Objective Standards, Double Standards, Shifting Standards
This post is about the proposed affordable apartment project at 831 Water Street, which is causing a lot of fire and fury. And it’s about the community conversation on affordable housing in general. If allowed to go forward, 831 Water will have about 70 apartments that will be truly affordable to lower-income people in our community and about 70 apartments targeted to middle income people.
First, a word about the idea of “objective”: I am not objective, especially when it comes to issues of housing for the people in our community who either don’t have it or can’t afford it or can’t find any. We all know who those folks are: the essential workers we’ve relied upon so much upon – especially these past two years; the people who provide routine services in our community at a lower level of pay; people on fixed incomes (many seniors); people who have very little or no income, many young people who have low wage jobs (yes, a lot of these folks are students, too, and they actually count- they live here, shop here, work here, go to school here.)
Still, I do understand the concept of objectivity and have some tools to view things objectively. I will try to explain some of this as objectively as possible. And, at other times, I will strongly state my opinion with no pretense of objectivity. I’ll try not to rant—but who knows?
Just a quick explanation (some readers won’t need it—but just in case…) of this important state law called SB 35. Long story short, SB 35 means that some kinds of housing developments in certain circumstances are required to reviewed by a city ONLY by “objective standards” and are not subject to the usual discretionary approvals that local elected officials have typically had. The 831 Water Street project qualifies for the SB 35 process. (This does not seem to be in dispute.) The community dispute is whether or not the specific proposal meets our city’s existing “objective standards” for a housing project at this site.
At a lengthy public hearing this past week the Santa Cruz City Council, after hearing from many people in the community (including me), decided that the proposed housing project did not meet some of the City’s “objective standards” for this kind of project and therefore was not approved.
The key issue named by several councilmembers, in finding the housing project did not meet the City’s objective standards, is the fact that the project consists of two individual structures with the rent-restricted low-income apartments in one building and the middle-income apartments in the other. They expressed understandable concern that this smacked of segregation—inappropriately separating low-income residents from middle-income residents.
I will just briefly pause to say here that I share some of that concern and will not be dismissing it. I will, however, point out how this concern was applied as a double standard rather than an objective standard. (note: the housing developer created the proposal with this separation to facilitate getting substantial low-income housing funding for the project—not because he preferred to separate the populations)
There are several ways the double standard manifested itself. Let’s start with the neighbors. If the neighbors’ concern about segregation was “objective” they would either have to argue that no affordable housing could be built on this site at all or that only market rate housing could be built here. Why? Because, if a completely affordable project were built on this site, it would be segregating all the poorer people in the apartments on one site while all the higher income people in single family houses would be in the adjacent properties on the streets behind the project. I believe it is objectively correct to say this is just the same kind of segregation the project opponents were complaining about.
Alternatively, you could just have middle-income people in the apartments and we would have no immediate segregation. We would just continue the same old segregation we (the privileged – that’s me and many others like me) have either tolerated or promoted for centuries at the expense of poor people: poor people away from well-to -do homeowners. “Those poorer people can stay along the river/downtown corridor (Beach Flats, Downtown area, River Street).” The middle-income people that live in that river/downtown corridor are seen to be fine with poor people near them but those in single family home neighborhoods need to be handled much more carefully.
By the way, though “standards” is the theme of this post, something that looks to me like “hypocrisy” will rear its head from time to time, too. For example: Up until a few weeks before the public hearing on this project, the neighborhood opponents quite clearly emphasized the height and density of the buildings as the chief concern. Then, rather suddenly, “segregation” became their rallying cry. One of the leading spokespeople for the neighbors specifically said height was their top concern -- in a news media interview a few weeks before the hearing. Then, at the hearing itself, this same spokesperson focused almost entirely on segregation as the principal concern of the neighbors. (Please do not confuse “principal” concern with “principled” concern!!).
How did this happen? The explanation is quite simple. The neighborhood opposition team is very sophisticated both legally and politically. And they are well-financed. (This is not a case of some rag-tag citizens group fighting “the man”. Both the developer and the neighbors bring plenty of resources to the battle. Of course, those groups representing the interests of poorer people in this battle have the fewest resources.)
Take, for instance, the arrival on the scene of the Wittwer Parkin law firm. This firm is renowned for its work on environmental issues and on blocking developments that its clients object to. So, it’s fascinating that a firm with this background would suddenly become an advocate for poorer people, while working on behalf of relatively wealthy neighborhood residents to block this project. At the risk of stating the obvious, the point of their involvement is not to fight for equity and justice—it is to work for the neighbors’ goal of blocking this housing project. Nothing improper with this. It’s part of our legal and political system. But we should not be deceived into thinking that their work or the work of the neighbors is primarily motivated by equity concerns.
In a post of many digressions (this is complicated, after all), here’s one that I think is important: After the council vote, I challenged one community leader (I’ll call her “Susan”)opposing the project, and who is a woman of color, on the question of whether or not a low income person searching for affordable rental housing would prefer to have this project built -- even with two separate buildings -- so they’d have a shot at an affordable place to live. Or would that low-income person prefer to have it stopped because of the reality and optics of separation of classes. Susan noted that, because a high proportion of low-income renters in housing like this would be people of color, the segregation issue could be a bigger deal than I imagined as a white person who has not experienced that kind of segregation. Susan felt I was probably not well-qualified to speak on this particular aspect. I apologized to her for my lack of sensitivity on this point.
This exchange weighed on me for quite a while and I reflected carefully on what I had suggested. In looking back on my comments, I can see my point was stated in a presumptuous way. However, I also discovered two other things in my reflecting. I noticed that, while my question about this was too pointed and presumptuous, the basic question was still not addressed. While Susan properly pointed out a sensitive issue that I had not acknowledged, she did not actually address whether or not the low-income renter would still want an apartment in this kind of project. I still want to know, and I would invite other lower income folks – especially persons of color - to weigh in on this. I know it’s complicated and do not want to minimize the dilemma it presents. For me, at least, I don’t think its crystal clear. (For instance, one city councilmember who is both a woman of color and a former resident of affordable housing, voted to approve this project—so she was prepared to live with the building separation in the interest of affordably housing more people.)
And while I’m on this path, I wonder if Susan also called out the privileged white neighbors who waved the flag of fighting segregation on behalf of poor people. If I was presumptuous as to who I was speaking for on my side of the argument, did the Susan have any concerns about those neighbors’ similar presumption on behalf of lower income renters? I did not ask Susan this question but am still curious.
Okay, I’ve taken a while to get to the heart of matter but here it is: The City of Santa Cruz is directly involved in three affordable housing projects right now. All three projects will consist of apartments restricted to only lower-income residents. There will be no mixing of poorer people with higher income people in these buildings. What does this have to do with 831 Water Street? Everything. Please remember the “objective standards” that are at the center of the debate. The City Council has now declared that it is an objective standard that housing projects must not segregate by income. They have stated this over time-- and repeated now-- that it is City policy that mixing of income levels in housing is expected. If this is a required (as opposed to subjective and flexible) standard, how can the city itself be building unmixed affordable housing?
Let’s get specific. Two of the councilmembers that voted to highlight the segregation in two buildings as a violation of objective standards, voted a couple of years ago to very consciously create adjacent housing buildings downtown where one would be all lower-income and one would be all market-rate. The developer was permitted to do this because he donated a very valuable piece of land next door to his market-rate housing project for the specific purpose of building a low-income project.
Many people supported this approach because it will lead to a lot more affordable units than if the developer had just included a small number of affordable units within his market rate project. Yes, I see the trade-off --and there is a real case to be made that it’s worth it. These two councilmembers decided it was worth it. Now, it seems that something is suddenly different for them. It’s called a different political situation. That’s fine. They are political figures. Neighbors and voters showed up against Water Street in a big way. Not so much on the downtown projects. Different political situation—different standards applied. Not surprising—but it sure looks like we lost sight of objective standards.
Now, the argument has been made that downtown affordable housing is different because of the nature of the “neighborhood”. Subjectively speaking, this is a legitimate position one could take. However, the simple fact that the City does build unmixed housing demonstrates unequivocally that it is not an objective standard. (By the way, the Water Street project is on a busy street… not in the middle of a single-family home neighborhood—it has regular public bus service and it is only two walkable blocks away from a large food market and a pharmacy.)
I will close (I know… finally!) by re-stating my own bottom line. People with few resources and less power have been consistently disadvantaged in this community and communities all over the place when it comes to housing. I have been a party to some of the processes locally that have perpetuated this reality - as a city councilmember myself. (Though I will boldly claim that I think I’ve done more to resist it and change it than most local officials.) Anyway, though I may have been less than mindful of my privilege at times, my current work on affordable housing is fully grounded in the recognition of my privilege and the privilege of many of my peers.
It comes down to this: We have to do things differently. We have to level the playing field. We have to listen to the needs and demands of people who have not been at the forefront of our housing decisions. We have to embrace some uncomfortable changes because otherwise we will perpetuate some inequities that exist right now—inequities that are much worse than just uncomfortable. Some elected officials will counsel moving cautiously so we don’t upset the homeowners too much and thereby elevate real political resistance. They will mention longer term approaches that will result in a shift in the decades ahead. There is something to that approach. But I’m getting tired of it. People with a lot less than me have waited too long.
P.S. on the related subject of “shifting standards”. Many who have opposed this project have made a point of noting how the project proposal seems to keep changing –and that this is some kind of shortcoming or failure on the part of the housing developer. I invite you to consider this.
1) Why would neighbors complain about the height and setback of the building and then, when the developer reduces the height and increases the setback, complain about the developer making changes to the project?
2) Under pressure from the City Council and the neighbors, City staff has periodically “clarified” and updated what they provided to the developer as the “objective standards.” So, following the SB 35 process, the developer has modified things to meet those updated standards. Apparently, this was also a nefarious “changing” of the project by the developer to confuse the neighbors and the community.
Truly, project opponents will cobble together as many unfounded or shaky arguments as possible into a package that makes this housing project seem like an abomination. It works— because so few of us take the time to unpack the opponents’ claims and examine the hollowness of so many of those claims. Time to unpack.