On the eve of the Great Recession, when work on the housing component of the city of Santa Cruz proceeded as if there was no tomorrow and no one wanted or could lose their shirt in the real estate, a city staff member suggested a new policy. If you’ve spent as much time in bureaucracies as I have, you’ll understand how rare that is. Earthquakes are much more frequent here.
Not all cities claim to plan for the future like us. They content themselves with administering the present. Their zoning departments apply the same rules—formulated during America’s postwar march toward suburban sprawl—as ours. The only significant difference between one city and the next is the degree of rigidity or tolerance with which these rules are enforced. This degree indicates how cold or warm, exclusive or hospitable a city is as a place where people can continue their lives. Despite some admirably provocative officials, Santa Cruz has failed in this regard, and continues to fail miserably.
For decades, this city has perpetuated a costly and demoralizing charade of applying antiquated rules to contemporary issues. Calling this treadmill “planning” makes it less redundant, like deciding that since we ate spaghetti and meatballs last night, tonight we’ll have meatballs and spaghetti. Generations of administrators have done the costly work of cutting and pasting the same determinations over and over again. Respect the new rules; like the old rules. Former mayor and urban planner Daniel Kemmis calls it “procedural republic”.
Vigilance makes things much worse. There’s always someone who doesn’t want a change, and it’s usually the one who already has theirs. Kemmis calls such a person “the republic of one”. Citing zoning as scripture, they are the originals of “due process.” If they can’t find that undotted I or that uncrossed T, there are lawyers who know, by chance, where they’re all hidden. Beneath that veil, it’s no wonder city staff prefer to count the beans. So when this member of staff dared to suggest something new, I was all ears.
It was very new, prescient and right. And now, 15 years later, it’s become state law. If zoning and economics prioritized large, expensive homes – which they both do – shouldn’t we require new homes above a certain size to be designed to easily split into two? smaller or larger residences?
History has repeatedly shown that large houses eventually become multiple dwellings. This is as true of the mansions of Newport as it is of the Victorians of Walnut Avenue. This is a good thing. She felt that if our prescriptions could truly anticipate the future, that future would be better designed, safer, cheaper and more inclusive. At that time, she was a planner.
His suggestion was met with an awkward silence. No one in this room could see any benefit from such a rule. And no one at all would benefit from it for years, even decades. And so, as they say to the government, he died for lack of a second.
But this year, weary of a growing housing crisis caused largely by a refusal to plan, the state legislature passed SB9, which effectively eliminates R-1 zoning. That’s most of what we have here. Generally speaking, any single-family lot can now have four houses and two owners.
This can happen through new construction or – you guessed it – splitting existing homes into smaller units. So, owners, your land can accommodate more people. Local builders, if you’re still there, housing is no longer the preserve of big developers. And, young Santa Cruz, you don’t have to live in noisy transit corridors. You can enjoy residential street life like the generation before you.
And Carol, thank you for your suggestion. And thank you to everyone in government who dares to challenge the procedural republic and put their hearts and minds into the important task at hand. You are taking a risk by going beyond due process to serve this community, but the good that will come from your dedication will be immeasurable.
Mark Primack is an architect and former member of the city council. He would love to hear from you at email@example.com.