Blog To HCD: Santa Cruz YIMBY Comments on Santa Cruz County Draft Housing Element (July 2023)

Letter sent to HCD on September 12, 2023

Sept. 12, 2023

Santa Cruz YIMBY advocates for abundant housing at all levels of affordability to meet the needs of a growing population in Santa Cruz County. We support sustainable growth, including along transportation corridors and activity centers and a commitment to lower Vehicle Miles Traveled by housing people near services and jobs. We submit the following comments on the Santa Cruz County 6th cycle draft Housing Element of July 25, 2023.

Coastal Commission

The current draft Housing Element depends heavily upon the recently adopted Sustainability Update, currently in front of the Coastal Commission as a Local Coastal Plan (LCP) amendment. On Sept 6, the Coastal Commission agreed to a deadline extension of up to a year for the review of this LCP update. We join the County in having concern about a yearlong extension. 

  • Delaying the approval of the LCP until the end of 2024 also puts off implementation of significant rezoning included in the Sustainability program, which is depended on by the county to meet its Housing Element RHNA responsibilities. 
  • We note that the density limits listed in the site inventory as existing zoned capacity are dependent on the Sustainability Update rezoning being approved by the Coastal Commission, as the General Plan’s Land Use Element density limits were significantly changed and increased via the Sustainability Update.

In order for the Housing Element to be substantially compliant by the deadline of December 15, 2023, either the LCP must be approved or the Housing Element must be reworked to reflect the currently approved LCP zoning and General Plan Land Use standards and sites. At a minimum, the County must add a Housing Element program to work with the Coastal Commission to implement the Sustainability Update via the LCP amendment expeditiously. 

Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) 

We note that the County has planned for 85% of affordable housing in high/highest access to opportunity as shown on TCAC/HCD Maps (1) but note only 5% of affordable housing is planned for racially-concentrated areas of affluence (RCAA)(2). At least two census tracts (1208 and 1222.02) are both high/highest resource areas and RCAA, but have only above-moderate units planned (3). 

  • These two census tracts are primarily made up of low density, single family residential homes. Census tract 1222.02 in Aptos includes a grocery store and elementary school. 
  • Both of their assessments include; “While none are proposed, the introduction of affordable units for low income households in this Census Tract would help to further integrate unincorporated Santa Cruz County.” We urge that affordable units should be incentivized for these areas, including through missing middle(4) housing.

In New State Laws Affecting Housing (5), the County describes steps taken to incentivize Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs), which can provide affordable housing in high resource/low density areas with single family residential homes. We urge the county to adopt more specific and rigorous programs for missing middle housing which would include:

  • We support Program H-1J to utilize SB 10 to increase densities for 44 parcels in the county and see potential for similar increases throughout the county. 
    • We encourage the county to expand on Program H-1J by implementing a form-based zoning: e.g., if it is legal to build a 5000 square foot house for one family it should also be legal to build two 2000 square foot homes or three 1300 square foot homes in the same building envelope throughout the county. This can be achieved without an EIR thanks to Senate Bill 10 (6). 
  • We encourage the county to reduce parking minimums to no more than half a space per unit, uncovered. The county’s current levels of parking requirements are barriers to development despite the county’s belief that it is within “industry standards.” The high cost of development in Santa Cruz needs bold solutions to overcome, and that starts with lowering parking requirements. 
  • We encourage the county to reduce front and rear setbacks and minimum lot size; increase heights, and maximum lot coverage requirements. The county’s current physical standards for development are barriers to development.

(1) 2023 CTCAC HCD Opportunity Map, also in Appendix HE-A, Page HE-A-61,
AFFH Data Viewer and Mapping Resources Version 2.0
(2) Appendix HE-A, Page HE-A-145
(3) Table HE-A-17 in Appendix HE-A, Page HE-A-124
(4) Missing Middle Housing
(5) Santa Cruz County 6th cycle draft Housing Element of July 25, 2023, page 4-11
(6) SB 10 - California YIMBY

Site Inventory

This Housing Element assumes the County’s Sustainability Update is in effect, with the LCP update approved by the Coastal Commission. There is a potential that this could take up to a year after last week’s Coastal Commission hearing. Therefore, the Housing Element site inventory should be based on the zoning that is currently in place:

  • The General Plan Land Use designation densities which are currently in effect should be listed in the housing element in addition to the densities proposed to be changed by the Sustainability Update. Figure 2-3 shows the current densities prior to the approval of the Sustainability update by the Coastal Commission. See General Plan Land Use element page 29:

  • The Housing Element’s analysis of development potential and capacity relies on Table 4.4-4, and densities which are not yet in effect, as these were updated via the Sustainability Update and must still be approved by the Coastal Commission. 

  • The Site inventory list should show the density and units available under current land use designation and an additional table for density and units available for the site under the pending LCP of the Sustainability Update Plan.
  • The Site Inventory should reflect the current general plan land use designation, and ensure that adequate development capacity is available throughout the planning period. The LCP certification that implements the Sustainability Update densities should thus either be incorporated as part of the county’s mandatory RHNA rezoning program, or additional sites should be identified in the site inventory that reflect the current density of the Land Use Designation.
  • Any updates impacted by pending LCP approval should reflect current land use standards and future LCP approved standards in an obvious way.

The County is relying on non vacant sites for most of their RHNA and for >50% of Lower Income RHNA.

  • The Housing Element does not describe the realistic development potential of each site within the planning period. “Specifically, the analysis must consider the extent that the nonvacant site’s existing use impedes additional residential development, the jurisdiction's past experience converting existing uses to higher density residential development, market trends and conditions, and regulatory or other incentives or standards that encourage additional housing development on the nonvacant sites.” (7)

The Site Inventory (Appendix HE-E) lists a number of churches, schools and granges. These sites should only be listed as opportunity sites if their current owners have expressed interest in developing housing during the planning period.

The County’s 5th cycle progress towards affordable housing at the Very-Low income level lags significantly at 24-35% less than other categories. (8) Farmworker housing accounts for a sizable portion of the Very-Low income RHNA units. While there are programs focused on development of farmworker housing, If the County misses this affordable target, it loses the buffer and needs to make up the difference under No Net Loss law. 

(7) HCD Site Inventory Guidebook, page 24
(8) Santa Cruz County 6th cycle draft Housing Element of July 25, 2023, page 4-11 and Appendix HE-B page HE-B-28

Goal H-1 Facilitate Development of New Housing, Primarily in Infill Areas

Given uncertainty regarding approval timing for the Local Coastal Plan amendment that includes the Sustainability Update, we support checkpoints to verify that the County is indeed facilitating development of new housing. The County should add to Program H-1A:

  • Identify more specific commitments/incentives if progress isn’t happening
  • A commitment to market analysis and modification of zoning/development standards if not meeting goals 
  • Ministerial approval process for all site inventory projects
  • Tracking commercial occupancy, and if vacancy remains high, relax commercial requirements in favor of more residential, including live/work units
  • Monitor the progress of pending projects. This could include automatic entitlement extensions until midway through the 6th cycle and proactively reaching out to all pending project developers to confirm that there is still development interest.
  • Reduced parking requirements (see “Parking” below)

Some programs have vague language that should be tightened, e.g. drop the “approximately” in the measurable outcome of Program H-1C.

The update to the density bonus code in Program H-1D should include economic incentives for parcel assembly and make clear that the state density bonus stacks on top of the local density bonus.

Currently, the county zoning code includes constraints and limitations that could limit affordable multifamily or mixed-use housing from achieving assumed base densities. These include but are not limited to building height, setbacks, FAR, and parking requirements. If the county is truly “Pro-Housing” the County should update their zoning to allow for multifamily projects as the default. The County must do more than “consider” the zoning modifications in Program H-1F and more often than once by the end of 2026. 

In particular, in Program H-1F, the county needs to go further to decrease or eliminate parking (9) requirements (10) to lower the cost of housing and encourage alternative and sustainable modes of transportation. Looking at the County’s parking requirements, there is room for significant improvement. We see the following opportunities:

  • Remove the tiered allowable percentage of compact parking spaces in favor of no cap or a single (higher) rate across the board.
  • Eliminate or reduce parking minimums to no more than half a space per unit, uncovered.
  • Reduce or eliminate parking requirements for multifamily dwellings, especially for development along transit corridors or that include smaller units such as SROs. 
  • Include a program requiring multi-family housing projects to unbundle parking
  • Commit to the development of an AB 2097 implementation ordinance which eliminates parking minimums near quality transit.
  • Align reduced parking for senior and special needs developments with AB 2162 which has by-right approvals and eliminates parking requirements.

We support Program H-1K to provide “priority” processing for projects greater than seven units with an affordability component. As these projects remain subject to discretionary approval, the County should include a program to adopt ministerial approval for a subset of projects, e.g. those on the site inventory or 100% affordable.

The new Program H-1L includes vague language of “Consider…” and “appropriate”. There can be a more active commitment here. The County should be referencing their Objective Standards rather than “ guidance to ensure compatibility with the overall character and historic properties in the area”.

The County should commit to showing its compliance with the Permit Streamlining Act by providing on its website up to date statistics on processing times for various project types with useful milestones, e.g. preliminary design submittal, design approval, construction drawing submittal, Building Permit, Certificate of Occupancy. The County should continue to move all impact fees to a per square foot basis rather than per unit to incentivize more and less expensive units. 

(9) Sustainability Update - 13.16.050 Off-street vehicle parking spaces required
(10) Appendix HE-D Table HE-D-7 on page HE-D-25

Goal H-3 Facilitate the Development of Affordable and Equal Opportunity Housing 

In the newly added Program H-3H, the County should include a feasibility analysis of the existing program rather than the vague “...State HCD may require the County to produce an economic feasibility study…” The County should commission analysis to determine at what percentage any inclusionary rate (or impact fees) becomes an impediment to housing development. 

The County acknowledges that “programs to use publicly owned lands such as County-owned land can make a difference” however, there is no program to support Policy H-3.10 which includes this. The County should have a program for the development of affordable housing for county-owned parcels on the site inventory. 

As a county with a growing percentage of renters, it is important to have strong tenant protections. We support Program H-3D with a universal rental application and push for limits on application fees. This program should have an earlier target completion date.

The housing element notes that 53% of renters are cost burdened (>30% of income for housing), and 30% are severely cost burdened (>50% of income for housing). There are a number of programs we would like to see implemented or expanded in the county including:

  • Creation of a rental registry. This was recently passed by both Salinas and Monterey
  • Local preference for people employed in the county
  • COPA and TOPA programs

(11) Santa Cruz County 6th cycle draft Housing Element of July 25, 2023 Page 4-58 and Appendix HE-A, Page HE-A-101
(12) Salinas passes rental registry
(13) Monterey City Council moves ahead with rental registry
(14) Community Opportunity to Purchase Act (COPA) | San Francisco
(15) EBCLC's Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA) - East Bay Community Law Center

Goal H-4 Provide Housing Opportunities for Special Needs Populations

Permanent supportive housing is a key solution towards solving homelessness. Consistent with AFFH, the County should create a policy to ensure equitable distribution (and development potential) of such housing across all districts.

Goal H-5 Promote Energy Conservation and Sustainable Design

We note that the County uses vague language and for some Goals, has more policies than programs. Goal H-5 is one example - there are two policies, but one program with the vague language of “Research the feasibility…” rather than a firm commitment.

Goal H-6 Collaborate and Publicize Housing Resources

There are no programs for Policy H-6.2. At a minimum, the County must add a program to work with the Coastal Commission to implement the Sustainability Update via the LCP amendment expeditiously. 

We support robust transit and are in accordance with Program H-6D to work with AMBAG, RTC, and the County’s cities on updating the regional Metropolitan Transportation Plan / Sustainable Communities Strategy (MTP/SCS). The county should work with said entities to designate Soquel Avenue a high quality/major transit corridor in the 2050 MTP/SCS (scheduled for June 2026). This designation would incentivize more sustainable, affordable, and equitable development in an area identified for large amounts of new housing in the 6th RHNA cycle.


Unanalyzed Constraints

The constraints section listed in Appendix HE-D does not adequately analyze constraining factors to development. Declaring that there is no constraint to production is not a sufficient analysis; the constraints identified in this section should be analyzed for development feasibility, not simply a comparison to other nearby jurisdictions who may also have unreasonable constraints to development. For example, the statement “Parking requirements are low enough to not pose a constraint;” (16) is not based on any analysis.

Building Permit Allocation

We support the elimination of the building permit allocation system that is governed by an annual growth goal. (17) This is an impediment to building market-rate housing.
(13) Santa Cruz County 6th cycle draft Housing Element of July 25, 2023 page 4-65 and Appendix HE-D page HE-D-26
(14) Appendix HE-D page HE-D-4