The tremors of the Santa Cruz housing market: Why our affordability reporter is on the hunt yet again

Grace Stetson moves boxes from her unit at a storage facility.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Just days before signing a long-term lease, this housing reporter lost her rental and had to scrounge for a new home. Follow Grace on her ongoing journey to find an affordable place to live in Santa Cruz.

In January, I got a new tattoo (sorry Mom and Dad), which says: “Mostly a fool.” I thought it was a fun quip, a way to remind myself of something deeper: how little I know and how much I have to learn. That’s part of the reason I became a journalist.

As it turns out, the quote — in black script across my right forearm — also accurately captures the naivete I displayed in my search for a rental in Santa Cruz.

My mistake? I trusted my landlord with a verbal, not a written agreement. Even in getting the verbal confirmation multiple times — six times, between me and my roommate — I learned that nothing is sure. Not in a housing market like Santa Cruz.

The result? Two days before we thought we were going to sign a year-long lease on our Live Oak rental, we learned we were without a home yet again. That was Jan. 30 (less than a week after my last piece on my housing search came out).

This isn’t the first time I’ve faced an unexpected housing challenge, let alone felt the panic of a quick turnaround time to find a new place. Yet, it was my second attempt in just over six months.

And, in those months, the market kept shifting — not in a good way. From March 2021 until March 2022, the average studio went up by 112%.

As a non-tech worker in an area with prices unattainable to anyone with a non-Silicon Valley salary, what was I to do?

The search is on

Housing searches are lonely and often, demoralizing. You perpetually ask yourself if this new place feels like home, if it can possibly be your safe space. If you fill it with personal belongings, will it feel more like yours? Each time you lose out, you feel a bit more rootless and a bit less sure of yourself and your place in the world.
I am so grateful to have my amazing roommate, whose companionship and loyalty made me feel less alone this time around. She also made me feel less dumb; she, too, had been blindsided by our landlord.

We love living together. That’s rare, as we both know from our combined 20 years of living in rentals across the country. We often start our day sharing funny tweets as we eat breakfast together. After our hectic work days, we end up on the couch, binge-watching HGTV shows. We have a rhythm together that provides balance and a sense of belonging, and we don’t want to lose it.

She has lived in Santa Cruz nine years and has moved eight times. The housing market has nearly broken her. As a staff member at UCSC, she has had nine years of job stability and a position she enjoys. But, with this new need to move, she toyed with the idea of transferring to UCLA, where she thought she could find a place to live in Los Angeles on her university salary.

We assessed what we could afford — calculating 30% of each of our salaries for rent. Together, at our old place, we had paid $2,150 per month for rent. In the Santa Cruz market — let alone in the neighborhoods we hoped find housing in — we would need much more to get something new.

We began looking at three-bedrooms, believing we could snag a deal and another roommate.

The people we met on our search — mostly single professional women in their 20s to 50s — told us astonishing and unsettling stories. One woman had paid $1,600 a month to live in a “converted studio,” which turned out to be a dilapidated chicken coop. Another was a CZU fire survivor, who wanted a central place to sleep as she pieced together work from Watsonville to Scotts Valley.

Our situation was just one of the many difficulties that renters in the area faced, and we felt lucky to have each other to lean on, as so many others were going at their searches alone.

In some locations, we found offers for two single rooms in apartments or houses that could have worked, but the prices were too high. At one, where we agreed it could be a contender at just $1,100 per room, we soon realized that the homeowner had purchased the home back in 1980 for just $27,000 — and was still charging $3,900 a month.

Holding onto community

As I mentioned in my last piece, I had grown fond of my space in Live Oak, and I was struggling to let go of the neighborhood. From the crossing guard and walkers I saw during my morning runs to the business owners who always had a friendly smile, I didn’t want to give up all that I had fallen in love with about this special slice of Santa Cruz.

I had only been in the home for six months, yet had my “people” and my “places” that I didn’t want to just give up.

By March, my landlord became more erratic and hostile and I knew I had to leave — even if it meant finding housing alone. In early March, I booked a storage unit in Capitola to hold my belongings as I continued searching for a room, or even a converted van.

As I pored through the Facebook group Santa Cruz Housing — with an astonishing 25,000-plus members, many of whom are also searching for affordable homes — I suddenly came across a listing that looked possible. A room in Pleasure Point, for just two months and a little higher rent, but it was doable as I searched for longer-term solutions with my roommate. I quickly messaged the poster and learned I had a common connection; I’d be sharing the space with another journalist.

Just a few days later, I met with the roommates and saw the space, and shortly thereafter confirmed I had a place to live.

As a housing and affordability reporter, I have the knowledge, background and perseverance to find a place to live, even if only temporarily. Not everyone in this city or county has those skills. And yet, even with that background, I still searched late into the night, took time off work and felt a great deal of anxiety of finding a place to rest my head.

What does that mean for the rest of our county’s renters?

My situation didn’t end with this rental. My housing saga continues.

Stay tuned. I’m hoping for a happy ending.

Grace Stetson at a storage facility
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

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