2022 Winner: Neighborhoods: What Exactly Are We Defending? Representation, Race, and Land-use Politics in Santa Cruz

Project Information
Neighborhoods: What Exactly Are We Defending? Representation, Race, and Land-use Politics in Santa Cruz
Social Sciences
Community Studies 107: Analysis of Field Materials
During my time working for the Planning and Community Development Department at the City of Santa Cruz (PCDD), I noticed that small community groups have significant leverage over land-use decisions. Often, they successfully organize to combat multi-family housing proposals like apartment complexes. This phenomena prompted me to consider the research question for this essay:

How have unrepresentative groups of Santa Cruz residents gained leverage in land-use politics and how do they use this institutional power to oppose residential (re)development proposals?

What I have found is that 20th century land-use policies have restricted the location and density of which housing can get built within Santa Cruz city limits, setting the stage for high density development proposals being placed adjacent to single family neighborhoods. This policy outcome strongly motivates residents of single family neighborhoods to show up at public meetings in opposition to new, dense development. Drawing from Einstein et al’s eponymous theory, I classify this unrepresentative community as Neighborhood Defenders and demonstrate that this local phenomena is a reflection of nationwide trends in which small groups attempt to modify, delay, or deny multi-family housing proposals via public processes like City Council meetings. Also, Santa Cruz Neighborhood Defenders fit within national demographic trends; they are likely to be older, whiter, wealthy, and homeowners. Working with this categorization, I then outline how the structure of public meetings pose systemic barriers to equal representation such as biased meeting times, unreliable meeting agendas, technocratic language, and intimidation. I demonstrate how these factors simultaneously privilege Neighborhood Defenders and marginalize low-income and non-homeowner communities. To end the essay, I explore the ways in which Neighborhood Defenders use this institutional power to combat new multi-family housing with two development proposal case studies: 831 Water Street and 1930 Ocean Street Extension. Specifically, I draw from Leif Christian Jensen’s concept of discourse co-optation and illustrate how Neighborhood Defenders rework the logics of systemic racism and environmentalism to block dense housing near their neighborhoods.
Overall, navigating land-use politics in Santa Cruz is a herculean task. This essay demonstrates that those with the time, entitlement, and privilege to participate in public meetings usually uphold institutional viewpoints and defend their wealthy, white, single family neighborhoods.
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  • John Robert Jezek (Stevenson)