Monterey, California (Photo Credit: Robert Campbell/Wikimedia)
When approval for an affordable housing development in Santa Cruz County went up for a vote last month, Habitat for Humanity Monterey Bay came prepared to counteract neighborhood protests.
“The neighborhood was proposing that we do five units and we were proposing thirteen,” said David Foster, the organization's executive director.
Before the vote, Habitat for Humanity Monterey Bay partnered with several affordable housing advocacy groups including the Monterey Bay Economic Partnership (MBEP). “So when we had our hearing, we had 66 letters of support that came and about half of those came from MBEP’s group,” Foster said. “We also had people in the room, we had quite a showing of support.” The approval passed unanimously.
MBEP launched its Action Center in January as an online user-friendly tool for business leaders, affordable housing advocates and the general public concerned about creating more affordable housing across the region.
“Being able to demonstrate to those elected officials that they could put some political capital forward for this project and still expect the business community to support them was the significant value-add that we’ve been able to create and bring with the MBEP Action Center,” said Matt Huerta, MBEP’s Housing Program Manager.
The Action Center works on two levels. Huerta and his team lobby local business and community leaders on various projects and local policies that will increase the availability of affordable housing for all income levels in the region. Additionally the community can get engaged by using the easy online tool to communicate with their elected officials and get updates about those same issues.
“We had projects, a couple of which had neighborhood opposition, and it was actually critical that we engage the business community and also other housing advocates to line up and support the projects both with letters, but also at the hearings themselves and also some lobbying behind the scenes with specific council members and other leaders in those local jurisdictions,” added Huerta.
Foster, who served on the City of Santa Cruz Planning Commission for eight years, knows the value of having a presence at hearings. “When affordable housing projects come up, you have the nonprofit developer who’s proposing the project and then you have the entire audience of neighborhood people who are opposed to it,” said Foster. “There isn’t a group that consciously shows up and says, ‘Yeah, I want that next door to me.’”
He said it is often unbalanced toward the local neighbors who are only concerned about their immediate neighborhood and not taking issues of density and smart growth into consideration. “That’s been a real problem for city councils and supervisors, planning commissioners — to not have that type of advocacy out there.”
Foster stressed the importance of advocacy tools such as the Action Center: “It’s not just having an email presence. It’s also that there’s ongoing discussion in the community and you kind of reach a tipping point where the community says, 'We’re in a housing crisis and we need to take action on it’ and that starts showing up. Even the local paper starts covering it more when there’s real clear support for something.”
Besides working with Habitat for Humanity, MBEP’s Action Center has advocated for an update to the City of Salinas’ Inclusionary Housing Ordinance, which was recently approved. Salinas expects to develop more than 12,000 homes in the next few years and developers of both homes and apartments will either designate a percentage of their development to affordable housing or pay an inclusionary fee.
Innovative tools such as the Action Center can more effectively give the public a voice on important policies that affect their local communities. “We have to make community engagement easy for folks with their crazy, busy lives,” said Huerta. “Everyone’s just trying to survive, making a buck and taking care of their kids and making food and getting to soccer practice on time. With all those things, it’s hard to be a civically engaged.”