Inching Up and Crowded Out

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Illustration by Sophia Huang.
Illustration by Sophia Huang.

Regularly ranked among the most expensive metropolitan areas to live in, Santa Cruz has again asserted its place on the list.

A recent report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) titled “Out of Reach” ranked Santa Cruz County as the fifth most expensive metropolitan area in the country, with San Jose fourth and San Francisco topping the list.

The NLIHC calculates the Santa Cruz living wage for a two-bedroom apartment as $33.77 an hour — almost $15 more than what the average California renter earns, and almost $25 above California’s minimum wage.

Graphic by Connor Jang.
Graphic by Connor Jang.

“Today, housing is still out of reach for far too many, and the gap between what people earn and the price of recent housing continues to grow,” reads the report’s introduction.

According to the report, as nationwide demand for housing increases, “the high cost of construction materials and land acquisition, along with difficulty securing financing are just some of the reasons that few affordable housing units are built.”

In Santa Cruz, where rent has jumped 22 percent in the past year, local ACLU member and advocate for people who are houseless Steve Pleich said neither the city nor the county is doing enough to provide low-income housing.

“The city simply hasn’t wanted to build low and moderate income housing because it wants to cater more to moderate and upper-income folks,” Pleich said.

Climbing rates have also directed attention toward the university, which Jeanne Mulhern, a Santa Cruz real estate agent for 14 years, said crowds the area with students.

“The trend begins with the college opening up every year more and more slots for students,” Mulhern said. “The college isn’t doing the housing market or the students who need that housing market any favors.”

Graphic by Connor Jang.
Graphic by Connor Jang.

Fall 2014 enrollment jumped by about 650 students from the previous fall, and has risen by nearly 2,000 students since fall 2007.

Last year, a petition on Change.org calling for UC Santa Cruz to “utilize and increase its community relationships to help students find affordable housing” garnered 438 digital signatures.

“Many students are sleeping on couches, living in hotels and paying exorbitant rents for dilapidated or crowded housing,” the petition reads. “Campus enrollment is the highest it has ever been and it is negatively impacting the amount of resources available for students.”

When she wrote the petition — which also calls for adequate student transportation to campus — Lori Nixon was entering her second year at Santa Cruz and splitting rent twelve ways.

“I had a friend who was living on a couch for two weeks. They eventually moved into a hotel with two other people,” Nixon said. “I went to my first day of classes and it seemed like hundreds of people were being left on the side of the road by the buses … I felt like that was very wrong.”

Fourth-year Dylan Hoffman agreed that the university was responsible for the rent that he described as “crushing for a lot of students.”

“Campus housing costs pushes students out into the community, which raises prices because there’s just too much demand,” Hoffman said. “There are not a lot of options.”

Although Scott Hernandez-Jason, UCSC’s news and media relations director, said the university can’t control the local market, it’s scaling back enrollment this upcoming year and reopening the Porter and Cowell apartments, which can house 450 more students.

“We already have guaranteed housing for first-year students,” Hernandez-Jason said. “We house roughly half of the undergraduates on campus, which is the largest percentage of any UC campus.”

But campus offers little relief from high housing costs. While spending the nine-month academic year at one of the cheapest spots on campus — a trailer without a sewer connection — would cost just over $5,000, the estimated average cost of living at the university is three times that much.

The financial aid office estimates the cost of living on campus at $15,123 per academic year, up from $14,730 last year.

For those who decide to live in the city, making rent can mean abandoning traditional living situations.

“There has been a lot of couch surfing,” third-year Hoffman said. “I know someone who’s paying $200 a month to sleep in someone’s closet. When you have students who are in those living situations, it has a profound effect on their ability to work within their education.”

After graduation, students who can only afford rent during their undergraduate career will join an “exodus out of town,” ACLU member Pleich said. “We’re literally losing the thing that’s going to build our economic base in the future.”