Grace Stetson as drawn by visiting Boardwalk artist Candy Briones on Tuesday afternoon.
(Candy Briones / Cali Caricature)
Coast Life

What happens when your new affordability reporter isn’t finding anything affordable? Grace’s story

Lookout’s new affordability and equity reporter, Grace Stetson, has lived in Seattle, Chicago, Brooklyn and the Bay Area. She had never seen the Santa Cruz housing market firsthand until she had to deal with it herself — somehow she survived to tell. Even if just barely.

Truthfully, I hate moving. It’s an exhausting process that becomes more arduous each time you do it.

I should know — I’ve moved 11 times among five different cities in the past eight years. Yes, 11! And they’ve been within challenging marketplaces: Seattle, Chicago, New York. That number also doesn’t include my return home to Sunnyvale during the pandemic, or my forthcoming move to Santa Cruz.

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Hi, I’m Grace Stetson, Lookout’s new affordability correspondent, and I’ll be writing stories on topics such as housing, small business, gentrification and homelessness. How better — and instructive — than to kick off this coverage with insights from my very own Santa Cruz housing search, and how it compared to each of the others.

Spoiler alert: Even though I’m good at finding deals, this particular search in the Santa Cruz marketplace was the most difficult I’ve ever experienced.

Sunnyvale, born & bred


I am very fortunate to be a Bay Area native — or, rather, I learned how fortunate I am as I’ve moved around the country.

When I was a teenager, I hoped to attend a faraway college in a city completely different from Sunnyvale. My South Bay-native parents were confused. The Bay Area had it all — the weather, the higher education, the rising tech scene.

But I was looking for metropolitan adventures, which is how I first landed in the Pacific Northwest at Seattle University, a small Jesuit school mere blocks from the happening Capitol Hill neighborhood.

Housing search No. 1: Seattle

Seattle
(Via Pixabay)

From 2011 to 2015, Seattle taught me a lot, and I started to see just how inexpensive housing could be — and how these prices contrasted to the Bay Area. (Mind you, I was lucky to be there before the Amazon boom really took off.)

After living in the dorms, I moved among four apartments over two years, all within a five-block diameter. Being close to the university, the pricing reflected the location but never felt overwhelming. For three apartments, I paid under $750 per month, including six months at a micro-apartment; the most I paid was $1,050 for a room in a condominium.

Post-college, I wanted to save for graduate school, and didn’t see a realistic option with Seattle’s rising costs. I opted to move back to my childhood bedroom and spend some time working and saving. That’s when I began to realize just how difficult saving money would be as a renter in an already red-hot Bay Area housing market.

Back to Sunnyvale


Thankfully I had the live-at-home option so many others don’t. When I returned home in June of 2015, I was able to take a job making $15 per hour at a summer camp, and later joined a small office at Stanford University that paid $20.19 hourly. At that time, the average rent for a Sunnyvale one-bedroom was $2,250.

If I didn’t want to exceed 30% of my income on rent, based on the city of Sunnyvale’s recommendations via the 2015-2023 Housing Element report, I would have had to make $44.23 per hour.

Fortunately, my plan was to go to graduate school elsewhere, and my dream program was at Northwestern University. I was accepted to the master’s program off the waitlist, which meant I quickly had to move 2,160 miles while searching for apartments from California.

Housing search No. 2: Chicago

Chicago
(Via Pixabay)

Family friends in Chicago offered feedback and guidance during my search. I looked in the Rogers Park and Edgewater neighborhoods, and found a studio off the L’s Red line with easy access to Evanston and downtown. For a 300-square-foot studio in a large and secure building, I signed a lease to pay $735 monthly in 2017.

Compared to Seattle, Chicago felt much more spread out, with my courses held in the Loop and my after-work activities spanning from Pilsen to Evanston. When I renewed for an additional month at the end of the yearlong master’s program, the leasing company charged $20 extra for the update — a 3% increase.

But that increase was nothing compared to what I would soon see in Brooklyn, New York.

Housing search No. 3: Brooklyn

Brooklyn
(Via Pixabay)

After completing my master’s, I moved to NYC, hoping to network and figure it out from there. At this point, I was subletting in Bed-Stuy for three months, where I paid $950 a month — a small price to pay for access to all of these opportunities. Yet, I needed to find other housing options and determine what that meant related to salary.

By chance, friends of friends from Seattle were searching for Brooklyn apartments. With my future roommate, we searched high and wide for available apartments within our desired budget — under $2,800 per month — and for a third roommate to alleviate the costs. I ultimately looked at 15 apartments total, and we chose an apartment in the East Flatbush neighborhood.

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The following summer, I got my first real media job at NBC, where the position still didn’t pay a real living wage, particularly for NYC: $17 per hour. When I asked for a $20 hourly wage, my soon-to-be supervisor laughed: “This is what we’ve paid for the last five years — why would we change that now?”

So there I was during a pandemic, in Brooklyn, working for peanuts and pinching pennies. Even as I worked upward of 70 hours per week, I brought in only about $2,600 to $2,800 per month; I was paying over 33% on rent.

As my contract end date and my lease renewal came up, I decided to quit the job and move back home once again. Within a month, I sold all of my things and helped my roommate find a replacement.

Back to roots — and exploring the Santa Cruz market


Returning to California was not the plan — though I am incredibly grateful that I did and a new opportunity arose.

I knew from my own experiences that I wanted to refocus my reporting on housing rights, affordability and gentrification. Over the coming months, I freelanced with many Bay Area publications — including Lookout Santa Cruz — on the increased concerns of affordability as illuminated by the pandemic.

When I received an offer for this position from Founder and CEO Ken Doctor, I dove into the housing search once again. After living in my childhood bedroom for 10 months, I had saved some money from full-time freelancing and content strategy work — but what could I afford in Santa Cruz County?

I started my search with the following criteria:

  1. The rent shouldn’t exceed $1,200 per month.
  2. I want at maximum two roommates.
  3. My work commute should be under 20 minutes.
  4. Preferably, I want to live in a one-bedroom.

I began with Trulia, Apartments.com, and Zillow, and quickly realized that I wouldn’t meet my goals. Most studios asked for $1,600 a month to start; to even rent a room in some areas, there was a $1,400-plus price tag. Some homes offered reduced rents in exchange for help, such as meal prep, garden care, or dog walking — but still averaged $1,100-$1,400.

I again checked the stats; currently, the average rent in Santa Cruz for a one-bedroom is $2,665, a staggering 16% increase from 2020.

Ultimately, I turned to Craigslist. I reached out to more than 10 different listings; one day, I spoke to three separate people about rooms ranging from $900 to $1,200 monthly, but none felt right.

An aerial view of the Westside.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

I felt pressured with time and cost, and ended up renting an Airbnb for my first week of work — which, in itself, runs nearly $900 for five nights. The thought actually crossed my mind: Should I finally accept my fate and realize that this affordability reporter might not actually be able to find affordable housing?

With just two days to go, a possibility came up — a room in a Westside house with two roommates and a huge backyard, all for $950 a month.

Should I finally accept my fate and realize that this affordability reporter might not actually be able to find affordable housing?

After orientation meetings with Lookout staff downtown last week, I rushed over to the Westside to meet the roommates during their lunch break and felt a huge sense of relief. This could work — and they apparently had felt the same way, messaging me 20 minutes later to offer me the room.

I am so grateful to my parents and my new team for easing my stress during this search, and for providing guidance on where and what to look for.

Yet, this was the most strenuous housing search I have ever had — and that’s with a background in housing reporting and bargain hunting. What does this mean for other renters, potentially during their first-ever search?

I’m excited to delve into these issues with you, the Santa Cruz community, and hope you will reach out with your questions, concerns and insights. We’re all in this affordability mess together and the more we can understand it from all angles, the better off we will all be.

Send Grace an email at grace@lookoutlocal.com.

RENTAL-SHOPPING TIPS

Five things to keep in mind on your journey


  1. Do your research: Every good housing search starts with research. Based on your criteria, this part of the process shouldn’t take too long. Evaluate what your maximum price point is, needed amenities, and distance to points of interest.
  2. Location isn’t everything: While it may be nice to live in the heart of the action, that could get old quickly. Instead, look toward the neighborhoods just outside of where you need to be (i.e., a 20-30 minute commute instead of a 5-minute commute).
  3. You don’t need a broker: You may think hiring a professional will help with the process, and that could be true. But remember: they will require a fee as well, which will require a larger budget up front. Use your own research skills first and work through your search from there.
  4. Be ready to be flexible: You don’t want to be too specific in your needs (i.e., must be 450-square-feet overlooking the Pacific Ocean and be fully furnished). Instead, figure out your top priorities (namely, price and accessibility) first.
  5. Don’t be discouraged: The search can be exhausting and sometimes demoralizing, but ultimately, your positive attitude will help you find the best spot. Sure, it could be a bit of a longer commute, or it may not have all the amenities you planned, but you will find a place where you can make it work.
    — Grace Stetson