Last updated May 2024

The following terms are often used in discussions and news stories related to housing developments. Santa Cruz Local offers this glossary to help residents understand housing terms, organizations, rules, laws and slang.

Click on any term to jump to the definition:

ADU (accessory dwelling unit):  Also known as an “in-law” or “granny” unit. A small house or cottage in the yard of a larger home.

Affordable housing: In new developments, affordable housing refers to homes rented or sold for below-market prices to people who earn less money than most people in an area. (See AMI) Housing is considered affordable if the rent or mortgage is no more than 30% of a household’s income, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

AMBAG (Association of Monterey Bay Area Governments): AMBAG is a “council of governments” that includes city and county representatives across Monterey, San Benito and Santa Cruz counties. It coordinates planning and development in the Monterey Bay area. Every eight years, AMBAG creates a Regional Housing Needs Allocation (see RHNA), which gives each local government a housing production target based on state-set housing goals for the region.

AMI (Area Median Income): Area median income is the midpoint of an area’s income distribution, where half of households earn more money and half earn less. Income limits to qualify for affordable housing are calculated as a percentage of AMI with some adjustments. State and federal governments use AMI to determine income limits for affordable housing. Homes for “low income” and “very low income” households use income limits that change annually based on AMI.State and federal income limits differ, and one affordable housing project may use income limits from different agencies to determine tenant eligibility.

The area median income for a family of four in Santa Cruz County was $132,800 in 2024, according to the California Department of Housing and Community Development.

Builder’s Remedy: A part of California’s Housing Accountability Act that lets developers circumvent some local housing regulations if a local government doesn’t have a certified Housing Element of its General Plan. Without a certified Housing Element, a local government cannot deny a project because it exceeds local height and density restrictions if the project includes at least 20% affordable housing.

California Coastal Commission: A state agency that regulates coastal development to try to protect public access to and preservation of the coast. Local governments in coastal areas each create a Local Coastal Program, a plan that guides development along the coast. Each plan requires approval by the Coastal Commission. (See Santa Cruz Local’s Explainer: How does the California Coastal Commission work?)

CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act): A state environmental protection law. In part, it requires governments to consider most development projects’ anticipated environmental impacts and take steps to address those impacts. Some housing advocates and state lawmakers have said that development opponents use CEQA lawsuits as a pretext to delay or kill a development proposal. Recently adopted California laws allow some housing projects to bypass CEQA rules.

Coastal Zone: An area along the California coast regulated by the California Coastal Commission. In Santa Cruz County, the Coastal Zone includes large parts of the City of Santa Cruz, Capitola and unincorporated Santa Cruz County. A law or proposed development in the Coastal Zone may be appealed to the Coastal Commission on the basis of restricting public access to the coast. For example, a Santa Cruz overnight parking law for RVs was appealed to the Coastal Commission in 2024. (See Santa Cruz Local’s Explainer: How does the California Coastal Commission work?)

Density: The concentration of homes or other development in a given building or area. For example, Downtown Santa Cruz contains greater development density than the upper Westside. A fourplex has a greater density of housing units than a single-family home of the same size.

Density Bonus: Several California laws allow developers to build housing developments higher and denser than allowed by zoning laws if they have a certain percentage of affordable housing at specified levels of affordability. Many housing proposals in 2023 and 2024 take advantage of density bonus law, such as the proposed Food Bin redevelopment

Dwelling unit (DU): House, apartment, condominium, duplex, triplex, four-plex, in-law unit or other type of home.

FAR (floor area ratio): A measurement of housing density that divides the total area of all floors of a building to the area of a lot. For example, a 1,000-square-foot home on a 2,000-square-foot lot would have an FAR of 0.5. If the same home were two stories tall, it would have 2,000 square feet of total floor area, and the FAR would be 1. City and county zoning codes and General Plans include limits on FAR for different areas.

FDU (flexible density units): An FDU is a type of apartment in the City of Santa Cruz that is 220 to 650 square feet. FDUs are exempt from city density rules. They are allowed in most commercial or mixed-use areas. For example, a housing proposal for 908 Ocean St. has 249 flexible density units from 509 to 645 square feet, along with 103 larger apartments. The Santa Cruz City Council created the FDU designation in March 2022.

General Plan: A city or county document with long-term development plans and rules. Along with zoning laws, the General Plan determines where and what developers can build. A Housing Element is part of a General Plan.

HCD (California Department of Housing and Community Development): The state department responsible for setting state housing rules, housing development goals (see RHNA) and regulating local governments’ housing development. The department is responsible for certifying local Housing Elements.

Housing Accountability Act: A California law that requires local governments to expedite approval for housing applications that meet local objective standards. Objective standards are specific requirements, such as minimum setbacks or certain building materials. Subjective standards, like whether a building fits into the neighborhood character, cannot be used to slow or deny a project. The Builder’s Remedy is another part of the Housing Accountability Act. The Housing Accountability Act was adopted in 1982 and amended in 2017.

Housing Authority of the County of Santa Cruz: A public agency that distributes federally-funded Housing Choice Vouchers to people in Santa Cruz County. The housing authority also manages other housing programs such as grants for security deposits, and farmworker housing. It tries to help people access affordable housing and reduce housing discrimination. 

Housing Choice Voucher (Section 8 Voucher): A voucher given to low-income renters that subsidizes a portion of their rent, also known as a Section 8 Voucher. The program is funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Developments (see HUD) and managed by local housing agencies. In Santa Cruz County, the Housing Authority of the County of Santa Cruz distributes vouchers. Landlords who accept clients with the vouchers receive the subsidized portion of rent money directly from the housing authority. 

A similar rental subsidy, project-based vouchers, are tied to specific homes in affordable housing developments. A new housing development could accept specific numbers of project-based vouchers and Housing Choice Vouchers. 

Housing Element: A Housing Element is part of a city or county’s General Plan that contains strategies to meet state housing targets by allowing more land to be used for housing and affordable housing (see affordable housing and RHNA). A Housing Element includes maps of where new homes could be built and programs to encourage new development. Housing Elements must be certified by the California Department of Housing and Community Development (see HCD). Without a certified Housing Element, local governments may be subject to state rules that allow developers to bypass some local height and density limits (see Builder’s Remedy).

HUD (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) The federal agency  responsible for national policy and programs that address housing needs, try to improve and develop communities and enforce fair housing laws. 

Inclusionary rate: The percentage of homes in larger housing projects required to be offered at below-market prices. Cities and counties can set an inclusionary rate and determine when it applies. The inclusionary rate does not apply to units added to a building through a Density Bonus. Advocates and housing professionals often disagree over the efficacy of inclusionary rates to provide more affordable housing. Some advocates have said inclusionary rates ensure that developers help combat the affordable housing crisis, while some housing professionals have said excessively high inclusionary rates can dissuade developers from proposing any new housing. 

Infill development: New buildings in existing cities or neighborhoods, rather than in undeveloped open space or farmland. Infill developments can be on vacant lots or less-dense areas. For example, a 207-unit apartment complex was built on lots that included the former site of Taco Bell at Laurel Street and Pacific Avenue in Santa Cruz. 

Local Coastal Program: A city or county’s plan for regulations and development in the Coastal Zone. The California Coastal Commission weighs a Local Coastal Program for approval.

Missing middle: Urban planners sometimes use “missing middle” to describe medium-density housing — such as triplexes, townhomes and small apartment buildings —  because high-density highrises and low-density single-family homes are more common than medium-density developments.

Mixed-use development: A building or group of buildings that includes homes and businesses. Often, mixed-use buildings have shops or offices on the bottom floor, and homes on the upper floors.

Navigation center: A location designed to provide a safe environment for unhoused people to access services. A navigation center may or may not provide shelter beds. A navigation center is in the works at 2202 Soquel Ave. in Santa Cruz

NIMBY (Not In My Backyard): A term, often considered pejorative, for people who oppose new housing or other types of development near their home. Some “Nimbies” try to block new development by speaking out against projects at public meetings or appealing approved projects. (See YIMBY)

Objective standards: A group of rules with specific standards for new developments. In 2020, California law started to require cities to only use objective rules for building materials, architectural style and other features. California city councils cannot use subjective design standards, like “neighborhood character” to deny housing proposals, in part because councils often used subjective standards to deny new development.

Permanent supportive housing: Subsidized housing for people with mental or physical disabilities who are unable to pay for their own housing. The housing comes with programs to help residents get health care, mental health services, food assistance, employment training and other services. For example, a permanent supportive housing project is in the works at the Housing Matters campus on Coral Street in Santa Cruz

Planning commission: A city or county commission that considers new developments. In some cases, a planning commission can approve or deny a project. In other cases, the commission gives a recommendation for approval or denial to the city council or county board of supervisors. A Zoning Administrator can sometimes approve or deny new developments without approval of a planning commission or city council. 

Rapid rehousing: Programs to help individuals and families quickly return to permanent housing after experiencing homelessness.

RDA (redevelopment agency): Redevelopment agencies in California once used a portion of property taxes for new development, including 100% affordable housing, in blighted areas. The state dissolved RDAs in 2012 following cases of agencies pursuing expensive projects that did little for urban renewal. Without redevelopment agencies, local governments are more dependent on private developers and state grants to produce new affordable housing.

RHNA (Regional Housing Needs Allocation): Often pronounced REE-nuh, RHNA is an eight-year housing development goal for a city or county. Each local government in California must make a plan to meet its current RHNA (see Housing Element). The Association of Bay Area Governments (see AMBAG) sets RHNA goals for Santa Cruz County and the cities of Capitola, Santa Cruz, Scotts Valley and Watsonville. If a local government does not meet its RHNA housing goals, it may be subject to state laws that expedite the approval of new housing (see Builder’s Remedy). 

SB 9 (2021), the California Housing Opportunity and More Efficiency (HOME) Act: A California law meant to allow homeowners to override single-family zoning laws (see zoning ordinance) and build up to four homes on their property. It allows most homeowners to split their lot and build up to two homes on each lot. The law is part of an effort to encourage medium-density housing (see missing middle).

SB 35 (2017), Affordable housing: streamlined approval process Act. A California law that streamlines approval of infill developments with affordable housing. The streamlined process applies to local governments that have not met their goals for housing development (see RHNA).

SB 330 (2019), Housing Crisis Act: A California law adopted in 2019 that imposes new rules on local governments. In part, it:

  • Forbids local governments from applying new rules to housing developments after a development has submitted a preliminary application. This essentially “locks in” existing regulations when the developer submits the pre-application.
  • Requires local governments that reduce height or density limits in one area of their jurisdiction to raise height or density limits in another area.
  • Requires that any demolished affordable homes be replaced with homes of the same size and level of affordability. Existing tenants have the right of first refusal for the new homes.

Section 8 Voucher: (See Housing Choice Voucher)

Setback: The space between a building and the edge of a property line. Greater setbacks reduce a building’s density and floor area ratio.

Transitional housing: Housing for homeless individuals and families that links residents to health care, food, job training and other resources. Unlike permanent supportive housing, transitional housing aims to prepare participants to find permanent housing elsewhere. Participants may all live in the same apartment building or tiny home community, or in different locations.

Workforce housing: The phrase has been used with varying definitions, but it generally refers to homes priced for middle-income families who may not be able to afford market-rate homes. Some proposed housing developments in Santa Cruz County are workforce housing for specific employers or professions. For example, Leaders of Santa Cruz City Schools have planned a workforce housing development for teachers on Swift Street in Santa Cruz.

YIMBY (Yes In My Backyard): A movement to promote all kinds of housing development. YIMBY organizations active in Santa Cruz include Santa Cruz YIMBY and San Francisco-based YIMBY Action. Some “Yimbies” aim to lower rents by increasing the supply of housing, a strategy supported by some research. (See NIMBY)

Zoning Administrator: A city or county employee who often offers the first judgment on whether or not a development complies with the city’s zoning code and can move forward. In some cases, the zoning administrator can approve a project directly. Appeals of zoning administrator decisions are often heard by planning commissions

Zoning ordinance: City or county laws that, along with the General Plan, determine what kind of buildings can be developed in an area, and how tall or what density they can be. For example, an area can be zoned for commercial or industrial use only, or for residential only. A single-family zoning ordinance dictates that one home can be built on each lot, rather than a duplex or apartment building.

Have more questions about housing? Have an alternative definition? Want something else defined? Talk to us at [email protected].

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