The Student Housing Coalition seeks answers to the vexing questions of affordability.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Coast Life

How two new UCSC student-led groups are trying to tackle the housing crisis 

The Student Housing Coalition held its first meeting last week on the UCSC campus and announced its goals to bring diverse groups together to support solutions for the housing crisis across the Monterey Bay area. A Slug Shelter co-founder told Lookout the group is searching for land where it could potentially set up a mobile unit for 10 to 12 students experiencing homelessness.

As soon as UC Santa Cruz freshman Zennon Ulyate-Crow moved here for school last month, he started meeting with student organizations and leaders in the community about how he could get involved in finding solutions for the housing crisis.

“It’s such an issue that has an effect on literally everything about people’s lives and their trajectories in life,” he said. “Housing is connected to everything.”

He learned about crisis service organizations like the recently formed Slug Shelter, co-founded by T. Conor Kensok and Abbi Cundall. Modeled after student shelters in Los Angeles, the UCSC student-led group is in search of land where it could potentially house 10 to 12 students experiencing homelessness.

Housing Matters, which provides shelter and social services in Santa Cruz, offered to transfer a mobile unit to Slug Shelter if the student organization can pay for its relocation and meet other logistical needs for its transfer. If all goes as planned, Kensok told Lookout they hope to be open by the spring quarter.

Facing rising rents and ever fewer housing options, students in the Monterey Bay area are juggling their academic schedules with the stress of finding and paying for housing. While the university is working to increase its on-campus student bed capacity and provides a variety of housing services, the housing crisis is pushing students to take on the challenge of fixing the problem themselves.

The Student Housing Coalition

Seeing that student and community groups like Slug Shelter were already working to provide much-needed essential services, Ulyate-Crow felt he could contribute to the cause through advocacy.

Through his outreach to different groups and leaders, he came in contact with Emily Ham, executive director of the Santa Cruz County Business Council. Prior to starting her role at the business council, Ham worked as a housing specialist for the Monterey Bay Economic Partnership.

After a pandemic pause, UCSC's Student Housing Coalition is remobilizing.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

She helped create the Student Housing Coalition in spring 2020, but then the pandemic hit. The group’s efforts were largely put on hold until Ham passed the reins on to Ulyate-Crow this fall. Now president of the coalition, Ulyate-Crow is getting the word out about the group.

Just over 15 people, mostly students, attended the group’s first meeting Thursday outside of the Cowell/Stevenson Dining Hall. Ulyate-Crow gave a presentation on the housing crisis locally and took questions from attendees, who also suggested ideas for steps going forward.

One student asked how the long-term sustainability of the group will be ensured as students come and go every quarter. Ulyate-Crow is no stranger to consensus-building. After the Topanga native lost his bid to become the youngest California Democratic Party Assembly District Delegate in February, he brought his change-making fervor to Santa Cruz. Now he’s working to gain support from faculty and staff to make sure the coalition doesn’t lose momentum.

Austin Hall, a UCSC staff member who works as housing coordinator, went to the meeting in hopes of providing some of that support. He first started working with UCSC as a housing coordinator in 2018 and has seen some of the challenges faced by students.

This year, the university is offering single rooms starting at $1,843 per month. While the rates are expensive, they are still cheaper than the average rent in the city of Santa Cruz, which is about $2,762 for a one-bedroom.

And as a member of the community, Hall has been affected personally by the high rents and limited vacancies.

“Housing is unaffordable in Santa Cruz — it’s unfair to students and staff and young people in this community who can’t afford it,” he told Lookout. “It isn’t right, it isn’t fair.”

Zennon Ulyate-Crow
Zennon Ulyate-Crow.

Housing is unaffordable in Santa Cruz, it’s unfair to students and staff and young people in this community who can’t afford it. It isn’t right, it isn’t fair.

In 2017, he paid about $700 for a one-bedroom apartment in Fresno’s arts district; currently, he’s paying almost $1,000 for a room in a seven-bedroom house.

Hall said he was inspired by the students.

“I’m hoping I can collaborate with housing coordinators to discuss this more broadly and build synergy between students and staff, so there’s a greater sense of how these issues are affecting all of us at the same time,” he said.

Ulyate-Crow has been reaching out to other student groups on campus, community organizations and UCSC administrators to support housing solutions.

He encouraged students at the meeting to get registered to vote in Santa Cruz and to talk to their friends about initiatives such as the Yes On Empty Home Tax Santa Cruz. That group is aiming to launch a ballot measure that would tax homeowners in Santa Cruz who live in their homes for fewer than 120 days in a calendar year.

For Ulyate-Crow, the burden of fixing the housing crisis doesn’t fall just on the university, but on everyone.

“I think there’s a really real opportunity for some collaboration between the city and the university, to have a shared responsibility and know that neither one of them is to blame for this crisis,” he said. “It’s really just a whole world of badness and we need to make sure that we work together as a coalition to solve it.”

The Slug Shelter

Kensok, a fifth-year molecular engineering student at UCSC, helped found the Slug Shelter with Cundall after learning about the Bruin Shelter, or Students 4 Students, at UCLA. The Bruin Shelter provides housing for students experiencing homelessness in the Los Angeles area.

Conor Kensok
Conor Kensok.
(Via iGEM 2020)

If the Housing Matters unit is successfully transferred to the students, the Slug Shelter will be completely volunteer-based and operated by students. The shelter will offer dormitory-style living at no cost for 10 to 12 students in the Santa Cruz area who are experiencing homelessness. Kensok said students, depending on their situation, will be able to stay for one academic quarter at a time.

When Kensok thinks about the housing crisis as a whole, 10 to 12 people isn’t a lot of people.

“But when I think about 10 to 15 people with lives that will be totally different had we not done this project, I think it’s worth it,” he told Lookout. “It’s worth all the work.”

Slug Shelter student volunteers are scrambling for a place to put the mobile unit as they must have a location before Housing Matters staff transfer it to them. Kensok said they’re talking with UCSC administrators and community members to find a location, and he hopes the first occupants can move in in the spring.

Students who stay at the shelter will also be provided with a caseworker to help connect them to resources to help find long-term housing.

Scott Hernandez-Jason, a UCSC spokesperson, told Lookout the university’s Slug Support program can help students with a variety of challenges, including those who are struggling to find a place to live.

Housing resources

Contact the Slug Support Team if you are a student needing assistance with housing or other concerns:
Dean of Students Office: 831-459-4446

Slug Shelter

Community Rentals Office
Phone: 831-459-4435

“No UC Santa Cruz student should be without safe and supportive housing, and any student in need should reach out to the Slug Support team,” he wrote via email.

The university houses the highest percentage of its students out of all campuses in the UC system, with just over half of the UCSC student population living in on-campus housing units. This year, about 18,600 students are enrolled and 9,300 are living on-campus.

The university is currently adding more housing at Kresge College in a project that will increase its number of student beds from 368 to 550. The project is also adding student co-ops, study areas and meeting rooms.

“Additionally, Student Housing West, which has been approved and is ready for construction, remains held up in the courts,” Hernandez-Jason wrote. “That project, when built, will create more than 3,000 new beds with a net increase of 2,100 beds.”

UCSC also has a Community Rentals Office to help the campus community search for off-campus housing.

The original version of this story mischaracterized the arrangement between Housing Matters and Slug Shelter.