By Sam Laird

While quality of life is improving in many areas of Santa Cruz County, the region’s poor and Latino residents continue to struggle, according to a report released on Nov. 20 by the United Way of Santa Cruz County.

The Community Assessment Project (CAP) is a survey designed to measure and improve quality of life in Santa Cruz County in terms of environmental, economic, social, and health issues. The 12th annual CAP report found that, while unemployment and violent crime have dropped, the county still lacks affordable housing and many of its residents struggle to meet their basic needs.

"The CAP is like a report card for the county," said Deanna Zachary, project manager for Applied Survey Research, the non-profit social research firm that conducts the study. "The goal is to identify what is going on, then what we can do about it."

Some positive findings from this year’s report are that the violet crime rate in 2005 dropped to 4.4 reported incidents per thousand residents from 7.2 in 1996, and that the county’s unemployment rate also decreased, from 8.4 percent in 2003 to 6.3 percent in 2005.

But the county’s lack of affordable housing is still taking a large toll, particularly on its Latino residents.

In 2005, nearly 14 percent of all county families reported going without food, shelter or health care at some point, while 23 percent of Latino families fell under the same category. Also, the number of homes in the Santa Cruz-Watsonville area that are affordable to a median income family has dropped nearly 30 percent since 1997, to 5.9 percent for 2006.

According to the report, the 2006 median family income for Santa Cruz County is $75,100.

Four years ago, the National Association of Home Builders deemed the Santa Cruz-Watsonville area the nation’s second least affordable region to live in.

"As housing costs rise, we see a dramatic increase in the number of people that have to choose between electricity, food, and medication," said Christine Woodard, events and public relations director for the Second Harvest Food Bank of Santa Cruz and San Benito Counties. The Food Bank fights hunger and malnutrition in the area through distribution programs, education, and community outreach.

Fifty-seven percent of Latinos and nine percent of whites said that three quarters or more of their total household take-home pay went toward covering rent or housing costs in 2005. Consequently, use of the Food Bank has risen considerably this year, as 52,000 people have been served so far in 2006, up from 36,700 people for all of 2005.

Woodard feels the number of people relying on the Food Bank will only increase with the Dec. 15 closure of Bird’s Eye Food in Watsonville. Woodard said layoffs at the frozen food manufacturer will effect some 600 local families.

"I think we’ll see a steady increase in the number of clients that need to be served, both this year, and in the coming years as well," Woodard said. "We’ve distributed 5.8 million pounds of food so far this year. By the year 2015, we estimate that number will be around ten million pounds."

But despite some negative findings, Mary Lou Goeke, director of the United Way of Santa Cruz County, believes that the annual CAP report is essential in helping non-profits toward improving the overall quality of life for Santa Cruz County residents.

"When we started the CAP 12 years ago, the idea was that if people are going to make informed decisions, they need to have the facts readily at hand," she said. "There are still areas we’ve got to work on, but because we have an idea of what the trends are and how they’re changing from year to year, we can use this data to guide our investments in the community."

To see the entire CAP report for 2006, visit www.appliedsurveyresearch.org.