Almost every student stresses about housing. Although it may not always be as extreme as living in a car or sharing a house with 10 people, each student feels the pressure of the housing crisis.
*Name changed at the request of the student due to safety concerns
A couple weeks before classes began last fall, students were still scrambling for a place to live. Roxy Davis, a graduate student at UC Santa Cruz, searched every day for four months with no luck.
As soon as she was accepted to UCSC, the Sacramento resident began scouring the internet for rental listings. When one popped up, she would request a viewing and drive six hours round trip for a 30-minute tour. After almost 10 landlords rejected her applications, Davis began to feel hopeless.
If housing didn’t pan out, she feared she would be unable to pursue her graduate degree.
Three weeks before classes started, she spotted a one-bedroom house online. She called a friend already living in Santa Cruz to give her and her husband a tour over FaceTime. Davis sent in her rental application and, shortly after, they finally secured a place to live.
“It felt really down to the wire,” Davis said. “We were really starting to panic that we wouldn’t be able to move to Santa Cruz by the time classes began.”
In the midst of a mounting housing crisis, Davis’ experience isn’t unique. The Santa Cruz housing market is impacted on all sides.
People working in Silicon Valley are moving to Santa Cruz to escape the city lifestyle and the number of UCSC students increases every year. In 2010, about 3,300 freshmen enrolled. That number rose almost 1,000 by 2016. As demand rises, cost of rent continues to swell. Students feel this causes them to lower their standards of living just to secure a space to live.
Santa Cruz’s population growth has exceeded the building rate of homes since 2014, according to the Regional Housing Needs Assessment. The assessment plans housing growth in California between 2013 and 2021.
When Santa Cruz does invest in housing, it is often unaffordable. In late 2018, Santa Cruz had only issued permits for 30 percent of its low-income housing goal and 14 percent of its low-income housing goal based on the Regional Housing Needs Assessment plan. To make housing affordable, tenants often squeeze additional people into a unit and let maintenance issues slide.
In Davis’ one-bedroom house, the plumbing backs up monthly, causing the house to flood with raw sewage. Electricity doesn’t reach an entire wall of the house, so the couple plugs everything into one outlet, posing a serious fire hazard. There is no heating.
Despite these problems, Davis is afraid to complain for fear of being kicked out. She is on a month-to-month lease, a precarious position.
“We don’t want to cause too much trouble. We don’t want to advocate for ourselves,” Davis said. “We don’t want to do anything that might make our landlord decide he’s done with us.”
Living in Santa Cruz, students are bound to feel the stress of the housing crisis in one way or another.
“As a student, you need to pay attention to the housing crisis,” Davis said. “It affects us all in varying degrees, but the severity of this situation is only increasing. Having a roof over your head now doesn’t guarantee it in the coming months.”
Student Housing in the City
Students often rent off campus as a cheaper alternative to on-campus housing. However, requiring the city to house almost 10,000 students annually creates a new set of problems.
Many first-time renters don’t know how to tackle the renting process. Students who lack family support regarding the rental process can become easy targets for landlords.
Rich Isaac, a fourth-year at UCSC, didn’t have family assistance when searching for a rental. He couch surfed for two months while searching Craigslist for potential rooms. Finally, he was put in contact with a landlord through Craigslist. Due to his lack of guidance through the rental process, Isaac admits he failed to ask for any sort of contract.
“Right out of the gate, I knew this was going to be a bad situation,” Isaac said. “But I had depleted all my other resources. This was my only option.”
The landlord said she had a place for him, but her current tenant had to finish their lease. She asked him to put down a security deposit of $540. While he waited, she arranged a spare room for him to rent in her friend’s house.
He moved in and instantly felt uncomfortable, suspecting that this new landlord and housemate had a mental illness. She would constantly run around the house screaming indistinguishable things. He searched for other options with no luck. He expected to only stay in the house for a month or so, but ended up living there for an entire quarter.
“I got stuck with her was because I couldn’t afford anything else on the market,” Isaac said. “I was literally trapped.”
After off-putting interactions with the original landlord from Craigslist, he decided to not pursue living in her spare room. He was unable to get back his $540 deposit due to his lack of knowledge in creating rental contracts at the time.
As a student, you need to pay attention to the housing crisis. It affects us all in varying degrees, but the severity of this situation is only increasing. Having a roof over your head now doesn’t guarantee it in the coming months.”— Roxy Davis, UCSC graduate student
Santa Cruz residents, students and City Council members have made multiple efforts to handle unreliable landlords and combat the housing crisis. Proposed by charter amendment, Measure M would have instated rent control and just cause eviction in the city. After receiving backlash from landlords and homeowners, it failed to pass in the November election.
Without protections, some students are forced to live in problematic situations.
Rachel Harris*, a third-year UCSC student, lives in a one-story house with 11 people. For $950 a month she shares a bathroom with 10 women and there is only one shower.
“It’s terrible,” Harris said. “There’s no chores and the house is disgusting. Mold grows on the ceiling that I cleaned by myself.”
Though she is uncomfortable in her living situation, the risk of being without a house deters her from searching for something else. Harris has resorted to staying with friends most nights to avoid her housing situation.
Lacking a space that feels like a home, Harris rarely feels comfortable.
She described her landlord as uninvolved. There is no heating. Due to strained relationships with her housemates, she has no idea how to contact the landlord to get things fixed.
Living with over 10 housemates has been a trend in Santa Cruz for over a decade.
Veronica Hamilton, a social psychology doctoral student, described a similar experience when she moved off campus as an undergraduate in 2010. She lived in a house with 10 girls, and although the rent wasn’t as high, there were a lot of challenges that came with it.
She found the room on Craigslist, the students living there were looking for a way to lower their rent. She paid almost $500 a month for a small, shared room.
“My roommate slept on a couch so that way, if the landlord came by, it would look like it was just one person living in the room,” said Hamilton.
Exasperated with the ongoing housing crisis, groups like Students United with Renters (SUR) worked to push for Measure M to pass to end situations like these. They held teach-ins regarding Measure M in hopes of educating students on the good it could do regarding the housing crisis. While establishing a firm market rate off campus, it could have pressured the university to match that for on-campus housing.
Housing Crisis Seeps into On-Campus Housing
The UC System has a goal to increase enrollment among UC’s to award 200,000 more degrees between now and 2030. This effort has already impacted UCSC’s on-campus housing.
As UCSC increases enrollment, it puts more students into unconventional living spaces. So far, double dorms have been converted into triples, triples into quads and lounges into quads, quintuples and sextuples. The cost of UCSC housing is similar to living off campus — to live in a five-person dorm room, students pay $1,476 per month with a required five-day meal plan.
Although students aren’t always unhappy in the converted dorms, most students wouldn’t think of signing up for five roommates when registering for on campus housing.
“I guess you just have to make the most of it,” said first-year Steve Taylor, who lives in a five person dorm in Merrill College. “It was a little weird finding out, but I like everyone I live with. It costs the least out of all the dorms, so I think it’s worth it.”
Executive Vice Chancellor Marlene Tromp said UCSC will do its best to keep housing costs down for future developments, but needs to cover the cost of building.
“One of the things we’ve spoken with the regents a great deal about is the need to keep the price point [of on-campus housing] as low as possible for students,” Tromp said. “Despite building being so expensive in Santa Cruz, we’re working to keep the price of new residency buildings as low as possible so students can afford it.”
Currently, UCSC is working on two housing projects — Student Housing West and the Kresge College Project. Student Housing West is adding 3,000 beds, but according to Latham, the total net increase will be about 2,200 beds. Kresge College Project will add a net increase of 300 beds. Each of the projects face backlash from students, alumni and faculty for various reasons including environmental concerns.
Administrators said they are working toward housing as many students as possible on campus. Right now, about 10,000 students live off campus.
“We know that the more we have students live on campus, it increases retention and student success,” said Vice Chancellor of Business and Administrative Services Sarah Latham. “It allows them to be part of a community, reduces transportation costs and puts students closer to other needed amenities.”
Vehicles as Alternative Living Spaces
Not all students are convinced official housing is the way to go. A number of houseless students attempt to sleep in their vehicles on campus, but the university has rules preventing that.
“There’s different degrees of people’s understanding of the housing crisis,” said Tomás Tedesco, a fourth-year student who lives in his vehicle. “Even more than understanding, it’s a matter of ignorance. People don’t even know what it’s like or that students are living this way.”
Tedesco is one of the founders of the advocacy group Snail Movement, whose name refers to students’ identification as slugs who carry their shelter with them. Snail Movement is currently fighting for a safe parking program on campus and basic needs services for students who choose to live in their vehicles. In response, the university has cited safety and legal issues as defense for why they could not move forward with the students’ request for a safe parking program.
“The way the system is structured around the university and city, houselessness is almost bound to happen,” Tedesco said. “The affordability and availability of housing allow for this.”
The average monthly rent in Santa Cruz is $2,581 for a 733 square foot apartment. The number of house listings has been steadily decreasing for years.
Tedesco had been couch surfing for two years before deciding to live in his car full-time. He said the decision gave him a sense of stability and freedom.
He plans his day around things people don’t usually think about — where to shower and which paths he can take to fill up on water on the way back to his car.
“People often have misconceptions of what [living in your car] is like,” Tedesco said. “Both in those beautiful moments when you’re driving wherever you want and you’re free, and in the moments when you feel unsafe and threatened.”
Another member of the Snail Movement, John Fernandez, has grappled with issues that surround living in a vehicle. He said reaching out for help wasn’t as easy as the administration makes it sound.
“Going into college, I never expected to be [houseless],” Fernandez said, his feet hanging out the side door of his colorful van. “But things happen, and I don’t mind living in my van. There’s advantages people can’t understand until they do it for themselves.”
Fernandez actively chooses to be houseless because, after taking two years off school for personal reasons, this was the most financially sound solution for him. He wanted to avoid taking out loans and said any rental on the market would require him to do that. Fernandez said when he first reached out to the university for help, they refused to recognize that he is a houseless student by choice.
“The university fails to support our decision to live in our vehicles,” Fernandez said. “They impose a sense of shame onto us.”
Marlene Tromp encourages students to seek assistance through the Slug Support program. The program develops individual plans to assist students in need. Their goal is to keep students enrolled by early intervention in crisis situations. They offer free meal swipes, grocery gift cards and temporary housing, among other services.
“We have heard the message from students about wanting to retain their autonomy,” Sarah Latham said. “But I think it’s critical to address options like temporary housing made available at very low rates under certain economic conditions that students could seek through Slug Support.”
Tomás Tedesco said that in his experience, Slug Support was unhelpful. When he reached out to Slug Support before he made the decision to live in his van, they could not offer any permanent solutions.
Slug Support offered to put him up in a hotel for a few nights. The temporary housing solutions weren’t helpful to Tedesco because he is only asking for a safe place to live in his vehicle. Despite continuing to reach out to them regarding the safe parking program, Tedesco has gotten little response. Now, he hopes to tackle the issue systemwide. He will address the UC Board of Regents at UCLA on March 14 regarding houseless students.
“Administration preaches about supporting students,” Tedesco said. “I don’t see it.”
Without a safe parking program on campus, students often resort to parking downtown. Pushing students who reside in their vehicles off campus and into the city can put them in danger. Tromp and Latham acknowledged dangers that students living in their vehicles face, but said they must not make an impulse decision because they don’t want to create a more dangerous situation for students.
“The university itself doesn’t acknowledge our situation and refuses to support us in our pursuit of higher education on our own terms,” Fernandez said. “How the hell do they expect us to succeed?”
Students like John Fernandez and Roxy Davis feel adamant that things are not going to change for the better unless the administration gets involved. They believe the university’s job is to serve students, yet they often feel under-supported on the housing front.
Davis said over 50 percent of her income goes to housing, despite issues like lack of outlets and sewage flooding. If she didn’t have a partner, she said living in Santa Cruz wouldn’t be an option. Without university intervention, Davis only sees the problem getting worse for all students.
“I think there’s a lot of things that need to happen for students to stop getting screwed over by the rental market,” said Davis. “It’s a tough situation but the university needs to be at the forefront for things to change.”
Corrections: A previous version of this article stated that just cause protections were in place within the city of Santa Cruz. Although there were two temporary ordinances that had passed in February of last year, both are no longer in effect. Additionally, a previous version of the article stated that Measure M was proposed by petition. Measure M was proposed as a charter amendment and placed on the ballot by petition. The article has since been corrected.
Clarification: A previous version of the article made it sound as though Measure M would directly impact the cost of housing on campus at UCSC. It would not have a direct or sure impact, but some say it could pressure the university to match market rates. The article has since been changed to reflect this sentiment.