The June 7 primaries are right around the corner, and County Supervisor candidates are making their final case ahead of North Coast and Santa Cruz residents casting their votes to determine who will be their representative.
The three candidates vying for the spot on the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors include Santa Cruz City Council Members Justin Cummings and Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson, along with nonprofit director Ami Chen Mills. They all hope to represent District 3, which encompasses parts of Live Oak, the City of Santa Cruz and up the North Coast.
The race has focused on the candidates’ positions on hot-button issues like homelessness and climate change. That was until last Wednesday, when Chen Mills held a press conference where she claimed that Kalantari-Johnson broke campaign finance and election laws during a fundraiser hosted by advocacy group Santa Cruz Together. Chen Mills claimed she has a recording of Santa Cruz Together improperly soliciting donations for Kalantari-Johnson’s campaign at the fundraiser. Kalantari-Johnson refuted the claims, saying they are “entirely baseless and nothing more than a desperate political stunt.”
Regardless, as the race winds down, the three candidates are running in a district that is facing some of the most dire effects of climate change and the affordability crisis. We posed questions to the candidates that address top concerns for District 3 residents.
Santa Cruz has one of the most expensive rental markets in the country. What is your plan for addressing the affordability crisis?
Ami Chen Mills: Having spoken to residents, local workers and students sleeping in their cars—and with several friends currently facing homelessness now—I believe the county must immediately declare a countywide housing emergency. Then we must engage the community in a wide-scale discussion toward solutions. This would likely include a countywide bond measure to build affordable housing and further incentivize and educate landlords to accept Housing Authority vouchers (Section 8).
Through the use of pension fund-investors, we can rapidly build “workforce” or “missing middle” housing with strict covenants for affordability, and prioritize occupancy for those who currently live and work here. We must use appropriate county lands such as the County Building parking lot and the Emeline complex site to build permanent supportive housing post-haste. We must pass a recommended countywide minimum wage of at least $22/hour.
The county must proactively plan for affordable housing along transportation corridors—and that includes changing the Housing Element and zoning in the County’s General Plan so that we are “pre-planning,” rather than reacting and “spot planning” for developments that support neighborhood diversity, affordable infill development, walkability, mass transit and homes for all of us.
Justin Cummings: During my four years on the Santa Cruz City Council, we have effectively leveraged local resources, including city-owned property, Section 8 project-based vouchers, and the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund to secure competitive grant funding for multiple 100% low- and very-low-income projects.
I am committed to working on similar strategies within the county. As County Supervisor, I plan to increase the percentage of affordable units in new developments from 15-20%, and would explore increasing the number of affordable units further in projects that receive density bonuses by using Section 8 housing vouchers. This would allow developers to receive market-rate returns on those units and provide housing for low- and very-low-income residents in the Section 8 program.
We also need to incentivize the production of workforce housing, to provide affordable housing opportunities for essential workers like teachers, city and county workers, service industry and more. We also need to increase pressure on the UC regents to create and provide affordable housing for students and tie UCSC’s enrollment to the number of beds they can provide students. Finally, we need to work with our state and federal legislature to allocate funding for the production of affordable housing.
Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson: We have an opportunity to plan differently as we revise our County’s Housing Element. We must pursue a new model that encourages both housing, safety and environmental sustainability. After adopting a strong housing element, we can revise our zoning ordinance to facilitate the approval of housing projects on sites identified as suitable for affordable housing for low- and middle-class individuals and families. This could include considering special fast-tracking for 100% affordable projects or expediting and removing barriers to building backyard ADUs.
Additionally, it’s important to increase resources for affordable housing. We can do this through bond measures or special taxes that would fund the Affordable Housing Trust Fund, in addition to setting aside money from existing funding streams (i.e. should the county sales tax increase in November, designating some of these revenues towards affordable housing).
Throughout this process, we must ensure transparent community engagement so that we are listening to community needs and shaping projects so that neighborhoods don’t feel imposed upon.
District 3 encompasses areas that were hit hard during the CZU fires. Two years later, residents up the North Coast are still rebuilding their homes, many stalled by the county’s lengthy permitting processes. Where do you see room for improvement when it comes to helping people rebuild after wildfires? With wildfire risk increasing across California, what is your plan for ensuring residents’ safety during wildfire season?
Ami Chen Mills: Residential areas and wildlands of the unincorporated areas will be a priority for me as Supervisor for District 3. The county is combining the Public Works and Planning Departments, bringing various divisions into one building, under one supervisor. By the time I get into office, I will need to listen to constituents in Bonny Doon, Last Chance and Davenport to understand if this has been helpful. All planning staff should receive customer service training, and even attend meetings with burn area residents so they can hear their concerns as insurance timelines run down.
The Board must ensure the state hires enough firefighters to cover multiple fires in multiple regions. We must also thoroughly review our current contract with CalFire and give the county more authority over our fire districts. We must ensure volunteers are able to join with less rigorous commitments, and encourage better communication between residents of the WUI and local CAL FIRE leaders.
The Amah Mutsun Tribal Band sees it as their sacred responsibility to steward this land, and their burn program is in place to lessen the severity of wildfires. We must expand such burning and offer county land as “Land Back” and reparations to indigenous descendants.
Justin Cummings: As an environmental scientist, we have been sounding the alarm to address the need to reduce carbon emissions and prepare for the impacts of climate change. Each year we are now seeing record fire seasons across the state and the expectation is that it is only going to get worse in the short term. The county needs to create more low-barrier training opportunities to allow citizens to help defend their communities. We also need to create emergency policies that can help people expedite rebuilding after natural disasters. We need to pressure the state to purchase more aerial equipment that can help firefighting efforts.
Furthermore, we need to invest in communications so that when fires occur, people know how to mobilize and where to get accurate information. This can come in the form of both old and new technology by using sirens and radio to relay emergency information, the installment of pico microbase stations that can help increase internet access in rural areas, microgrids to help provide power during power outages, and cell towers to increase reception. We also need to create vegetation management plans based in rural, indigenous, and scientific knowledge so that we can mitigate the intensity of fires when they occur.
Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson: This is a priority for me. We have issued just over 140 permits to those who have lost their homes—a small fraction of those who need to rebuild. I will do a deep dive into addressing the red tape that is causing the delays. Many of our barriers to rebuilding rest with state statutes (i.e. around fire roads, septic tanks, water). I have strong relationships with our state legislators and have worked with them over the years on addressing local issues (i.e. homelessness, substance abuse, healthcare). I will leverage these relationships to reduce our local barriers to rebuilding for CZU fire survivors and plan ahead to put measures in place to both prevent and be better prepared for future disasters.
Additionally, I will look internally at ways that the Board of Supervisors can expedite these efforts. This may include waiving of certain standards (without impacting safety) and fees to allow people to build more quickly. Any of these policy decisions will require three votes on the Board of Supervisors to move towards action. I have built strong relationships with each Supervisor through my years of policy work with the county. Strong relationships and partnerships is what is needed to make changes that will help CZU survivors rebuild, and I will personally lead the charge to make this happen.
Homelessness is a top concern, especially for residents in your district. There is strong support for funding programs like mental health response and ensuring reliable services for the unhoused (storage, hygiene services, etc.). Residents in your district also rank emergency shelters and affordable housing projects as critically important to addressing homelessness. How will you prioritize these different areas and programs that need funding? How important are camping laws and restrictions when addressing homelessness?
Ami Chen Mills: As a member of the Santa Cruz Advisory Committee on Homelessness, and having worked in mental health for 25 years, we must do a far better job coordinating funds and services between the County and City of Santa Cruz.
We must utilize county lands to build housing, like our Project Homekey projects—and ensure support is funded to promote the success of residents. In the short term, we should explore appropriate sites for well-managed encampments and tiny home villages with opportunities for constructive activities, like growing food/permaculture gardens, libraries, peer support and mobile mental health so that community members who are unhoused feel a sense of belonging and purpose.
When dangerous and criminal behaviors are happening, we must address these, and ensure any correctional facility is therapeutic and a place where someone could turn their life around.
Our unhoused population has different problems that require different solutions. We need to complete a rigorous database to provide case managers and the county with comprehensive information about each individual. We must secure state and national funding to build direly needed rehab and psychiatric facilities, and enroll our housed population to volunteer so we can see ourselves, and feel ourselves, as one community.
Justin Cummings: As vice-mayor and mayor of Santa Cruz, I served on the City County Homeless 2×2 committee for two years and am familiar with the challenges the city and county face. During my time as mayor, we stood up the most homeless shelters in the history of the City of Santa Cruz, which had minimal impacts on the surrounding communities. I will prioritize services that have been effective and had minimal negative impacts on communities, so we can invest in models that work. Services will need to meet the range of needs for people experiencing homelessness.
Rental assistance is critical to keep people housed. Our working homeless need places to sleep safely, while we help them secure housing. We need to expand mental health and substance abuse treatment programs and beds, and expand case management. We must explore a variety of housing options—including managed encampments, tiny-home villages, safe parking programs, a navigation center—and expand these options throughout the county. Finally, the state of being homeless should not be criminalized. There are certain behaviors that our community finds unacceptable that should have consequences, but we need to start with a programming, housing and case-management approach first.
Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson: The growing crisis of homelessness in our community and the level of individual suffering is urgent and unacceptable. We need to take a regional approach to bring attention to the devastating and growing challenges around homelessness. One of the first steps is to move people out of unmanaged encampments and into safe transitional shelters/bridge housing with supportive services that are located throughout the county. The City of Santa Cruz cannot meet the needs of street homelessness alone. The other is unmet mental health and substance abuse needs. We need to examine our existing resources and programs, what outcomes they are producing, and where there are remaining gaps.
Nearly a third of our last homeless count were youth and young adults under the age of 24, many having exited the child welfare system. We have started some of this work, but there is much more we can do to prevent our youth from ending up chronically homeless. We must support families from becoming homeless by working with and supporting community organizations that help with rent relief and other resources.
Finally, we have failed to build enough housing for our middle-class and low-income community members. All of this will take more financial support from the state and federal governments and I will look to partner with our state and federal representatives to make this happen.