as well. 

And so I’m very interested in that kind of engagement, not just for, you know, young people, but for everybody. We should pay attention to local politics. It affects us.

KMG: What is your dream for the Santa Cruz County community?

AMI CHEN MILLS: Well, I would like to see us be a diverse community that is income diverse, as well, as you know, socially and racially diverse. We are in a crisis situation in terms of our income diversity. You know, I’ve talked to several of my constituents, I asked them when I go to the coffee shops, ‘How are you doing?’ You know, ‘Where are you living?’ And people are telling me that they’re literally either — they’re driving over the hill to live and come here to work in our coffee shops. And they’re also sleeping in their cars and working here.

KMG: I asked Ami: What’s a fun fact about you that people don’t know?

AMI CHEN MILLS: So I’m a poet. I’m a creative writer. What else would be a fun fact… my hair used to be a bright, kind of bright, pinky red, before I started running and then it faded out. And I’m like, you know what, maybe I should just keep the fade out. I don’t know. Actually, Santa Cruz might approve of pink hair, you know, at the Board of Supervisors. We definitely need some color. [LAUGHS]

[MUSIC INTERLUDE]

Justin Cummings

Justin Cummings (Devi Pride Photography)

KMG: Justin Cummings is 39. He lives in Downtown Santa Cruz. He’s an environmental science educator at UC Santa Cruz. His research has focused on topics from climate change to diversity in science education.

Justin is in his fourth year on the Santa Cruz City Council. He’s served as mayor and vice mayor. His term ends in December. He’s served as a city representative on several local boards, including the Association of Monterey Bay Area Governments, the Central Coast Community Energy and the Mid-County Groundwater Agency.

I asked Justin: What local issues affect you that make you want to run for office?

JUSTIN CUMMINGS: The biggest one is housing affordability. So I’m a renter. And I have, you know, as someone who holds a Ph.D. and a bachelor’s, and I’ve helped to stand up numerous nonprofits in the community that really help around diversity, equity and inclusion, I still find it very difficult to, to live in this town. 

And the only thing that’s really helped me as of recently is, I recently got a position that has higher pay. And I’ve lived in a house where the rent is very low. And so that’s helped me to save money. But I know a lot of people who are, you know, teachers, and who are essential workers in this community, who are getting pushed further and further out.

KMG: What is your dream for the Santa Cruz County community?

JUSTIN CUMMINGS: My dream for the Santa Cruz County community is that we can have more housing stability for everyone, not just people who own homes, but for people who are renters in our community. Which means that not only do we have to produce more affordable housing for the very low and low-income people, but we also need to have good jobs and housing for our middle-class people as well. 

And then in addition to that, I think above all, making sure that our community is diverse. Because we do see gentrification happening in our community and we want to ensure that you know, people who are low income, people of color, have opportunities to live and stay in this community. 

KMG: Thank you, Justin. Lastly, what’s a fun fact about you that people don’t know?

JUSTIN CUMMINGS: Fun fact about me, hmm. I’m the six-time hot-wing eating champ of the Parish Publick House.

KMG: Nice. Congratulations. [LAUGHING] 

JUSTIN CUMMINGS: Thank you. [LAUGHS]

KMG: Sounds rough. [LAUGHING] 

[MUSIC INTERLUDE]

Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson

Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson (Photo by J. Guevara)

KMG: Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson is 44. She lives on the Lower Westside of Santa Cruz. She’s a co-founder of Impact Launch. It’s a local company that provides project design, planning and coaching for social service teams. She also runs an independent consulting business in project management and grant writing.

Shebreh is in her second year on the Santa Cruz City Council.  Her term ends in December 2024. She’s a city representative on several boards, including the Santa Cruz Metropolitan Transit District, the Youth Action Network jurisdictional team, and the Community Action Board of Santa Cruz County. 

I asked Shebreh: What local issues affect you that make you want to run for office?

SHEBREH KALANTARI-JOHNSON: Honestly, homelessness is one of the issues that really I’m very much invested in. One of my first jobs out of college was working in the Tenderloin as I mentioned with formerly homeless individuals living in Section 8 housing. And frankly, that’s what inspired me to shift my educational path a little bit from psychology to social work, because I just saw the importance of systems and policies. Homelessness, and everything that’s intertwined with homelessness, right? Mental health, behavioral health, treatment services, housing policy, and how we approach our land use decisions and housing. 

KMG: Thank you. What is your dream for the Santa Cruz County community?

SHEBREH KALANTARI-JOHNSON: Oh my gosh. My big, big, big picture dream is that every community member is thriving. That’s really, really big picture. Right? 

So then working backwards from that. What does that look like? We have a community that’s diverse in racial background and ethnicity. We have a community that’s diverse in age. We have a community that’s diverse in socio economic status. 

What does that look like? We have walkable communities throughout our county. We have active transportation and public transportation that’s accessible and available to everyone. 

We have our young adults and teenagers and youth engaged civically. So that’s just touching the surface of it.

KMG: Got it. Thank you. And what is a fun fact about you that people don’t know?

SHEBREH KALANTARI-JOHNSON: Oh, I love to sing 1960s Persian pop songs.

KMG: Where do you sing them?

SHEBREH KALANTARI-JOHNSON: Oh my gosh. Well, I sing them. I used to sing them to my kids when I would put them to sleep. I sing them in the car. Sometimes I get nudged at family parties. When you see why when you see me muting myself and turning my camera off on city council meetings, I may be singing a Persian 1960s pop song.

[MUSIC INTERLUDE]

KMG: Now let’s hear from each candidate on the priorities we heard from District 3 residents.

A frequent thing we heard from more than 100 District 3 residents was that they want more affordable housing projects in District 3. What’s your plan as a supervisor to bring more affordable housing projects to District 3? Ami Chen Mills.

AMI CHEN MILLS: So we have affordable housing needs within our homeless population that are somewhat different from people who are like working, have their families together. We have all these different levels of need. And so we need to be looking at county land parcels in terms of where we could possibly build low-income housing. My preference is to work with nonprofit housing developers. And I’d be working with Housing Santa Cruz County, I imagine. And I actually have a whole parcel list that someone gave me

And I think what we have to do is spread these out throughout the county, not just District 3. So we have to look at where the land is in District 3. And then once you have county land that you can build on, you have to get your maximum return on that land. Right?

So if we actually work with a for-profit developer, that means we need to make sure we have a solid covenant for low-income housing, or affordable housing. And that’s something that I would not be interested in working with for-profit developers who we can’t get really solid agreements from. 

So we really need to look at things that can be quick, I think, and where we can be ready to go. 

KMG: Same question. What’s your plan to bring more affordable housing projects to District 3? Justin Cummings.

JUSTIN CUMMINGS: As a councilmember I have strongly supported affordable housing in the City of Santa Cruz. And as a county supervisor, I intend to work closely with the city to assist in providing additional needed affordable housing. 

KMG: Justin has not always voted in favor of projects with affordable housing. Neither has Shebreh. We’ll get into their voting records in a bit. 

JUSTIN CUMMINGS: And I’d say one other thing, as I mentioned earlier, I would, in my first year, prioritize working with county staff to bring forward an item that would allow us to increase the inclusionary affordable housing percentage from 15 to 20% in the county, for new development, as well.

KMG:  An inclusionary rate sets the number of affordable housing units that developers are required to build. An inclusionary rate of 20% means that in a new housing complex, 20% of the units must be offered at affordable rents or prices to people with lower incomes. I asked Justin what he would do to develop affordable housing projects in District 3. 

JUSTIN CUMMINGS: Well, I would be reaching out to developers of all types. So, you know, market-rate developers, but most importantly, nonprofit affordable housing developers to really see like, what are the things that they need in order to make affordable housing projects come true? And so that’s, you know, funding, land, really trying to figure out how we can make those projects happen. 

I met with residents in Davenport. And one thing that they’ve expressed around the Cemex plant is, you know, the potential for developing affordable housing there. 

So really wanting to work with, you know, the Coastal Commission, nonprofit developers, the community, to see if you know, there’s the potential for affordable housing to develop there. What are some of the things that’s preventing that from happening? And how can we overcome those obstacles?

KMG: Same question. What’s your plan to bring more affordable housing projects to District 3? Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson.

SHEBREH KALANTARI-JOHNSON: You know, District 3 is interesting, because the majority of the district is the City of Santa Cruz. And the board of supervisors don’t, we don’t have jurisdiction over the city’s decisions. Now, should I serve in the role of supervisor, I will continue to work with my council colleagues, so that the city continues to make smart housing decisions. 

And I will work with my supervisor colleagues. Because I think the City of Santa Cruz and the City of Watsonville really have taken the load of building housing and affordable housing. We need to do it throughout our community, there’s a lot of opportunities and other districts throughout our county. 

And then really focusing on building things like ADUs and tiny homes. 

Ensuring that ADU processes are, there aren’t red tapes, but really holding our entire county accountable for building. We have an opportunity with a revise of our housing element. And after we accomplish that, really looking at our zoning ordinance, that’s very outdated. 

And in general, Kara, I think we have a lot of work to do in our planning department. There’s a very — this isn’t to point fingers at anyone, but there is a bit of an entrenched culture that is very outdated. So I think you know, I think we need to think about shifting how we approach things in our planning department so that we’re not putting roadblocks up, but that we’re making building the right kinds of projects in our community easier. That would create walkable communities. 

KMG: Can you be a little bit more specific with that?

SHEBREH KALANTARI-JOHNSON: There have been policies that have been put in place over the last decades that are there for the purpose of slowing growth. And I understand the significance and importance of why they were put there at the time they were put there. There were environmental concerns that are very real.

But I think an unintended consequence has been that we can’t do any kind of development anywhere. And that’s really impacted our value of having a inclusive and diverse community. That’s impacted our value of allowing people who are, who this is their home, to be able to stay here.

As I said, it’s our zoning ordinance is outdated. I don’t think I’m alone in identifying that. And we have an opportunity right now as we revise our housing element.

KMG: Many District 3 residents told us they or someone they know need immediate help to pay rent. They can’t wait for an affordable housing project to be developed. What will you do as a county supervisor in your first year to expand rent assistance programs? Where could that money come from? 

Ami Chen Mills.

AMI CHEN MILLS: So I was assuming you were talking about, like, Section 8, for example, as a rental assistance program?

KMG: Yeah, that’s one example. Yeah. 

AMI CHEN MILLS: Our Section 8 list is closed. You know, we don’t have any Section 8 housing. So one thing I think we need to do immediately for all the people who are on the waiting list, it’s a huge amount, maybe it’s 8,000 people or something, is to educate landlords about Section 8 housing. And there, there’s a lot of information already at the housing authority about Section 8 and there also are incentives for landlords.

I had a Section 8 renter in our house for a while. And we were living in the back. We have an ADU in the back, and it was fine. It was you know, we got the check on time every month. Landlords need to know that. I know that the Housing Authority is putting out that kind of outreach. 

Also, just immediately, there is still rental assistance assistance from the California COVID-19 fund. However, I think that might be more for back rent than for future rent. I’m not sure. 

So in terms of what else can we do, I mean, we could try to put together our own sort of Section 8 program like a Housing Choice Voucher for people who are paying more than 30% of their income for rent and need assistance. So there are such things. I’ve been looking into it. You need to have multiple funding sources for that. It’s expensive and you need to decide whether it’s going to be short term or long term. I think that there is an immediate emergency need. 

We do have state money coming down the pike for affordable housing and also for health and human services, as well as federal money. So we have to see how that money is earmarked. Right? How can we spend it?

KMG: Just to clarify. The Section 8 program Ami referred to is now called the Housing Choice Voucher program. They changed their name. The program is run by the Housing Authority of the County of Santa Cruz. 

Families can apply to get a voucher from the housing authority. Then families must find a landlord who will take the voucher. If they can, then the family pays 30% of their income toward rent. The housing authority pays the landlord the rest, to a limit.

The problem for many families is finding landlords who will take the voucher.

Ami, Justin and Shebreh all mention the California COVID-19 Rent Relief Program. It’s also known as Housing is Key. It’s a state-funded program. During the pandemic, it’s been the largest source of rent assistance in our county. 

The problem is, the state has been slow to process applications. About 3,400 households in our county applied. About half have received money as of April 7

The application window closed March 31. When that window closed, so did a state moratorium on evictions. So residents who lost jobs during the pandemic could face eviction in April.  

Let’s hear from Justin Cummings. What will you do in your first year to expand rent assistance programs? Where could that money come from? 

JUSTIN CUMMINGS: I think one of the most important things is that we’re ensuring that the programs that distribute these funds are operating in a way that’s efficient, and effectively getting the money to residents. We’re seeing that right now with the COVID-19 relief where many people have applied for rental assistance, and the rental eviction moratorium is going to end on the 31st. So this is a you know, an example of where there is available funding, but the program isn’t efficient at getting the funding to the people. And so that is probably one of the No. 1 things I want to focus on is making sure that these programs are effective at getting the money to the people who need it. 

When we think about the state budget, we know that this year, there is a surplus, and that there was a lot of money that went towards homeless programs. And, you know, one of the things, I think that my role would be moving into the next budget cycle would be to advocate for more funding, to go towards rental assistance from the state, so that we can use these funds and allocate them towards rental assistance for residents. 

And I guess, lastly, you know, evaluating how many people are applying for rental assistance, who is getting it, who’s eligible and who’s being turned away something that’s also important, because I think a lot of our programs target the very low and low income people, but there are a lot of, you know, working class people in this community, who need, you know, assistance with down payments.

KMG: Same question. What will you do in your first year to expand rent assistance programs? Where could that money come from? Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson.

SHEBREH KALANTARI-JOHNSON: Well, we were just facing this right now. The supervisors and the city council with this eviction moratorium cliff, that is right around the corner. You know, I think this is an area that the state has really failed. They made a promise and didn’t deliver. So I would — well, currently as a city council member, and then should I have the role as a supervisor, work my relationships with state legislators, push on the governor to really meet the promise that they gave. So that’s one tier of it.

The other thing is, I would continue to invest in our local organizations that provide these services, right. And that’s something that we are going to do as a city. So the county board of supervisors as I’m sure you are aware of, just allocated $500,000 towards rental assistance and mediation and legal services. The city is going to look at also contributing to that pot. So how can we provide resources either through these special circumstances or through our community programs committees: working in lockstep in partnership with these organizations through COPA, Community Bridges, Community Action Board, to make sure that they have the resources, and they have the capacity to serve those in the community that need it the most.

KMG:  Shebreh told me that the money for local organizations that provide rent assistance could come from the county’s Collective of Results and Evidence-based Investments funding. That’s also known as CORE funding. Other possible sources are federal HOME and Community Development Block Grant money.

Next question. Many District 3 residents told us they were frustrated about what they saw as temporary fixes to homelessness. They wanted leaders to address root causes and get people off the streets. What could the county do better to address the root causes of homelessness, especially in District 3? What will you do in your first year ? 

Ami Chen Mills.

AMI CHEN MILLS: Well, providing low-income housing is probably addressing the root causes of homelessness. That’s not something I really was putting together in my mind when I served on the CACH. But now that I’ve been looking at the housing affordability crisis, I’m realizing just how many people are teetering on the edge, and then they just fall over. And I don’t think that our population understands that so much. We have a view of homeless people as a certain kind of people. And, and we need to expand our view, you know, we need to become more educated about our population of people without homes at this time. 

And that’s always been. That was in the county grand jury report, public education. When I actually talk to people who live here, they want something done about it. But they also, people I’ve talked to so far, are not interested in further criminalizing the homeless. That’s not one of my policy positions. It’s not a position that I would take. 

In the cases of people who are behaving dangerously or maliciously, or selling drugs, and it’s quite clear, then I you know, then I would say, yes, we should have some kind of an option for them. And I’m hearing that they’re not going into the jail. Actually if they are, it’s for a very short period of time. 

So I’m interested in expanding like the Telecare program, which is the crisis emergency management program, which has beds but not a lot of beds. So could we expand that program somehow with other facilities in the county, or using county land, like, for instance, where the juvenile hall is, you know, for another sort of a locked Crisis Management Facility. Not long term, you know, you’re doing a 5150, or doing a 5250. So you’re doing three days or you’re doing two weeks. 

But I think it’s really helpful to have that time. I mean, I have friends whose teenagers went to the Telecare unit, and it was really helpful when they were suicidal. And I’ve had friends who’ve gone into a 5150 situation when they were really at wit’s end, and they were able to figure out, you know, just have the three days to say, oh, my gosh, you know, things are out of control. How do I pull this together? And I think we need that in this county. 

KMG: Can you sort of spell it out for me more, like what will you commit to doing in your first year towards these sort of like longer-term solutions to homelessness?

AMI CHEN MILLS: I would say that the reason I was interested in county lands is where can we put some folks right who need support services, similar to what is happening up at the armory? You know, that was my idea in the CACH is why can’t we have these transitional housing programs. Even if it’s managed encampments, which are better in my mind than unmanaged encampments. Throughout the county, you know, not just, you know, Santa Cruz was dealing with the bulk of it. So that’s what I would be looking at. How could we expand those programs to house people who are now living along the San Lorenzo River in those areas.

KMG: Same question. What could the county do better to address the root causes of homelessness, especially in District 3? What will you do in your first year? Justin Cummings.

JUSTIN CUMMINGS: Well, again, focusing on the rental assistance programs and making sure that we have adequate funding to support people who may be facing eviction with rental assistance. Continuing working with the City of Santa Cruz to stand up effective programs that have — programs have timelines and outcomes to help people experiencing homelessness to get out of homelessness. 

I believe we need to have a targeted approach to address the needs of the different unhoused populations, so that we’re ensuring that services are being targeted towards specific needs. 

Working to increase the number of beds and services for people who are experiencing substance abuse so people can get off the streets when they need help and are not just left and subjected to, you know, this perpetual cycle of addiction. 

But I think most importantly, is that we need to continue to be aggressively seeking additional state and federal funds to provide permanent supportive housing for people who are experiencing homelessness. 

And then I will say that there has been a huge push for 24/7 non-law enforcement emergency crisis response. We see that the 988 number is going to be coming online, and that there’s a big push in the community to move towards that. I’ve been working with many community members. 

I recently made a motion to include working with the county on that program in our Homeless Action Plan. And as county supervisor I would want to work with local homeless advocates, behavioral health care providers, sheriff’s department, law enforcement, and the community, to make sure that we can address the concerns and make that program come forward in a way that’s going to benefit our community.

And so I see this as an opportunity to, one, increase the opportunities for connection between case managers, and people who aren’t law enforcement, with people experiencing homelessness and addiction. 

And also relieving this responsibility from law enforcement, because too often, you know, when new problems emerge in society, we throw it over to law enforcement and make it their responsibility. 

And this is a public health crisis. And we need people trained in public health to be responding to the calls related to people who are experiencing homelessness, or behavioral and mental health issues.

KMG: Same question. What could the county do better to address the root causes of homelessness, especially in District 3? What will you do in your first year ? Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson. 

SHEBREH KALANTARI-JOHNSON: Homelessness looks different. We have farmworkers who are doubled up, tripled up. We have, you know, folks who have had medical conditions where they can’t work, and then they are out on the street. So it looks different.

What I think we see here, the majority of what we see here, what’s visible here in District 3 is unanswered and an inadequate response to mental health and substance use needs of our community members. And this is not to blame or point finger, but we have failed big time. We have failed as a nation, we failed as a state, we failed as a community. 

KMG: What concrete steps will you take in your first year to do what you can to tackle these issues?

SHEBREH KALANTARI-JOHNSON: Well, first of all, I think we’ve passed a really solid three-year strategic plan at the county. And we have our homeless action response plan at the city. So diving into those plans and making sure we have the resources to implement them. And one of the first things is to take the load off the city. I mean, again, the city’s really done a lot to address this. Well, the city’s done a lot in the last year, I’d say. 

It’s unreasonable to expect that the city puts up all the sheltering sites, and all of the safe sleeping sites, like we’ve got to look across our county. And I’m actually already doing this work. I don’t sit on the board of supervisors, but I’m working with my supervisor colleagues, to see how we can spread the love of homeless services throughout our county. So I think there’s a lot of opportunity there that some of my colleagues on the board of supervisors are open to that. So that’s one of the first things I would do is looking at where these sheltering and services can be accommodated in other parts of the county. 

And then the other thing is, which I’ve already started to do, is work very closely with our behavioral health department and our housing for health department to make sure that we bring in the resources that there’s a lot of money coming down, and if the human infrastructure bill passes, there will be a lot more coming down. So making sure we’re sort of shovel ready, quote, unquote. 

KMG: Next question. Many District 3 residents told us about their frustration and anxiety about their low wages that don’t match the cost of living in Santa Cruz County. Is this a priority for you? What’s your plan to attract and retain employers to create more jobs that pay enough to live here? 

Ami Chen Mills.

AMI CHEN MILLS: Yeah, this was the most challenging question, I think. It’s a challenging question. Of course, I mean, part of the housing affordability crisis has to do with wages. And that’s also attached to the national, you know, crisis. We’re having around, you know, the wage gap and the income gap in the United States. It’s nuts. It’s insane. 

So I’m very excited to see unionization efforts happening here at Starbucks. And, you know, the union efforts of the SEIU 521, and their calls for climate action too, were exciting to me. I just think that that’s something that needs to happen, because it’s when you have more unions, you have higher wages. 

Now, how does that address our local economy? I mean, I think that workers need to organize when they can and where they can. 

So how do we attract industry or, you know, services or an economy here that can provide higher-paying jobs. 

And what comes to mind in terms of my climate, and also, I think just the way that Santa Cruz sees itself, too. And what we could really sort of put more effort into is like, agro tourism, agro eco tourism. We could, you know, look at Watsonville and the North Coast in terms of agriculture. And if we had maybe like organic, more focus on organic farm tours.

And so I think that’s something that we can do with our natural beauty. And we already have this tourism economy. But how do we expand that and make it more unique? How do we draw more people here?

And so what I’m understanding is the best thing is to look at other communities that have done very well, offering incentives for businesses to come and set up shop, that are about our size with about our budget, and then sort of model our practices after theirs. 

But I would like to be very careful from a climate perspective and ecology perspective, and making sure that these businesses fit, you know, what we want to do with our community and even sort of become a role model.

KMG: Same question: What’s your plan to attract and retain employers to create more jobs that pay enough to live here? Justin Cummings.

JUSTIN CUMMINGS: So a lot of the third district residents live in the city. So you know, one of my big things is working with the city to support their economic development efforts. And also seek additional federal funding from the economic development agency for job creation projects here in the third district. 

In addition to that, you know, looking at the county budget and how competitive we are for county workers in terms of compensation, to really see, you know, if we are below the curve. What we want to do is figure out ways that we can make sure that our workers are compensated in a way to where they’re not looking at, you know, Santa Cruz County as a training ground to then go to other places that, you know, we’re compensating people in such a way that they were able to retain and attract good workers. 

In addition to that, I think we need to be working with the educational institutions within our community, businesses in our community, to see how we can create pathways for people to go from, you know, high school or college into good-paying jobs within our community.

And then finally, you know, union jobs are some of the best paying jobs in our community. And through conversations I’ve had with many union members and union workers, you know, a lot of the kind of building and construction trade workforce is aging out. And one of the things that I think we could do is really start working with the unions to help bolster their apprenticeship programs and attract more young people from our community to go into those apprenticeship programs. 

Because, you know, we know that those are as I mentioned, high-paying jobs, those apprenticeship programs, you get paid to be in those programs. And, and so you don’t come out of that training with debt. And then you are able to move forward with good-paying jobs in our community that are essential.

KMG: Same question. Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson.

SHEBREH KALANTARI-JOHNSON: Thank you, yes, absolutely a priority. I have the support of small business owners. My husband’s a small business owner. I run my own small business. And this community is made up of our small businesses, and they’ve really suffered over the last couple of years. So I think in helping support our small businesses, we’re going to help support our low-wage workers and create jobs. So I think that’s got to be a focus across our county. 

You know, there’s not a whole lot we can do in terms of cost of housing, except for build more housing. [LAUGHS]

And I know there are differences in opinions on that. But I truly believe if we build up our housing stock, we can address that. So supporting our small businesses, making sure that they are thriving so that they are offering jobs. That’s one way. 

And then also looking at it holistically, like what are all the things we can do to reduce the bills that are coming across low-wage workers’ desks and tables, right? Um, child care, subsidized child care is a big one. That’s something that I strongly support. 

You know, making sure public transportation is meeting the need, relevant and is accessible. That’s another big one. 

Having access to things like library programs and after-school programs. Again, the Children’s Fund provides scholarships to low-income youth, so making sure that families with teens have a safe space and safe, proactive activities in the community for their teens to go to. So really stepping back and looking at what are all the ways, what are all the social determinants of health, all the ways that we can help support low-wage earners in our community. 

Certainly making sure there’s a pipeline of jobs and then making sure our businesses are thriving, so there are jobs, but also just all of the other extras that add to people’s plates. 

KMG: Next question. North Coast residents told us they wanted fixes to poorly-maintained rural roads, more law enforcement, and better cellphone service, especially during emergencies. You would have some authority to fix these issues. What’s your plan to address these issues?

Ami Chen Mills.

AMI CHEN MILLS: Well, I know about the cellphone service issue. And I am not clear what’s happening like with the cellphone tower providers. I’ve got to call in to Ryan Coonerty to try to talk with him because I imagine he knows sort of best what’s going on and what’s possible up there. 

So I mean, certainly I would weigh in with the cellphone tower providers. People are feeling very scared, living up there.

So in the meantime, there are a lot of ham service operators springing up. And I support this. I wonder if it’s something that the county could help with, you know, maybe offering trainings and subsidies. And the reason I do support these things is because I’m not, it’s not like we had a fire and now we’re going to get back to normal. That’s not the situation we’re in.  

KMG: I want to get back to more law enforcement and better maintained rural roads. What’s your plan to address those?

AMI CHEN MILLS: Well, I’ve heard about law enforcement as well. My understanding is that [it’s] the county sheriff’s office that would respond. And I can see a win-win in this situation. The county sheriff’s [office] is already working with like mobile response team members. I think one, maybe two have been added on. And there are people in our community who would like to see a program like a mobile response unit that can go out in lieu of a sheriff or police officer. 

And actually, I think that that would be helpful for everyone because it would take some of the service burden off of the sheriffs. They should be responding to really, truly dangerous situations and serious crimes. But if we have a mobile response unit at the county sheriff’s office, that means that you know, if there’s people who need them in Bonny Doon there’ll be more time. It’s also a less expensive program, as I understand it. 

And so this is where I’m seeing kind of a win-win. I haven’t talked to Sheriff Hart yet about it.

KMG: Just to clarify, you’re talking about expansion of MERT, the mobile emergency response team that sends vans out.

AMI CHEN MILLS: That’s happening now. Yeah. Oh, I thought they went with the police. 

KMG: They can respond independently of the sheriff’s office from what I understand.

AMI CHEN MILLS: Yeah, but it’s only like 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. 

KMG: Yeah, it’s only during day hours. Yeah. Got it. And roads.

AMI CHEN MILLS: And roads? I’ve talked to [Supervisor] Zach Friend about roads. I don’t know what the situation is with the roads up there, except that they’re poorly maintained, right. And my understanding is that either you can fix all your potholes and use your money for that, or you can get a new street. But you have to kind of give up on the potholes for a while to get the new street. So again, I feel like I need to talk to Mr. Coonerty and maybe the people in you know, in planning and transportation to figure out what’s going on with the budget there. 

KMG: Same question. North Coast residents told us they wanted fixes to poorly-maintained rural roads, more law enforcement, and better cellphone service, especially during emergencies. What’s your plan to address these issues? Justin Cummings.

JUSTIN CUMMINGS: So in terms of law enforcement, I’m aware that the current county supervisor has worked hard and successfully to increase the sheriff’s presence on the North Coast. And I intend to continue that support and if possible to extend the responsiveness. 

As for roads, I intend to continue the aggressive efforts of the third district office to secure the maximum funding to repair the roads, especially those that have been damaged by the CZU Fire Complex. 

And as far as cell towers, I’m aware that there’s significant federal money that will soon be available to extend broadband in the county. And I intend to ensure that the third district gets its fair share of that.

KMG: Same question. Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson.

SHEBREH KALATNARI-JOHNSON: All right, well, first, I’ll share that. I feel very much a part of the North Coast community. My kids have gone to school at Pacific Elementary in Davenport since preschool. I also am very connected to folks up in the North Coast.

And you know, I think there’s a lot of work to be done there. I have a pretty strong relationship with our Sheriff’s Office. I’ve done a lot of work with our Sheriff’s Office. in the past and my grant writing work. I’ve been endorsed by law enforcement, and I’m going to use those relationships to make sure that we have adequate coverage on the North Coast for all of the challenges that happen on the North Coast. 

KMG: Shebreh mentioned that she has endorsements from law enforcement. She has the endorsement of the Santa Cruz Police Officers Association.

As of April 10, the Deputy Sheriffs Association of Santa Cruz County has not voted on an endorsement. The Sheriff’s Office is the law enforcement body that serves the North Coast and Davenport.

Shebreh also weighed in on cellphone service on the North Coast. 

Cell towers in Bonny Doon has been a controversial issue. Some residents have opposed cell towers because of potential health concerns.  

In February, a communication company applied to install a new cell tower in Bonny Doon. It would be on Summit Drive, near Empire Grade. The application is under review. That’s according to a county spokesman. 

SHEBREH KALANTARI-JOHNSON: So I’m committed to making sure that we have internet connectivity. I’ve already started to work with our local internet provider, Cruzio, to understand the complexities of it. I know that there is a program that the county is pursuing right now, with pockets of our community that have low internet connectivity. I would push for Davenport and the North Coast, and Bonny Doon to be up in the front of that line to be connected to those resources. 

KMG: OK. Would you support a cell tower in Bonny Doon?

SHEBREH KALANTARI-JOHNSON: I mean, I think the quick answer is yes. But we need to do it in a way that’s respectful to the community needs and desires.

KMG: Shebreh also weighed in on road repairs.

SHEBREH KALANTARI-JOHNSON: Roads. [SIGHS.] Roads is a big problem in all of our sort of rural areas. You know, I think one of the things that needs to be done is bringing in the resources for our infrastructure needs. There’s money right now that’s coming through the federal government with the infrastructure bill that’s passed. 

There’s money that’s coming from the state. So this is something that would pay attention to and make sure that our county departments are proactive in securing funds.

 

KMG: Last question from residents. Some District 3 residents were concerned about traffic and climate change. Residents want better bike and walk infrastructure and public transit. What projects related to bike, walk and public transit would you prioritize in District 3? What’s your plan to improve transportation options for District 3 residents?

Ami Chen Mills.

AMI CHEN MILLS: Well, I really support biking, I’ve been a volunteer for Ecology Action. And I also started with them, working for them when I first got here in the early 90s. And so I very much support their Bike to Work week. 

I also understand as a mother who lives on top of a very high hill, that not everyone is going to jump on their bikes. And I think we really need to look at the (Santa Cruz) Metro (bus) system. That’s probably one of my first priorities, in terms of making sure we get more people hired to be drivers.

But I also think that we need to look at how user friendly is the service. You know, my daughter and I were trying to ride the bus. We were looking at the website and we could not figure it out. So if that’s the case, people are not going to go jump on the bus. How can we make it just easier for everyone to get on the bus and understand the routes? 

And, you know, my understanding is the Metro service is something that you need to get it going to get it going. Right like you need the ridership to increase but you need routes to get the ridership. So we need to start, you know, somewhere and now that the students are back, you know, there’s more ridership, which is great. But I think we need to look at how to make it work from South County to North County better. And that may be the shoulder lane that’s already sort of starting to happen. But making sure also that South County residents can get to their bus stops, you know, and get on that bus. 

So yeah, I think my priority would be busing given that the rail trail issue is pretty bogged down at this time. In general, I support the rail trail. But in the meantime, we have a huge traffic issues on Highway 1. 

KMG:  For the record, all the candidates said their position was No on Measure D. That’s the Greenway initiative. It’s on the June 7 ballot.

Same question. What projects related to bike, walk and public transit would you prioritize in District 3? What’s your plan to improve transportation options for District 3 residents? 

Justin Cummings.

JUSTIN CUMMINGS: Well, the first example I’ll give is the rail and trail, which I’ve been supportive of since I was running back in 2018. And my position on that has not changed. So I will be very supportive of one, pushing back against the current ballot measure, and then working to continue building the trail in our community, which we’ve had significant progress on, both in South and North County. 

And then, you know, really working to identify sources of federal funding so that we can create the infrastructure that’s needed to bring forward electric rail, which would be a huge benefit to our community. Especially as we’re going to be building more housing, we’re going to need to have more opportunities for mass transit. And I believe that you know, an electric rail would be a sustainable option, an alternative to driving cars in our community. 

In addition to that, I know that the city used to have a bike share program, the Jump bikes, and that was a very popular program that now doesn’t exist. But when it was in operation, although there was frustration from community members about, you know, wherever bikes were left, there was a lot of people in the community who utilized those bikes as a way of getting around. And, you know, really got a lot of people, myself included, to stop driving cars. So really trying to bring back and I know that right now there’s an effort to make this a countywide program, as we try to reestablish the electric bike share program. So I really want to work on that. 

And then with understanding that, you know, the people really want to have safe abilities to bike, really investing as we’re repairing roads into creating safe bike lanes. Not just the green bike lanes, but you know, safe bike lanes for the people. So one, cars are slowing down in those areas where people are frequently biking, and that also bikers have more safety.

KMG: Same question. What projects related to bike, walk and public transit would you prioritize in District 3? What’s your plan to improve transportation options for District 3 residents? 

Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson.

SHEBREH KALANTARI-JOHNSON:  This is something that as a mom who schleps her kids across town to baseball and soccer and track and whatnot, I face every day. And not just schlepping around in my car, but having my 14-year-old ride his bike to these practices, right. So this is something that’s very important to me and my family, and clearly to the community. 

I think, you know, making sure that we think for the now and for the future. Making sure that our rail corridor is accessible and available to us for an alternate form of transportation in the future. 

While we are thinking ahead, continuing to build our bike lanes in the way that we have in the different segments. 

There’s a lot that we can do with our bus system. You know, I was in a forum last night and this question came up like how do we get increased ridership. Like right now our ridership is essentially students: university and Cabrillo College students and those who commute over the hill. 

And I’ll just say, I myself, I rode the bus when I was a UCSC student. I rode the bus over Highway 17 when I was getting my master’s in social work at San Jose State. I don’t ride the bus now. Because it’s really hard for me to get from point A to point B to point C to point D. Right? So how can we think differently and invest in our Metro system so that it becomes responsive to the community? 

And the other piece that I know the city is doing is really looking at EV infrastructure. I mean, we want to get people out of cars. But if we are going to be in cars, how can we get folks into electric vehicles? Providing incentives and the ability for low-income community members to purchase electric vehicles, and building that infrastructure out. 

KMG: Now let’s talk about the candidates’ voting records. We’ll focus on Justin Cummings and Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson. They both serve on the Santa Cruz City Council. Our goals are to understand how they make policy decisions and how they vote on housing.

We’ll start with the 831 Water St. project. This project calls for 140 units. Fifty-five to 82 of those units would be affordable. That means they’d be rented at lower prices to people who earn 80% or less of the area median income. The project has two buildings, at four stories and five stories.

This project remains controversial. Many neighbors opposed it because of concerns about traffic, parking, bike safety, building scale and other issues. 

In October, the council denied the project in a 6-1 vote. Shebreh and Justin voted against it. 

In December, after changes to the plan and a threat of lawsuit, the council voted again. That time the council approved it. It was a 4-3 vote. Shebreh approved it. Justin voted against it.

I asked Justin to explain his votes.

JUSTIN CUMMINGS: Having heard from community members, it was clear that the developer was moving forward in such a way that wasn’t really taking a lot of the community concern into account. 

The other part of it that was really troubling for me was that the developer was constantly coming back with new applications, and more updates to those applications. And in my opinion, we have a timeline for the application processes so that people can work to get everything together that they need, at one point in time and submit their final application. 

In addition to that, it was also apparent that it’s well — I should say — that it seemed as if they hadn’t had the financing figured out to actually make that project work. And I know that at one point, they were even asking the city to contribute money to help the financing work for some of the affordable units. 

And so you know, it, when projects come forward, I can see there being, you know, a way to work that out. But if those, if that question hadn’t come to the council for consideration, the application shouldn’t be submitted under the assumption that the city is going to help provide the financing for it. When that decision, that question, had never come to the city council. So for me, it was, it seemed like this is not, you know, the way that this project is being put together isn’t compatible with the community, and it is coming to the council incomplete. 

KMG: I checked with city staff. Last summer, the developer reached out to city staff to ask for a fee waiver. The council never voted on it. There wasn’t support for it on the council.

The council had limited power to deny the proposal. That’s because the developer applied for the project using state law SB 35. SB 35 forces city leaders to use objective standards to evaluate the project. 

Justin told me that he felt the city had the legal grounds to reject the application. He said that the developer’s many revisions to the plans were evidence that the plans did not comply with the city’s objective standards.

I asked him how the threat of lawsuit factored into his second “no” vote. He told me that elected leaders should take all legal challenges seriously. His time on the council has taught him that lawsuits often lead to settlements. It’s hard to predict the outcome. But it’s possible a settlement negotiation could have led to a plan that addressed more of the neighbors’ concerns, he told me.

I asked Shebreh about her initial “no” vote on 831 Water, and what changed her mind.

SHEBREH KALANTARI-JOHNSON: Yes, that was one of the hardest decisions on city council that I’ve made. You know, I am in support of smart growth that fits our community. 

Now, I don’t want to do it such that we change the quality of life for our community members who are here. I don’t want us to turn into “over the hill” or Southern California.

And when we don’t approve projects, and we don’t build, this is what we’re faced with. We’re faced with projects that may feel too ‘at scale’ for the specific location. And it’s the state’s way of saying, you know, you didn’t do enough so now we’re going to do whatever we want. 

831 Water you know, I worked with the developers. I worked with staff. I worked with neighbors to see if we can get to a place that would be workable for everyone. And we didn’t land there, Kara. We didn’t land there. I had strong concerns about the segregation and separation of the two buildings along with, among other concerns. 

Now, what it comes down to is that we find ourselves in the situation that we do because of our past policy decisions. When I had a deeper understanding of what that would mean, to continue to deny this project in terms of potentially $8 million dollars that would cost our city taxpayers, I had to make that very difficult decision to change my vote. 

KMG: I checked the $8 million figure that Shebreh mentioned. That’s how much legal fees and court fines could potentially cost the city. That’s if the city were sued, and the court finds the project’s denial was in bad faith. The city would be fined if the decision were not reversed. 

The fines are based on the number of housing units — in this case, 140 units. That’s according to a lawyer hired by the city. The lawyer called it a worst case scenario.

I asked Shebreh to clarify the issues she had with the project that led to her no vote. 

SHEBREH KALANTARI-JOHNSON: Some of the technicalities of the project were of concern, including traffic concerns, and the egress and ingress where the cars would be coming in and out of Water Street. And the proposal that was put in front of us, I think, to me, and my fellow, a number of my fellow council members weren’t addressed adequately.

KMG: And then when you changed your vote for the second vote. Was it that a deeper understanding that kind of the city’s hands were tied legally? Or was it like, oh, this revised proposal, I’m more open to it?

SHEBREH KALANTARI-JOHNSON: No, that’s exactly right. The city’s hands were tied. We’ll be facing a significant lawsuit that our city can’t afford.

KMG: I also asked Shebreh and Justin about their votes last year on the Riverfront housing proposal. It’s a seven-story project. Twenty of 175 units would be affordable. The council approved it in a 5-2 vote. Shebreh voted in favor. Justin voted against.

I asked Shebreh to explain her “yes” vote.

SHEBREH KALANTARI-JOHNSON: Look, ultimately, I mean, this goes back to what we were saying. We have done a terrible job of building in our community. So here, here’s where we’re at. 

If we’re going to build density housing, it’s going to be in the downtown areas. If we’re going to activate our downtown, have walkable communities, it’s going to be projects like this. Saying “no” to housing doesn’t bring in affordable housing. It takes away the 20 units that we would have the opportunity to have. Right? So I think some of my colleagues who continue to vote no on these housing projects, you got to step back and see the bigger picture. You say no to you say no to 20, because you can’t get 22, then you don’t get the 20 even. 

KMG: I asked Justin to explain his “no” vote.  At the time, he said he wanted the city staff to negotiate with the developer to set aside some units for people with housing choice vouchers.

JUSTIN CUMMINGS: One way that we know, we can, you know, in terms of one program that exists that can allow us to increase affordable units, or increase people who need affordable housing is Section 8. And at the state level, the state has now made it illegal for people to discriminate against Section 8 voucher holders. 

However, we historically know that if someone is a tenant and their landlord does something that is illegal, whether that’s a notice to quit or kick them out. The burden’s placed on the tenant to file a lawsuit and so they have to hire an attorney, sue the landlord and take them to court. 

And people who are low income that’s extremely difficult for them to do.

And, you know, the developer at the time, you know, is really saying, well, it’s up to the city. And, you know, I think that we need to be pushing forward with creating laws that will increase the use of Section 8 housing vouchers and increase affordable housing, because what we’ve seen is that if it’s not, if there’s no legal implications, then developers are less likely to do it. 

KMG: I talked to Justin about his votes on a couple other housing projects. Shebreh was not on the council yet.

In 2019, Justin voted in favor of the 190 West Cliff project. That’s a housing complex proposed on the Dream Inn parking lot. The council approved it in a 4-3 vote. The project had 10 affordable units out of a total 89 units. At the time Justin said he wanted to QUOTE increase affordable housing to the maximum extent possible CLOSE QUOTE. But he was worried about legal challenges. 

Justin told me he spoke with the city’s legal team. If the city denied the project, the city likely would have been sued. And the city would have lost, he said.

JUSTIN CUMMINGS: Alternatively, you know, voting in favor of that project, it would then go to the Coastal Commission, and then the Coastal Commission would need to be the one who would weigh in to determine whether or not that project met all the requirements. And by doing so that took the burden of disputing that project off the city. 

KMG:  The project remains stalled. Four residents and a neighborhood group filed a series of appeals to the Coastal Commission. That was in November 2019. The Coastal Commission has not yet weighed in on it. 

In 2020, Justin voted in favor of the new Downtown [Santa Cruz] library project. It calls for affordable housing and a garage. At the time, it called for a minimum 50 affordable housing units. The council approved it in a 4-2 vote. The project had many supporters, but also many opponents. Many people did not want the garage. They wanted a library renovation instead. I asked Justin to explain his yes vote. 

JUSTIN CUMMINGS: Obviously, this was a very controversial item. And I was kind of the swing vote on that item. 

And I thought that what would be really important is that, you know, rather than move in either direction, let’s bring it out to the community and really have a good understanding of, if we renovate, what’s that going to look like. If we build a mixed-use [library], what can that look like? Because when I was running for office, I was under the impression you know, it’s going to be a six-story parking garage with 600 new spaces on top of a library, which I still to this day, don’t think is something that would be good for the community. 

And as a (library) subcommittee member, we met with the library director and after receiving all this input, went through you know which of these projects would be best. And we unanimously agreed that the mixed-use project would be the best. 

And part of that was because we also saw that there’s the potential to build affordable housing on that site and have a library and have, you know, some parking, which we were able to reduce the spaces from 600 to 400. 

And so, you know, thinking about how can we, you know, come together as a community and really maximize the benefit, that seemed like a good direction to go in.

KMG: The downtown library, housing and garage project today calls for 100 to 125 affordable units. 

I asked Justin to summarize how he has voted on housing.

JUSTIN CUMMINGS: I’m looking at approving projects that are going to fit with the community, that are taking community consideration into account and that are maximizing affordable housing. And the policies that I’m interested in moving forward are those that are going to increase the amount of deed-restricted, affordable housing in our community. Because if it’s not deed-restricted, then there’s no guarantee that it will be affordable moving forward.

KMG: I asked Shebreh to summarize how she has voted on housing.

SHEBREH KALANTARI-JOHNSON: Well, I have a 100% voting yes record in my time at city council. That’s not to say that there isn’t going to be a project that I don’t think is a fit for our community. I think we need to think holistically. We need to think about how we make these land use decisions will affect the climate and culture of our community. 

And in that, I mean, if we don’t say yes now, again, we will be slapped by the state. And we will be looking at high-rise boxes. So that really influences my thinking. 

There is a narrative out there that “she hasn’t seen a project that she doesn’t like.” I know that that narrative’s out there. That’s not the reality. When I see a project, I take into consideration the needs of the entire community and our needs in the next 20 years. Right. I’ll work with developers. I’ll work with city staff, I’ll work with community groups to see where we can make adjustments so that it is a fit for how we want to grow as a city of Santa Cruz and Santa Cruz County.

KMG:  Just to clarify, your 100% vote. You mean that except for that one vote on 831 Water, that initial vote, you’ve approved every project that you’ve that has come before [the council]?

SHEBREH KALANTARI-JOHNSON: And I’ll say this to you, Kara, you know, by the time it comes to us at the city council, there has been a long process that’s already taken place. Right? It goes to the planning commission, it goes to the city staff, it goes back and forth. Right. So I also have to do my homework. Absolutely. But also trust in the process that’s taking place before it comes across my desk, so to speak.

KMG: I also asked Shebreh about a proposal she made with Councilmembers Martine Watkins and Renee Golder. Last year, they proposed a ballot measure that earmarked 20% of the city’s marijuana tax money for children’s programs. City voters approved that measure in November’s special election. 

That was the only question on the city ballot that November. The election cost the city $241,000. That cost is significantly more than what the measure would raise annually for the Children’s Fund. 

I asked Shebreh about it. She stood by her vote and the timing of the proposal. She said the cost of the election was worth it to fund children’s services.

[MUSIC]

KMG: Let’s quickly recap how the candidates differ on housing, rent assistance and homelessness policies.

On building affordable housing. 

  • Ami Chen Mills wants to focus on county-owned land throughout the county. She said she would work with nonprofit developers.
  • Justin Cummings said he would also work with developers. He wants to explore the potential for affordable housing at the Cemex plant in Davenport. He also wants to increase the county’s inclusionary rate to 20%.
  • Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson wants to build affordable housing throughout the county, not just in District 3. She mentioned in-law units and tiny homes as part of the solution.  She also wants to update the county’s zoning to allow more housing growth.
  • Since Shebreh started her term on the city council, she has had more “yes” votes on housing than Justin

On rent assistance.

  • Ami Chen Mills wants to create a rent assistance voucher program run by the county. She wants to find state and federal money for it.
  • Justin Cummings said he wants to make sure the state COVID rent relief program delivers rent assistance faster. He said he’d also advocate for state leaders to give the county more money for rent assistance. He would also push for more county money to be spent on rent assistance.
  • Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson also said she’d push state leaders to deliver with the COVID rent relief program. She would also push for more county money to be spent on rent assistance.

On solutions to homelessness.

  • Ami Chen Mills said developing more affordable housing is key. She also wants to expand mental health crisis services. She supports an expansion of managed homeless camps, like the one at the armory in DeLaveaga Park.
  • Justin Cummings said his first priority is seeking state and federal money for permanent supportive housing. He also said expansion of rent assistance programs is key. He also wants to increase addiction treatment services. 
  • Both Justin and Ami mentioned a need for more alternatives to police response to mental health crises. 
  • Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson said the root causes of homelessness she’d prioritize are a lack of treatment for substance abuse and mental health problems. She said she’d push for more money for treatment. She supports the county’s three-year plan to address homelessness, and the city’s recent homelessness action response plan. She wants more homeless services throughout the county, not just in Santa Cruz. 

[MUSIC TRANSITION]

KMG: So much time and love went into today’s episode. We interviewed more than 50 residents all over District 3. We surveyed another 50-plus residents. We do this because we want our election guide to be useful to you. We want to understand what you want from the candidates.

We do this because we love Santa Cruz County. We believe our local democracy works better when everyone is watching and involved, especially with elections.

This work takes time and money.

All of Santa Cruz Local’s work is free. We are supported by our members. Our members donate starting at $19 a month or $199 a year.

I invite you to support our newsroom with a membership today. Go to santacruzlocal DOT org SLASH membership.

The link is in our show notes.

If you use the Patreon app, you can also donate to us there. Just search for Santa Cruz Local.

[MUSIC]

Thank you to all our members. Thank you especially to our highest-level members.

  • Elizabeth and David Doolin
  • Fran Goodwin
  • Jim Weller
  • Debra Szeicei
  • Chris Neklason
  • Patrick Reilly
  • Cove Britton
  • And Jacob Meyberg Guzman

Thanks to Trimpot for the music.

Thank you also to Santa Cruz Local’s Natalya Dreszer. Natalya helped conduct interviews across District 3. Natalya also helped organize and analyze all our survey and interview feedback.

I’m Kara Meyberg Guzman.

Thanks for listening to Santa Cruz Local.

Editor’s note: This podcast and transcript have been updated to correct the year that Ami Chen Mills left the executive director role at the Center for Sustainable Change.

Santa Cruz Local’s news is free. We believe Santa Cruz County is stronger when everyone has access to fair and accurate information. Our newsroom relies on locals like you for financial support. Our members make regular contributions, starting at $19 a month or $199 year.
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Kara Meyberg Guzman is the CEO and co-founder of Santa Cruz Local. ​Prior to Santa Cruz Local, she served as the Santa Cruz Sentinel’s managing editor. She has a biology degree from Stanford University and lives in Santa Cruz.