.Arts Council Director Gets Priced Out of Santa Cruz

Walking past the Tannery’s housing complex, Michelle Williams reflects on something her financial advisor said to her four months ago. Williams, who has served as executive director of Arts Council Santa Cruz County for nine years, gets emotional just thinking about it.

The advisor told Williams and her husband Jonathan Vaden that if they cut $10,000 annually out of their already-meager budget, they could begin seriously saving for one of three things eight years from now: a house, their retirement or college tuition for their two children. They would have to pick one.

“We’re going backwards, instead of forwards, in our financial lives,” Williams remembers thinking. “We have no hope of ever buying a home here.”

With that reality setting in, Vaden started looking for work. Not long after, he was offered a lucrative marketing position in Tampa, Florida. Vaden accepted it, and now he, Williams and their two sons will be moving at the beginning of their upcoming summer vacation. They’re already in escrow on a house.

“Our financial lives will change overnight,” Williams says, in near-disbelief.

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Williams, who rents in Santa Cruz’s Seabright neighborhood, has seen the town’s housing crisis impact workers in every sector of the economy. She personally knows many artists who could not afford to live locally, were it not for the affordable units at the Tannery Arts Center, which is also home to the Arts Council offices. Away from the campus, Williams knows many other creatives who struggle to juggle various jobs while navigating stressful housing arrangements. She wonders how any service workers could ever survive here.

Educators are feeling the squeeze, too, Williams has noticed. The parents of one of her son’s friends are both teachers—and like Williams, they’ll be moving away in June. They’re headed to San Diego, where they’ve been able to find higher-paying jobs, as well as cheaper housing.

Williams stresses that, for all its flaws, she loves Santa Cruz as much as ever. The decision hasn’t been easy.

“It’s been a combination of love and heartbreak,” she explains. “It’s not like I was burned out. It’s not like I ran out of passion for this job. It’s math. It doesn’t work, and it hasn’t worked. We’ve got to make it work. We owe it to our kids and our futures.”

At the Arts Council, Williams’ announcement kickstarts the search for a new leader. The nonprofit oversees First Friday art walks, the Ebb and Flow Festival, grant programs for artists, and art education programs for 17,000 school kids.


It’s one thing to recognize that Santa Cruz is one of the least affordable housing markets in the country. Doing something about it is another.

Over the past year, the city of Santa Cruz has taken action—adopting a relocation assistance ordinance for tenants who see large rent increases, streamlining accessory dwelling unit rules and approving 205 new units of market-rate housing on Pacific Avenue and Laurel Street. City leaders have expressed hopes of building an additional 100-percent affordable housing complex next door.

Matt Huerta works as the housing program manager for the Monterey Bay Economic Partnership, which will host a housing-related discussion with state Sen. Scott Weiner at Peace United Church on Friday night. He says Santa Cruz’s leadership on housing has been mixed.

The city, he explains, needs to take action on more items—like making changes to fee structures on new housing construction. “They makes steps in the right direction and have demonstrated an openness, but there’s a lack of progress,” Huerta says. “There’s a lack of strong enough political will to get the big things done.”

Last year, local activists filed a lawsuit against the approved downtown development, alleging that the complex skirts affordable housing requirements. Huerta views the challenge as a setback for the city because the project is badly needed, he says, even if affordable units won’t be built on site.

Williams isn’t deeply familiar with all of Santa Cruz’s policy workings, but in visiting Tampa, she says she’s been impressed by how committed the Florida city is to solving whatever problems seem to arise. She gives the example of an intersection where the city did a large overhaul. The first didn’t improve traffic, so Tampa is breaking ground again, this time with a revised plan, she says.

“Tampa felt like a city that—through its infrastructure investments, its public transit investments, its cultural facility investments—was working really hard to make it a place where everyone felt welcome, and to make it as easy as possible to live there,” she says. “That was my experience as an outsider. I don’t know how to solve the housing crisis, but it seems like for some, there is this dedication to keeping Santa Cruz as it is, from whatever moment in time people got here.”


There were other aspects of life in Santa Cruz that tested the patience of Williams and her family.

Just over a year ago, Williams’ home was broken into, and the thief stole her purse, the family’s computers and their minivan. Her family probably left a door unlocked, Williams admits. The thief tossed pretty much everything from their van, including the middle seats. When cops found the vehicle, its interior was covered in blood and littered with syringes—prompting six weeks and $13,000-worth of repairs, she says.

After the whole ordeal was over, Williams says her family looked at the thief with compassion. She adds that they still felt committed to Santa Cruz, even though her kids would sometimes wake up in the middle of the night and say, “Mommy, can you go make sure all the doors are locked?”

This year, though, she says, the family has decided that it’s time to move on.

“You get to the point,” she says, “where you’re like, ‘I can’t live like this on so many different levels.’”


  1. After thirty six years of living in Santa Cruz I am now reading my Goodtimes on line here in my new home of Portland Or. Santa Cruz was always a dream for me when I was living in LA. As a kid in the 1960’s my parents would load us in the woody Mercury station wagon and head up the coast to SF and back, but for me Santa Cruz was always the highlight of out trip! After college and having living in SF for a couple years I was able to move to Santa Cruz, it was a dream come true. Things change, I realize that now, I’m in my 60’s, people change , relationships change , and so do towns. Over the years I’ve watched as the Santa Cruz I knew and loved slowly slipped away. More crime, more problems, more traffic and my rent just got Higher and higher until most my income from my business was going towards rent…not the way I wanted to live here. My final week in town before I followed my moving truck North, I looked around as I sat in traffic and I realized that I was surrounded by Teslas and a Maserati…the third Maserati I’d seen that day. Gone were the VW Vans practically held together with bumper stickers. The granny units, once affordable, quaint, with wetsuits hanging on the front porch, were now $2500- a month, the new tenants excited to get their 400sqr ft box “near the beach” for such a great price! The town has changed and times have changed and I realized it was time to leave Santa Cruz, but in truth,it was really Santa Cruz thatleft me.

  2. Tampa has its own problems. Overuse of water supply leading to sinkholes! Lots of development, sprawl, high rises along the coastline. It’s a different animal. Definitely more afforadable. Different problems. Good luck.

  3. Fredrick
    Beautiful synopsis which I’m sure applies to many SC folks. I, too have seen the changes here in SC, changes I attribute with the same conclusion via a slightly different path; Santa Cruz the city hasn’t changed, but the population, the PEOPLE, have completely been replaced.
    I believe the Maserati thing is largely a status symbol for very well healed exchange students as I’ve seen at least five different colored Maserati sedans coming and going from UCSC driven by college aged young men over the last year.

  4. Fred, that story’s a heartbreaker. I grew up in Santa Cruz, graduated from UCSC like my dad did in the 70s, and promptly left town in search of a place to live that had jobs and a rental market that I could afford. 0% of my friends from high school or cousins still live in Santa Cruz due to the utterly brutal cost of living paired with lack of economic opportunities. I have no idea how any of my peers with less education or skills could possibly afford to live in Santa Cruz aside from the basement of a home bought in the 70s.
    Much like Fred, I feel like a stranger in a strange land when in Santa Cruz. I fear that like Carmel and Laguna Beach, Santa Cruz is transforming from what was a beautiful and quaint Beach town and refuge for artists to a playground of the Uber wealthy elite of Silicon Valley.

  5. I was born here and after some 60 years not much has changed other then it getting more crowded. Forty years ago rents were too high. Houses were too high priced for most and only the over the hill crowd could live here. Nothing has changed but for the amount of people living here. We build more housing and more people came till it reaches max capacity and prices still go up faster then wages. People have this illusion that Santa Cruz is some magical place to live. I just miss the ‘Valley Bug Out’ sigh spray painted on the Pasatempo over pass. For years it was a landmark signage indicative of the attitude the locals had of the valley buying out Santa Cruz. Alas now most Santa Cruz people are not really locals anymore. Yet they think they are and they still come with dreams and go with defeat. And the rest of the real locals still have our wetsuits hanging on our fences; we just have to know when where to surf to avoid the crowds caused by the new so-called locals.

  6. Articles like this serve to push blame and propose future financial obligations to resolve this issue on existing homeowners and developers rather than figuring out the true reasons of our housing shortage issues.

    Santa Cruz is a suburban city, with vast neighborhoods of single family houses and essentially little-to-no density in sight. When the entire city is composed of single-family residences, especially with the amount of transient residents that UCSC brings in, you face huge problems with housing shortages and rent prices. This is simply because of supply and demand. Let’s get this straight, this is not the fault of developers or existing homeowners, it is the fault of a rigid zoning system that continues to limit density in development and not allow the flow of residential development to respond to this supply and demand. If builders could buy a 10,000-sf lot in town and have the choice to develop (a) one single-family residence or (b) an 8-unit affordable-by-design (studio/1-bedroom) development, they would choose (b) 100% of the time because it is more feasible and has a better return on their investment. Because zoning doesn’t and has never allowed that in this community, developers are forced to build high-end single family residences that are sitting on expensive lots, built expensively, and have high mortgages. To cover these mortgages, if a buyer of a residence chooses to rent it out, they are forced to rent at a higher rate.

    Instead of writing a hit piece to try to lobby rent control for homeowners on their own land, go look up the zoning code and see what developers have been working with for the last 30 years. Every single-family residence requires a covered garage, not for the purposes of living but solely for storing a vehicle or storage. Think of how many potentially additional bedrooms are lost by this zoning provision, essentially 1-bedroom for every house you see in Santa Cruz. Many residentially zoned properties require 10-ft rear setbacks from the back property line and 15-ft setbacks from the front property line on a rectangular lot. This in-itself significantly limits the development envelope of how big a residence can be. This results in lots with unused yards and space that, for most, is not serving a significant purpose and not helping alleviate housing unit shortages. Next, most residential-zone neighborhoods are limited to 2-story developments with height restrictions, directly limiting density. Also, with every additional room and floor area added to a development, further parking space needs to be set aside within the property limits, further limiting density. All of this does not create an environment conducive to solving this crisis.

    If people had the ability to turn their lots into duplex’s and triplex’s, you would double-triple the units that can be supplied and are directly in demand (studios, and 1-2 bedroom units). There is no effort to do this and there is not an available path to do this. Instead, people will continue to put blame on those home-owners and developers that are handcuffed by antiquated on-site parking requirements and financially unviable affordable-housing requirements for developers.

    Instead of protesting the development or pushing responsibility and rent restrictions to existing homeowners, look at every possible opportunity for policy to reward future higher density multi-unit development with less parking requirements and density allocations.

    If the city wanted, they can require that all future construction is 100% affordable units, but guess what? That means there wont be future development because it wont have any return on investment. Would less future development solve a housing-unit shortage? Definitely not.

    Rent control won’t solve this issue, it will create more issues. It will vastly increase the policing responsibilities of our government agencies, and in many cases it will create a situation where homeowners will be extremely cautious/fearful to rent to certain demographics of the population where they see a more likely threat of getting into rent conflicts (UCSC students or strangers that are not familiar with). Its a rather radical policy implementation that directly limits liberty. A better solution, if a top-down approach is demanded, is to institute a social housing policy where the local government develops or acquires units in town and allocates them to renters with very affordable rents in a lottery-like structure similar social housing corporations in places like the Netherlands.

  7. Jacob Pierce, please do not recite the falsehood that building luxury (aka “market-rate”) condos will lead to more affordability. This notion is a classic form of trickle-down aka “voodoo” economics which has never been true and never will be.

    In some cases, building luxury condos has no impact on the local market. But in many cases, it has a negative impact because whenever it happens in a less-desirable neighborhood, it leads to an increase in rents for neighbors as speculation and luxury demand rises.

    If the city and county wanted housing more affordable, they would ban all Airbnb and vacation rentals and only allow luxury housing to be built in the most expensive neighborhoods. They would also need to follow the lead of Vancouver and impose high taxes on any foreigner seeking to buy property here. Lastly, they’d need to use the money raised to buy up many of the more affordable apartments and old homes, including unpermitted conversions, and establish them as permanent public housing.

    Last but not least, our local leaders need to organize with other state and federal-level politicians to put an end to the government pumping so much research and contract money into west coast colleges and tech companies (what created and still nourishes Silicon Valley). Any civilized country that doesn’t relish inequality would be investing in struggling metropolitan areas, not in the pricey ones.

  8. My question is what is affordable housing? By what standards? Who determines what is fair? When Santa Cruz became one of the least affordable places to live, and people demanded more housing be made available, the market values went up, not down. People can’t afford to live here unless they’re making 6 or 7 figure salaries. Those of us who make a lot less, can’t afford rents or mortgages that are higher than our monthly incomes.

  9. I am grateful to see GoodTimes and its readers engaging in a values based discussion about what it means to be a high-cost/low wage community. We are definitely letting “the market”, i.e. profit motives, dictate the soul of who we are and I think we need to do some real soul-searching and take actions to insure that we are a community where people of all income levels can thrive. The one thing I see that is both factually incorrect and contributes to a toxic narrative that has severe negative implications is the idea that in the past, in our lifetimes, crime was lower and this community was safer. By every measure – FBI Statistics, local data, number of victims – crime has never been lower – locally and nationally. This is not to discount the real impacts to people who have have been victims of crime. However, to conflate increased coverage and media about crime that makes us more aware and more frightened, with an actual increase in crime is not only a mistake. Toxic consequences of this kind of perception include unnecessary mass incarceration, increased stigma and racism that interferes with actual solutions to problems of poverty, mental health and substance abuse. I lived downtown and used exclusively public transit between the years of 1976-81. Street drunks, junkies and petty thefts were equally a part of our storied past, along with vans, the smell of patchouli and drums. What we see more of now is the visible, inescapable consequence of grinding poverty and the erosion of a health and human safety net. If you think that uncomfortable sight is about crime, you should reread your Dickens. We can do better!

  10. It’s false to say that 200 new market-rate units (aka luxury units since that’s how they’re all built here) will have any positive effect on affordability. If anything, they will lead to even higher rents for neighbors. Here on the west coast, where demand for property investments is essentially unlimited, the idea that building “market-rate” units will help make anything more affordable is a bogus “trickle-down economics” idea, and we all know that trickle-down and voodoo economics are just make-believe.

    The only ways I can think of to help is follow the lead of Vancouver and impose high taxes on any foreign purchases of residential property, ban all Airbnb and vacation rentals (good luck), only build luxury condos in the most expensive neighborhoods, protect all mobile home parks, and start buying up the existing affordable old apartments and houses and make them permanent public housing.

  11. Do the Arts council over see First Friday or is that a private organization run by the director of the Dta?

    The money we contribute as artists and arts organizations each month go to a private enterprise or does it go to the arts council?
    Important to consider and to have clearly informed information. Thanks


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