The Santa Cruz County Housing Element


Last week marked the first public hearings on the County’s draft Housing Element, an important planning document that outlines how the County expects to accommodate future population growth in terms of additional housing. Under state law, every city and county must prepare a housing element, which is technically a specific part of each local government’s general plan, which then gets approved by state officials. This is of particular importance for Santa Cruz, as most public officials and community leaders are quick to admit that we are in the midst of a housing crisis.

Depending on which survey you are looking at, Santa Cruz continually finishes within the top ten least affordable areas in the country, usually on par with areas like San Francisco and New York. The major contributing factor to this measure is the high cost of living compounded with the relatively low wages. According to the National Association of Homebuilders, the Santa Cruz-Watsonville metro area is the least affordable area with under 500,000 residents in the United States, and our median home sale price recently exceeded $700,000. This is why Santa Cruz continues to export a significant amount of its labor force (roughly 25% of our entire employment pool) to daily commuting into Silicon Valley. This is also why the majority of recent growth has been amongst households that have annual incomes exceeding $100,000 and $150,000, squeezing out lower income residents.

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And yet, according to our regional governing authority, the Association of Monterey Bay Area Governments (AMBAG), our county is expected to grow by another 37,000 people by 2035, with a majority of that growth taking place within the unincorporated areas (areas outside of the cities), meaning that the county’s Housing Element is all the more important.

Now the draft Housing Element does a variety of things, such as providing an extensive overview of the current situation in terms of statistics and inventory, but it is also accompanied by a variety of potential policy recommendations that could be adopted by the Board of Supervisors. These recommendations encompass a broad series of options, including rezoning specific parcels, amending county codes, working with partner agencies, and even streamlining the permitting process. The document itself is over 200 pages and can be quite technical in nature, so in order to make it easier to understand and interact with I have taken out some of the most pertinent recommendations and described them in more detail below.

Increase the Floor Area Ratio (FAR) in Higher Density Districts

The FAR of a given parcel is the proportion of that parcel that can be utilized for development. Currently the County allows a FAR of .5, which is on par with what can be expected for a single family home, in districts that are zoned for multi family development. This means, for instance, that a single acre parcel could have a 1 story development equivalent to half of the parcel area, or a 2 story building with each floor being a quarter of an acre. Should the county increase this to say 1.5, then you could develop a 3 story building with 3 floors at a half acre each.

Increase FAR to 1.5 in Higher Density DistrictsThis would increase the Floor to Area Ratio from .5 to 1.5 in the County’s RM districts. This means you could build out 150 percent of the total parcel size. For instance, a 3 story development on a 1 acre plot with a FAR of 1.5 could have 3 half acre stories.

Mandate that all new Development Meet Minimum Density Requirements

All zoning outlines the maximum allowable density for a given parcel, that is how many units and of what size are allowable. However, under current regulations you can still build less than what is required. For instance, if a parcel is zoned for higher density, you could still build a single family home (and many developers do because it has a higher rate of return), so long as you didn’t go over the maximum allowed density. However, this leads to a lot of under utilized spaced and sub-optimal development. This new rule would mandate that all new development at least meet the minimum amount of density outlined under he current zoning laws, hopefully leading to great use of existing space.

Mandate New Development Meet Minimum Zoning RequirementsThis initiative would mandate that all new development at least meet the minimum density zoning requirements under current code. Whereas previously a developer could zone down, that is build less than what was allotted as long as they didn’t exceed the requirements, this would also create a minimum threshold.

Amend the General Plan and Zoning Code to increase the Residential to Commercial Ratio for Mixed Use

Under current regulations there is no specific “mixed use” zoning designation, even though mixed use development is generally regarded as being more efficient than developing single family homes because it utilized existing space, works in conjunction with commercial uses, and tends to be closer to key transit corridors. Despite this there are still implicit regulations regarding mixed use development, one of those being the allowable ratio of residential to commercial space. Under current code, mixed use development must be split 50-50 amongst both uses, meaning that only half of any development can be utilized for housing, with the other half being used for commercial. This ratio is quite low in comparison to other metro areas, and has severely limited the number of mixed use developments within the unincorporated areas of the County. The policy recommendations attached to the Housing Element recommend increasing this by as much as 100 percent meaning that you could develop 3-1 residential to commercial uses.

Increase Residential to Commercial Space Ratio for Mixed Use ProjectsThis initiative would increase the allowable ratio of residential to commercial space in mixed use development from 1-1, to 3-1. This would allow up to 3 times as much residential space as commercial space, increasing the potential and financial feasibility of new mixed use projects.

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