Substandard Living, Full Price

Interactive research project,“No Place Like Home,” explores Santa Cruz housing crisis

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A photo series of UCSC students and community members in their living spaces, including a living room, garage and car, used the format of a Craigslist ad to illustrate the dire lengths people must go to survive in the Santa Cruz housing market. Photo by Calyse Tobias
A photo series by Natalie Alas and Jessie Case depicts UCSC students and community members in their living spaces, including a living room, garage and car, used the format of a Craigslist ad to illustrate the dire lengths people must go to survive in the Santa Cruz housing market. Photo by Calyse Tobias

In a state ranked the most impoverished in the nation, Santa Cruz is the least affordable small metro area in the country. The median rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Santa Cruz is nearly $2,900 a month.

To afford rent alone the average person has to earn over $30 an hour, or work 96 hours a week, equivalent to 2.4 full-time jobs at minimum wage. These absurd working hours don’t even account for the cost of food, utilities and other necessary expenses.

Instead of working over two jobs, many students and families look for more affordable places to live, like garages or living rooms which are often illegal and substandard.

On Oct. 13, professors Steve McKay and Miriam Greenberg and a group of seven sociology students from UC Santa Cruz took the podium to present their research project, “No Place Like Home.” Hundreds of community members gathered at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History (MAH) to kick off a series of events for Affordable Housing Awareness Week.

“The biggest issue was not just the cost but being able to continue living in that place,” Mckay said. “Once [people] are in, there’s much more security.”

A slideshow of colorful graphics and images accompanied their findings regarding rent burdens, overcrowding, evictions and forced moves, which all supported the reality of a looming housing crisis in Santa Cruz. In attempts to make the presentation feel “like home,” the facilitators served pumpkin pie symbolic of the home. The event was intended to address the unstable state of housing and its effect on low-income communities like Beach Flats and the neighborhoods of Lower Ocean.

In winter of last year, Greenberg taught an Eco-Metropolis course, exploring the housing crisis in the U.S. as well as in Santa Cruz. In spring, many of the same students enrolled in McKay’s course took a hands-on approach to the housing crisis while focusing on renters, who make up 57 percent of Santa Cruz residents. It focused on getting to know the community and gathering qualitative data surrounding housing issues in Santa Cruz.

As the city’s population continues to grow and after 650 more students enrolled in UCSC this year, the community is feeling an increased strain in its need for housing. Greenberg said students are facing the same “burdens and dilemmas” locals are, and that it’s a chance to unify these communities.

“Being in a housing crisis can feel isolating […] very precarious, difficult to have a sense that you’re a part of a community,” Greenberg said. “The goal is to provide a wide variety of resources to realize they’re not alone […] and gather data and stories to understand this crisis.”

The “community-initiated and student-engaged” project involved convening weekly for seven weeks, knocking on almost every door in the Beach Flats and Lower Ocean neighborhoods to gather renters’ experiences with housing. The group teamed up with Community Bridges — an organization focused on holding workshops and educating the community on issues that the elderly, families and children face — to develop a survey instrument to ease the data collecting process. The end result was a total of nearly 500 surveys and 29 in-depth interviews with individuals of these predominantly Latinx communities.

Celeste Covarrubias-Macias,  a project contributor, recounted being welcomed into the home of a generous family of Beach Flats who was eager to feed her dinner, despite their battle with the housing crisis. During her time with them, the family expressed that each month they struggled to make rent while feeding their family. Covarrubias-Macias said that in spite of their financial burdens, they went out of their way to make her comfortable.

“I urge you to pause and understand,” Covarrubias-Macias said. “We are not looking at graphs and percentages. We are looking at the lives of human beings, of real people, of people in your community.”

At the exhibition, poster paper lined the walls, posing the question, “What do you pay?” with the translation, “¿Que paga usted?” There was space to list the number of bedrooms and people in your home and what your monthly rent is.

A gallery of blown up photos in a Craigslist-inspired format displayed narratives of individuals suffering from the housing crisis in Santa Cruz, including a family of four paying $1,600 for a 500 square foot granny unit, an additional unit on a single-family lot, and a student paying $800 to live in a garage surrounded by piles of his belongings.

Sam Ciaramitaro, a recent UCSC alumni, moved into the garage of a friend’s house after an unsuccessful housing search. Ciaramitaro lived off the lease — taking down his bedroom almost weekly, concealing his bed frame and various other belongings like posters and knick-knacks as contractors would drop by to check in.

“I am paying to live here, but at what cost?” Ciaramitaro said. “Coming home to my stuff being all over the place, having to flip everything –– I was hiding essentially.”

Ciaramitaro described the cold winter nights and rain in Santa Cruz, when water would often leak in through the garage door that didn’t close all the way. Earthworms would come in with the water and crawl into his bed and in his belongings.

Another issue project contributor and UCSC student Katie Marlow explained is renters not knowing their rights. Back in 2010, she rented a home with no roof, and she “thought it was fine” because she was being charged less rent than normal.

“I have a 5-year-old boy, and I don’t want him to grow up moving every year or living in an unsafe environment,” Marlow said.

Marlow has rented for 10 years and moves almost every year. She currently lives in UCSC Family Student Housing on campus and expressed her fear of graduating at the end of this academic year because she doesn’t know where she’ll go.

“I am not leaving,” Marlow said.  “I don’t want to leave, but I have this big fear because I am at risk of being displaced.”