Santa Cruz is A Housing Nightmare
My adventure in trying to find a basic necessity like housing in this ridiculous suburbia called Santa Cruz, California.
Santa Cruz, California has the worst housing crisis in the state of California. It skims Silicon Valley prices yet has incomes far lower than Silicon Valley. It frequently ranks as the top area for homelessness and recently ranked #2 in unaffordable housing in the United States.
I study at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC) and during my time here I’ve run into this bizarro world of housing that’s so insane and repulsive, it shocked even my San Francisco Bay Area sensibilities. Every university has a hazing ritual among frats. In Santa Cruz, the hazing is the housing market, but everyone has to do it frat or not and it doesn’t get easier with time.
When I first got accepted to UC Santa Cruz I applied for university housing. It was rather simple: I put down very few preferences for my living situation, filled out the basic information and sent it. New students had priority for housing so I’d be a shoo-in. Time went by, summer wore down, and I never got an email indicating I had been selected. Just weeks before the start of the school year I emailed the housing official asking why I hadn’t be accepted yet. The official informed me that every applicant should simply assume they didn’t get a place and search for housing on the private market.
I didn’t have time to apply for market housing. There was only 2 weeks left before school. I kept badgering the housing official and within 1 week of school starting, a frustrated administrator looked over my application and complained I had too many preferences. She advised I strip all my preferences and re-submit. My preferences were the basic dorm ranking I was told to partake in. The secret was to apparently just not have any preferences at all. So I did. Within a few hours I was assigned a UCSC dorm.
Firstly, it’s pretty sad it took badgering rather than trusting the process to get a unit or any feedback on my application. What if I were shy or naive enough to have faith in the process? Secondly, If I wasn’t going to get a place, the university should’ve simply emailed me informing I wasn’t selected. They argue they don’t because some students end up not coming and they pull from waitlists, but presuming that isn’t the trajectory for the vast majority of housing applicants it wouldn’t hurt to let a student know well before school starts that they’re probably not getting a unit.
Nevertheless I got in. My dorm consisted of four bedrooms: 2 single beds and 2 so-called doubles. So-called because the size of the rooms were all identical and clearly built as single-units each, but cutting corners, the university threw bunk beds into two of them and called them doubles. An actual double would have beds lay horizontally but the nature of the tiny width of the single-units meant only bunks would fit.
As I rested on the top bunk I realized how miserable this would be. The top of the bunk was just a few feet below the ceiling. I couldn’t climb to the top without hitting my head or back against the ceiling. The heater vent was pointed right at me and I boiled up and sweated tremendously in the early nights. Even with the heater off all the room’s heat rose to the ceiling. It got so bad I had decided to sleep on the cramped floor rather than boil up top. But since my rent was $1,881, I eventually demanded my 6 housemates to never turn the heater on, and with enough complaining I got the bunk lowered slightly and learned to spend less time in my bed.
As I spent time wandering around the campus and getting familiar with UC Santa Cruz, the housing crisis became quite apparent. Stumbling through the parking lots after 9 PM I could see students, often as couples, with blankets sleeping in their parked cars. The next day I’d walk by and there were parking tickets on the windshields, placed there by ever-watchful university attendants. Irate students would discuss among themselves where they’d move their cars to find a place to sleep next. Flyers in the community room advised the car-dwellers where to get showers. In the depths of the redwoods on my hikes I came across students camping out who were presumably homeless. One of these types was featured recently in the LA Times.
Now, again, I’m from Berkeley. I knew UC Berkeley students who would sleep in their cars as I was very active with the UC students who fought against the housing crisis there. But the extent of the car-dwelling was substantially higher than Berkeley. It was impossible not to know someone in your friend group who was homeless and/or car-dwelling. I knew very few back in Berkeley.
I also learned of the demographics of Santa Cruz. A pretty white town that only looks somewhat Latino in the daytime because the service workers who keep this town running commute in from Watsonville and Salinas. Agricultural and semi-rural communities that Santa Cruz exports its housing demand onto that’s displacing the working class there. It also explained why the campus was effectively closed on the weekends since the workers can’t afford to live close enough to maintain weekend operations.
Angered by this, I attended UCSC student protests for housing, and I’m proud to announce the students get it: there’s a housing shortage and the university has failed to build enough homes and the city’s NIMBYs have obstructed too much housing. Sadly there was a time when UCSC students had a reputation for being self-hating idiots who opposed housing not too long ago (one of them is a current San Francisco supervisor), only to create the current crisis.
When the next year came I searched for market housing early in the summer. I knew if I had waited until it’s too late I’d be competing with a swarm of other UCSC students. The housing hunt was proving difficult chiefly because Santa Cruz just doesn’t have much housing. There were always just 2 pages of listed rentals on the student rental website which broadly overlapped the city’s rental market. I thought a lot of landlords were holding their units off-market or that they were leased up and many would show up as fall got near but, spoiler, this didn’t happen.
Santa Cruz’s rental market suffers from an extreme dearth of multifamily housing. Again, while Berkeley has a bad crisis, the city is blessed with a decent amount of apartments near the UC campus from early 20th century, many mid-century dingbats before they were banned in the 1970s, and small amount of new mid-rises downtown. In contrast, Santa Cruz wasn’t located near a financial center so all the older development was single-family homes and its zoning map bans apartments in most of the city today. It’s basically a beach-side Levittown. A microscopic amount of multifamily apartments were built in the Midtown, east side and beach areas before they were banned in the 1970s so virtually none appeared on rental websites.
If you want to rent in Santa Cruz your only options are renting a whole house from a homeowner, or renting a bedroom with a homeowner living on-site. Santa Cruz uniquely has a high number of small landlords who are also a sizable amount of the city’s homeowners, which proves politically horrifying, unfortunately. At least in San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, L.A. etc. the landlords are largely absentee as they own multifamily properties, thus landlords are a distinct class from homeowners and they vote differently.
But with a city of homeowners that are also landlords, you not only get high-levels of protect-my-property values-and-character NIMBYism here, but you get high levels of protect-my-high-rents-and-privacy-rights Landlord NIMBYism too — voting in lockstep. This explains why Santa Cruz doesn’t even have rent control and few tenant protections despite its liberal-left associations. Even the meek and harmless vacancy tax proposal is getting aggressive pushback because the landlords are the homeowners.
I found my house of interest and I’m intending to rent with several other students. The house was a crummy 4-bedroom shack renting at $1,400 per room. I get an email notification to appear at an open house and discuss more in detail. I drive down to Santa Cruz which takes about an hour and 20 minutes.
I’m dressed up in a suit and tie since, as a Black man, I have to look as non-threatening to the landlords as possible. All Black folks know even in decent housing markets we find lots of arbitrary reasons Black applicants will get rejected.
As the landlord pulls up and I prepare to introduce myself, literally dozens of cars park along the side streets and out comes dozens of young people holding rental applications in their hands. I estimated 40 people were present and most of them were representing a group of roommates.
The landlord begins the open house by remarking he too was a UCSC alumni, and that there had always been a housing crisis since he attended in the 1980s and that it has gotten worse and that he feels sad for us. He then takes a tour of the house with us as a crowd. None of the students actually cared about the open house presentation and only pretended to roam their eyes to what the landlord was showing. They didn’t have the privilege to care about quality when they needed housing.
When the tour finished, the first student steps up and recites a prepared line about how his roommates are respectful and that he hopes the landlord will accept them, and then hands his application. A dozen other students panic and quickly lift their rental applications to match. The whole thing felt so pathetic. The landlord quickly decided to weed people out by only accepting paper applications and announcing he’d ignore emailed ones, which effectively meant I was bounced.
Lesson learned I thought as I drove back to Berkeley. When I got home I printed all my applications and followed up on multiple properties. Over the course of 3 months I constantly drove to Santa Cruz to do so-called Open Houses where I and a crowd of students would observe a house we had no luxury to be picky about. I realized how monotonous the whole thing had gotten. It takes an hour, up to an hour an a half, to drive to Santa Cruz. Then it takes 2 - 5 minutes of fake observing a house. Then you offer up your application, smile and drive home.
During these pointless Open Houses I talked to other students and I realized that many of them had driven in from Southern California or flew across the country. Quite a few had flown in from other countries just to do these 5 minute pointless Open Houses where they’d all offer up their rental apps having not listened to a word the landlord said during the tour. Most of them had made frequent, wasteful trips in vain.
During my search I met all kinds of property owners. Sweet old ladies living with their families who were offering up their bedrooms for $2,200 a month plus helping them around the house. An odd dude in Capitola renting out his spare bedrooms in his tiny bungalow for $1,300 with other UCSC students who had remarked to me that as a Black man in Computer Science the school wanted to give me preferential treatment. I met many landlords/homeowners with clear fair housing violations about gender requirements for applicants. But most property owners were just normal, fine folks with a deluge of applications to shift through and rents through the roof. Like most UCSC students I made myself willing to accept awfully high rent if it meant I could attend school — rent far beyond my price range — but it still wasn’t enough to get a home.
Within under a month of school starting I had aggressively chased after this $1,700 per bedroom bungalow. My anxiety about not finding housing had ramped up considerably. The ads for roommates on Places4Students were never ending with desperate students clamoring for anything. I kept thinking about whether I’d be forced to put my education on hold if I couldn’t find housing before the session started. I was debating buying an RV and living in it for the duration of school.
Within 45 minutes of a landlord posting their place I snagged it and applied. The landlord had a 3rd party website to set up applications and I had to pay a $45 fee to fund a background check. The landlord ended up being a nice, chummy guy who didn’t have much experience in the rental market and confided in me how stunned he was by the deluge of applications.
24 applications in a day of posting his home. That’s how bad the housing shortage is here. I did yet another exhausting drive down to Santa Cruz and went through the fake motions of pretending to care during the Open House, made my offer, and went home thinking I had this home sealed. Only the next morning I found out that the landlord had gotten so many applications for a home he started a bidding war for the top contenders.
By then I had enough. I was so totally exhausted by this whole thing that in a fit of rage, aimed mostly at the morons I argue with on Twitter who claim the housing shortage isn’t real or whatever (yes, someone accused me of making up these texts), I posted an excerpt of the bidding text message. It went viral on Reddit and reporters quickly called me to ask about this crazy town called Santa Cruz.
This landlord (who was a nice guy that confided in me how bothered he was by being forced to reject so many) and all the landlords I met, are frankly irrelevant. They could be awesome people but it wouldn’t change that available rental inventory is almost nonexistent. The real problem are the lack of housing availability that makes tenants compete in a rat race and endure bidding wars, substandard conditions and insufferable landlords. Want to be mad at someone? Be mad at the nonsense that goes on in the city politics here, the stupid anti-housing lawn signs and rampant NIMBYism in this town.
The NIMBYism here is far worse than what I’ve seen in the Bay Area. The NIMBYs complain of over-development in a town than looks the same as it did in 1960. My girlfriend who lived here in the 2000s noted how everything looked exactly the same. Same old bungalows. Same car-centric crap. Coming to Santa Cruz is like stepping into a time machine and being transported to 1957. There’s barely any new housing here — there’s literally like 1 or 2 new buildings in the downtown area exclusively — and the NIMBYs think its too much.
NIMBYs are now abusing environmental law to sue student housing on some barren cow pasture, with the same old cry they do in Berkeley about how “it should just be built elsewhere” and then they’ll never be happy with it elsewhere. Case and point: they’re fighting a library and parking lot redevelopment project in downtown, proclaiming “save our downtown.” I had to watch all the old, comfortably housed homeowners protest the project at the cow pasture with their stupid signs on a bus load of housing traumatized students who spent an hour in commute.
I eventually found housing within a week of school starting. I managed to snipe a listing only 4 minutes after it was posted on Craigslist and got a home for a decent price. I was so damn angry I told the landlord in a frank voice I had zero interest in driving down to Santa Cruz for a place I may not get and a Zoom viewing would suffice. He seemed quite sympathetic having been UCSC alumni himself, and after screening me decided I was the tenant for his home.
When a roommate of mine dropped out at the last minute, all we had to do was contact the very first person looking for roommates on Places4Students and within a few seconds we found a replacement. That’s how desperate students were. Within a week of school starting the housing office offered me a triple-bed dorm that I accepted as a backup in case the private housing fell through, but it didn’t and I was able to cancel without paying the usual fee since apparently the school had overbooked dorms and was encouraging cancellations by waiving fees.
This experience has left me sad and hopeless. Sad for the many students who had to drop out of UCSC this year because they couldn’t find housing. Sad for the homelessness of this town which is treated like a quirky part of Santa Cruz culture rather than a human rights crisis. Sad for the growing number of students UCSC rejected admission for this year clearly due to the lack of housing. Sad for all my classmates who sleep in their cars, in tents and on new couches every night. Sad for the NIMBYs in this town suffering from Peter Pan syndrome by keeping this town the same in perpetuity over the social need for more housing amid population growth. Sad for the Santa Cruz children who come of age here and sleep in their cars or on the street because they can’t find housing once they turn 18 and get kicked out. Sad for the service workers waking up at 5 AM and commuting in from Watsonville and Salinas to serve ostensibly liberal people their lattes and groceries in neighborhoods they’d never be able to afford.
Shortly after publishing I received many testimonies from readers, but one in particular I’ve decided to elevate about their experience looking for housing in Santa Cruz.
Your articles are such a great mix of sober, tactical policy analysis and provocative, emotional, rally-the-troops anecdotes like this. Definitely helpful to have both; you're among the few who can do both well
Thanks for sharing this. One of the best ways it seems to beat NIMBYism is to point out how this morally reprehensible practice affects students. People that you can’t claim, even in bad faith, are somehow inferior or “agents of gentrification” (noting latter was tried in Berkeley, doubt it worked.
In the best of all worlds, the effect of housing scarcity on the homeless would be a scandal, but given it’s been status quo in SF for 40 years, not getting hopes up.