Above: Professor Steve McKay (rear center) and his students preparing for door-to-door surveys at the Nueva Vista Community Resources center in Santa Cruz’s Beach Flats. Photo by Jared RankinIn Northern California, the outrageous cost of homebuying and renting is doing more than just making cash-strapped residents sleep in sheds and cars. It’s also causing an identity crisis.
How “progressive” can a city be if housing starts to become out of reach for all but its wealthiest residents? How functional can a city be when the people providing its goods and services can’t afford to live there anymore, and the teachers of its children must endure long, grueling commutes to work?
The scope of this problem can induce a strong sense of helplessness. As a case in point, consider the City of Santa Cruz, which was struggling with affordable housing issues even before an influx of well-paid Silicon Valley tech workers started turning every home sale into a bidding war, with the median price of a home hitting more than $900,000 this year. Meanwhile, the mean hourly wage for renters in the city is $14.62 per hour.
A study released in May points to why the California housing crisis is so severe, particularly in the Bay Area: More people are moving in from other states than moving out. No other region in California has experienced such explosive growth of high-paying jobs. Statewide, between 2011 and 2016, California added just 171 homes for every 1,000 people, according to the San Jose Mercury News.
The study, by San Francisco public policy group Next 10, noted that while pay for California’s low-wage earners grew by just 17 percent over the past decade, wages rose by 29 percent for middle-income workers and nearly 43 percent for high-wage earners. Other factors include the dramatic rise in single-family homes inhabited by renters as well as California’s relatively high costs for labor, materials, and land, making residential development less profitable.
The causes are complicated but the impacts are immediate and impossible to ignore.
UC Santa Cruz students have shared stories of living in pool sheds, in tents, in cars parked in driveways of friends’ houses, just to get by.
County renters are squeezed. More than 12,000 renters in Santa Cruz County paid more than half of their income for rent in 2016, and 11,000 pay more than 30 percent of income for rent, according to the Harvard University Joint Center for Housing Studies, which reported in 2017 that Santa Cruz was the third worst metro area for rent burden.
And homelessness is rising. Homelessness increased in Santa Cruz County by 15 percent in 2017, compared to a similar one-day count conducted in January 2015, according to the Santa Cruz Sentinel.
Statewide, homelessness is surging. California’s homeless population jumped nearly 14 percent from 2016 to 2017—to a total of more than 134,00 people. It rose only 9 percent over the previous seven years, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2017 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress.
No Place Like Home
But there is, at least, one positive development in the midst of this crisis; two forward-thinking UC Santa Cruz sociology professors, and more than 200 UC Santa Cruz undergraduates, have been making international headlines for an ambitious project intending to calibrate the scope, and side effects, of the housing quandary. Their research incorporates hard facts, analysis, and human stories from renters all over Santa Cruz County.
The project, No Place Like Home, is already starting to move the conversation forward, with data to help guide the dialogue. Researchers found that 73 percent of 1,700 interview subjects reported “rent burden,” meaning they spent more than 30 percent of their income on rent and utilities. Of renters who moved in the last five years, 50 percent said the move was “forced or involuntary,” most often due to eviction or a rent increase.
Such data can be painful to read about, but this information heightened awareness of an issue that has been building up for much too long, said UC Santa Cruz Associate Professor of Sociology Steve McKay.
“Housing is becoming the new weather: Everybody is talking about it,” he said.
Two years ago, he and UC Santa Cruz Sociology Professor Miriam Greenberg had no idea how much impact they would have when they instigated the No Place Like Home study, which they launched in collaboration with the Community Action Board of Santa Cruz County and Community Bridges, with financial support from organizations including the UC Santa Cruz Humanities Institute, the UC Santa Cruz Division of Student Success, and the UC Office of the President.
Now, they are just starting to get a sense of their impact.
“We are getting taken seriously by city and county planners,” McKay said. “We are bringing about conversations about solutions. We want to inform the debate through research.”
New coalitions have been pushing their ideas for solutions, which range from rent control initiatives to a new movement to fund affordable housing in Santa Cruz. Others are pushing for “just cause’’ rules that give landlords less leeway in evictions.
“What needs to be done locally and regionally about housing is not one single thing,” Greenberg said. She believes the answer lies in what she calls “the Three Ps”: protecting renters to increase stability, preserving existing affordable housing, and producing more affordable housing.
The initiative is also sponsoring dialogues throughout the community. In the fall of 2017, McKay and Greenberg filled the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium during a free public event that kicked off Affordable Housing Week.
As part of the project, UC Santa Cruz students interviewed renters and homeowners anywhere they could find them, capturing their responses at laundromats, mobile homes, and flea markets. Some students rode city buses and chatted with passengers. While going out into the community to interview residents about their housing situations, they often talked about their own housing travails as a way to break the ice and establish common ground.
Such dialogue is essential, especially when some respondents complained about UC Santa Cruz’s own impact on the rental and homebuying market because of its increasing student body.
“We won’t deny we have an impact, but we’re also the largest employer, and we want to help fix what is going on,” McKay said. “Sometimes our students get doors slammed in their face. But they are renters, too. It’s really about making better connections. Instead of blaming the students, why not bring them into the discussion of how do we create better housing for everyone?”
McKay notes that many of his and Greenberg’s students are bilingual Spanish speakers and first-generation college students who chose to participate in the project in part because of their own housing experiences. Students who participated in the field research said it gave them a vivid sense of their common cause with the wider community.
Thao Le (Oakes ‘19, sociology) was one of the students who interviewed residents in the Eastside area known as Live Oak, getting their stories about housing struggles.
“I remember talking to a nurse making $60 an hour,” she said. “That’s a lot of money, but she’s a single mom, her apartment complex is being remodeled, and she was really sure they were going to kick her out.
“Even people with solid incomes, who have been working really hard, are not safe anymore, and are being displaced,” Le said. “It really angers me. We have this idea that you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps—the American dream.” But in communities with jarring gaps between wage-earning and housing costs, that dream does not exist, she said.
Even during the past two years after she transferred to UC Santa Cruz from De Anza College in Cupertino, “I have seen it get worse,” she said. “So many of my really close friends are homeless, couch-surfing, or overcrowded.”
She said that people in the Santa Cruz community should recognize their common cause with UC Santa Cruz students “paying ridiculous amounts” for low-quality housing.
“There is this narrative that students are the problem, when they face the same problems as the tenants,” said Le.
On the positive side, Le said that the project has already increased awareness and momentum for solutions. Tenant advocates have proposed rent control and “just cause” laws giving landlords less license to evict tenants.
Thanks in part to No Place Like Home, “We are on the edge of getting into a larger conversation about housing,” said Sarah Wikle (College Ten ’18, community studies), who interviewed planning officials in Santa Cruz as part of the project. She hopes that Santa Cruz’s newfound notoriety as an unaffordable place to live helps turn it into “the next hub for rent control” as well as just cause laws.
A rent control initiative proposed by tenant advocates for the City of Santa Cruz will appear on a ballot measure going before voters in November.
Proponents of rent control say this measure is a long-overdue response to exorbitant housing costs that are disrupting neighborhoods and pricing out Santa Cruz workers. Opponents have also mobilized, arguing that it will create an expensive new bureaucracy, reduce the number of rentals available, accelerate gentrification, and raise rental prices even faster than before.
Losing the qualities of home
No Place Like Home makes the strong case that unaffordability rips the fabric of community.
“Very high housing costs leads to displacement,” Greenberg said. “It causes constant tenant turnover in the house down the street, affecting neighborhood stability. University students struggle to study and succeed when they have to live in cramped or undesirable situations. In K–12, younger students are having new teachers every year because the schools can’t keep them—they can’t afford to stay.”
The problem must be addressed not just from a local and urban but a regional perspective because those uprootings have such a far-ranging impact, she said.
“We see people being pushed to outside the county, to Salinas, and beyond,” said Greenberg. She noted the recent surge in commuters traveling to Santa Cruz from Monterey County because they can’t afford Santa Cruz anymore.
The financial and emotional strain of finding housing, or being forced to live in substandard housing, is another quality-of-life issue.
“It is not unusual to spend $1,000 to share a room (off campus), so many students try to work more, or take out more loans, to stay here,” McKay said.
McKay shared a story about a student who lives in Bonny Doon, in a house that costs $5,000 to rent. Only three people were allowed on the lease, but seven people ended up living in the house, because that was the only way they could afford it.
“Students are being gouged,” Greenberg said. “I’ve spoken to people in counseling services who are seeing all kinds of emotional effects from students living in overcrowded conditions, living precariously, juggling jobs.”
In light of this housing crunch, both McKay and Greenberg are enthusiastic supporters of expanding affordable housing on and off campus, though Santa Cruzans and alumni are deeply divided when it comes to the locations and sizes of potential developments.
Roots of an intractable problem
Widespread grumblings about lack of affordable housing go back at least to the late 1970s and early 1980s, when measures to create rent control failed three times. Bad as it was, the problems were much more straightforward than they are now.
In 1988, when Don Lane (Merrill ’78, politics) was first elected to the Santa Cruz City Council, most of the discussion about affordable housing was focused on lower-income residents living in “funky, poor-quality housing. It used to be that people at the bottom were feeling the crunch. Now it’s everybody unless you are really well off.”
Since then, a mess of demographic and market forces, along with local, regional, and nationwide trends, have played their part in making the city more unaffordable, ranging from the city’s irresistible “beach town” appeal to the growth of the vacation rental market and the 2008 subprime mortgage meltdown, sending millions of evicted homeowners into the rental market. Some housing proponents cast the blame on “no-growth’’ or “slow-growth” policies that halted undesirable developments in their tracks, but also had the effect of creating an inadequate stock of affordable housing.
Greenberg also referenced what she described as a “fortress mentality” in the Santa Cruz area, with an overriding emphasis on single-family home development rather than high-density housing, and a concern that such buildings would devalue home prices.
“Often, the sticking point is the environmental impact of development and the idea that any multi-family development will bring in more traffic,” she continued. “But by not building, and not having any kind of affordable alternative, people who already live here end up having to leave town, and getting pushed further and further out, while still holding onto those jobs in mid county or downtown.”
This dynamic creates commuter traffic, which causes greenhouse emissions and increases the carbon footprint, and also fragments natural habitats by increasing demand for new, high-density housing for workers who make their money in Santa Cruz but live in Gilroy and other outlying communities, Greenberg said. Thus, paradoxically, opposition to affordable development made on environmental grounds can cause far greater environmental problems, she said.
Seeking coinciding solutions
Greenberg discussed the surprising divisions within the progressive community, ranging from those with a “NIMBY” (“not in my backyard”) mentality to a “YIMBY” (“yes in my backyard”) mentality. Such divisions can make it hard for the community to settle on any one path forward. The trick, said Greenberg, is getting solutions from different factions to coincide.
Lane, for his part, is part of a group that is raising money for a local ballot measure to build housing for lower-income residents.
“For me, personally, I think the path forward has to do with saying, ‘OK, we are not going to have unlimited housing (construction), but the housing we build from now on is going to be very targeted to meeting the needs of the community, and not just letting external forces, such as Silicon Valley pressures, and the tourist economy, be the drivers,’” Lane said.
“Let us create housing and make it serve the needs of a well-functioning Santa Cruz,” he continued. “That means encouraging more rental housing because we don’t have enough of that, and building smaller units that will be more affordable.”
Whatever the outcome, McKay, Greenberg, and participating students hope to restore a sense of home to the troubled community.
“The goal is to now help transform the housing crisis itself,” said McKay. “The goal is to work collectively to transform Santa Cruz, one of the most beautiful places in the world, into one of the most just, welcoming, stable, and dignified communities in the world; into a real and loving home for all.”
For information, visit noplacelikehome.ucsc.edu.