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The House Broken

Lily Hudson & Sara Tamerius
Robert Scheer

Up the Creek Without a Pad: Because of SC's housing crunch, UCSC student Lily Hudson (left) resorted to watery co-habitation with Cabrillo College attendee Sara Tamerius and another pal on a 27-foot sailboat. Their living space for more than a month was a few feet wide and 13 feet long.

As the regional economy booms and the population swells, Santa Cruz's open-space policies and poor planning threaten to squeeze students and low-income workers out of the housing market

By Michael Mechanic

THE MORNING IS COOL AND WET in the Santa Cruz Mountains, the overcast silence broken only by the incessant patter of water falling from Douglas firs, tall redwoods and madrones, and by the chirping of small birds flitting around in the manzanita bushes--their berries black with rot. Ducking through barriers of wispy brush and low-lying branches, Nakona MacDonald, 22, leads the way to the base of a large tree, where a gray tarp and ground cover keeps the rain from penetrating his small tent.

This is his new spot. Two days ago, someone came upon his former hiding place and made off with his sleeping bag. His books, luckily, were stored elsewhere, or he might be without those, too.

This is MacDonald's version of student housing. A returning UCSC creative writing major who is working his way through school, MacDonald found himself last August in the midst of a rental housing crisis that made it nearly impossible for many university students and locals working low-wage jobs to find affordable shelter. Even shared rooms on campus--which were all booked, anyhow--were running $450 a month, somewhat beyond MacDonald's budget.

"I looked really hard for a month and a half--it was like a full-time job," he says. "Once school starts, if you haven't found a place, you're screwed. You can't have this 'full-time job,' work and study at the same time."

As classes began in the fall, UCSC public relations people assured reporters that all of the university's students, despite the most severe housing crunch in recent memory, would be able to find a place to live within the first few weeks of school.

The officials were right. The trouble is, these "places to live," for many, included the woods, automobiles, boats and friends' sofas. And for most of the students stuck in these predicaments, the lack of space and privacy has wreaked havoc with their studies and social lives. Recognizing the problem, university officials set up temporary "hostels," but these turned out to be little more than nighttime spots on hard field-house floors.

According to university officials, only two of the 80 students who withdrew during the fall quarter cited housing as a factor. However, that number does not reflect the scores who have stayed in school and struggled with bad housing options.

UCSC senior Lily Hudson, 22, began searching for a place last August, two months before her classes began, but didn't find one until halfway through the first quarter--"and that was luck," she says. In the interim, a customer at the coffeehouse where Hudson works heard she was without a space and offered the cramped cabin of his sailboat, where she lived with two friends for $100 a week between them. "It was very cold and crowded," she recalls. "[Being homeless] completely ruined my first quarter."

Graduating UCSC seniors Derek Fagerstrom and Lauren Smith returned in December from studies in Italy to find the housing market locked up. Rather than settling into their academic pursuits, the couple ended up couch-surfing through mid-February and studying in cafes, which offered continuous distractions. "It's very disruptive not having my own space, not having space for my books, living out of a very small bag and having to fight off distractions caused by other people," says Fagerstrom. "Trying to organize my thoughts is difficult because I'm thinking about so many other things."

As Smith and Fagerstrom discovered, being without a home creates many complications in day-to-day life. "All the school forms and job applications ask for a home address," says Fagerstrom. "Lauren can't get a bank account until she has a home address. It's a big problem."

Roughing It

MACDONALD, of course, opted for the great outdoors. He put most of his things in storage, found a spot where his gear would stay relatively dry, and set his mind to his academic pursuits. He showers at the gym and does homework at a study room at one of the residential colleges.

He says he personally knows of 40 to 50 students who lived in the woods or in vehicles during the fall quarter, but rain has driven many to seek drier options. MacDonald has been offered sofa space here and there, but says he doesn't want to be a burden on others. And besides, he's grown used to this lifestyle, however difficult.

"A lot of times, if it's been raining several days, it feels very cabin-feverish. When it rains, your space is compacted to as small as it can be to keep it dry," he muses. "My books are wrinkled. Sometimes it makes reading more interesting."

University spokesperson Elizabeth Irwin says there was a net increase of about 300 students attending the university between the fall semester of 1995 and last fall, but notes that current enrollment is actually about the same as in 1992­93.

Yet rentals were plentiful then. Local Realtors and property managers say that a surge in sales of houses to first-time homeowners has taken a substantial number of rental properties off the market since 1994, and the growing regional economy has led to skyrocketing housing demand.

"It's a real rental crisis," says Monterey Bay Properties Realtor Tom Brezsny, who until recently dealt with prospective renters at Karon Properties. "Certainly the crush is upon us in a way I've never seen it before." In his experience, Brezsny says, the vacancy period for Santa Cruz rentals has been virtually nonexistent. When his company advertised a rental, he says, as many as 30 to 40 calls would flow in on the first day.

"We manage probably 250 units, and we simply have no vacancies," says Joe Hutchins, a broker for Pacific West Realty, which deals almost exclusively in apartments. "The students tell us it's tight out there. They'll often say, 'What do you have?' and we'll tell them, and they'll take it sight unseen because they've been having so much trouble finding anything."

New UCSC students are guaranteed a place on campus, but over the last two decades, local slow-growth policies have not allowed enough affordable housing construction to meet the demands created by an increasing campus population and a significant influx of professionals from Silicon Valley in search of homes and rentals. "Since Measure O [a 1979 measure that stipulates higher-density housing in the center of town as a condition for Greenbelt preservation] there has been essentially no rental housing built in Santa Cruz," notes affordable housing advocate Ed Davidson, who for years has lobbied the Santa Cruz City Council to address the problem.

"Clearly the university hasn't kept pace with the growth in the amount of housing it offers students, and certainly the community hasn't kept pace with the growth," offers Brezsny. "Part of that is political, and part is geographical. There are some inherent things about Santa Cruz that limit supply."

Malignant Growth

CAMPUS representatives counter that UCSC houses a greater proportion of its students--more than 45 percent--than any other UC branch. Current enrollment is 10,214, and that number is projected to grow to 15,000 by 2005. The university's long-term goal, says Irwin, is to house up to 75 percent of those students.

"We felt much of the crunch this fall was the result of continuing students who, in the past, could return and get a place on campus easily if they couldn't find one in the community," Irwin says. "This didn't happen this fall because on-campus housing was filled to capacity."

Davidson and several Realtors interviewed say that 75 percent on-campus accommodation is an unrealistic goal. "There is a basic problem with the on-campus housing situation," Davidson says. "The university's housing facilities are funded by a bonding authority that is separate from the regents and normal university functions. In order to build more on-campus housing, they would need more bonds issued and they can't get bonds issued, as long as there are vacancies in existing housing. And there are vacancies because the room rates are so high, and people want their independence from dorm rules and dorm food."

Indeed, on-campus housing at UCSC is pricey compared to other UC campuses. A typical double room up on the hill costs each undergraduate $442 a month, as compared with $391 at UC­Berkeley or $407 at UC­Davis (excluding meal plans). Better deals, when available, are found off campus. According to a survey of local rents performed last October by the Santa Cruz County Housing Advisory Committee, the average rent on a two-bedroom apartment--considerably more spacious than the typical dorm room--was $809.

But vacant apartments are few. Nancy Ross of TRW Property Management says the decrease in available rentals is evident from the daily classified ads. "We used to have in the newspaper seven or eight [classified ad] columns of houses available in the summer months," says Ross. "Last summer, there were maybe 31/2 columns. There were not the same number of rentals opening up, and available rentals are on the decline."

Economics 101 teaches that low supply and high demand leads to rising prices, and the entire central coast has experienced price increases related to the rental shortage. Santa Cruz has been hit fairly lightly. The Center for Real Estate Studies forecasts that apartment rents will have risen only 4.3 percent here during the 18 months ending on June 30.

However, a few local landlords have seen dollar signs in others' desperation. "One of the tenants we rented to last summer came over here to look [for a new place] because he said the owner had raised his rent twice in three months," says Ross. "[The tenant] asked why, and [the landlady] said, 'This is what the market will bear.'

"I don't think that's fair," Ross continues. "I have owners calling and asking, 'Can't we raise the rent?' I say, well, you can, but if you have a good tenant you shouldn't raise it more than once in a year."

Hutchins says he hasn't witnessed much price-gouging here. "It looks to me like rental rates are up maybe 5 percent from last year. In Santa Clara County it's more like 25 percent," he says. "It's really been fairly modest. I have to give landlords a little credit for not gouging when there is a potential opportunity."

But the rental housing problem is not going to go away. According to the local government estimates, the population of Santa Cruz County will grow to 292,400 by the year 2015, a leap of 23 percent from 1993, and UC officials expect the student population to be up 46 percent within a decade. Unless city officials, planners, developers and university officials come together to work out viable housing solutions, Santa Cruz, which already has among the highest home prices in the nation, may ultimately become a community where only the rich can afford to live.

"The city really hasn't made much progress on the growth, and the county planning department seems to be fairly contradictory as far as the creation of more housing," says Brezsny. "It's painful, but the university and its students need to look below the rhetoric, below the smoke and mirrors to how it really works in the community. The idea of environmental protection is great, and the Greenbelt is great. But can you do that to the exclusion of addressing housing needs, or can you fail to address infrastructure issues? The answer is no."

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From the February 20-26, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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