Grace Stetson as drawn by visiting Boardwalk artist Candy Briones in July 2021.
(Candy Briones / Cali Caricature)

From landing pad to uncertainty in six months: Santa Cruz’s housing market swerved on this reporter again

With the future unclear yet again, will Grace have to return to the endless Craigslist and Facebook searches she long ago came to dread? Come along on our affordability correspondent’s latest quixotic journey through the rental market.

When I started my role at Lookout just six months ago, I didn’t expect the whirlwind of highs and lows to follow. Yes, this sentiment can account for the stories I’ve reported on, the dates I’ve gone on (shoutout to New Bohemia), and the bike paths I’ve taken — but mostly, it relates to my housing.

You see, when I first learned that I was moving to Santa Cruz, I got right to work in searching for a good spot to lay my head. That ultimately led to many Craigslist ads, Facebook messages, and — at a certain point — resignation. I wasn’t going to find all that I had originally hoped for, but could I at least find a place I enjoyed, that didn’t entirely break the bank?

If you read my first piece, you might remember that I ended up living with two roommates on the Westside. Unfortunately — as it seems with many housing situations around town — that fell through pretty quickly. And instead, I drove to our downtown office daily from my parents’ home in Sunnyvale for two weeks as I continued my search, spending every moment I could outside of reporting and commuting to find my place.

Grace headshot
The author.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Then, there it was: a Craigslist ad for a room for $1,150, all utilities included, in a three-bedroom, 2.5-bath house in Live Oak, with two female roommates and two cats. I immediately wrote to the poster, and met with her and the other roommate the next afternoon.

A few days later — before heading back over the hill for a late birthday dinner with my parents — I signed a month-to-month lease with the potential to extend. After a hectic search, with over 20 different listings and messages, I had found my place.

Now, six months later, it turns out that might not continue to be the case — and all for a very sensible reason. But why, my goodness, is it so hard to find and keep housing?

Living in Live Oak

When I was planning on moving to the Westside, I was starting to get semi-familiar with what I could enjoy in the area: Humble Sea, Companion Bakeshop and Natural Bridges, oh my! Yet as soon as it became clear I was going to be moving to Live Oak instead, I barely had a moment to figure out what the area had to offer.

As I got my bearings in the area outside of work hours, I found lots to love about my new neighborhood. My new gym was just a half-mile walk from my front door, I could easily bike or walk to the Windmill Cafe or Cat & Cloud for some grub, and my new home-base hiking spot, the Forest of Nisene Marks State Park, was an easy car ride away.

Living in this new neighborhood reminded me of all the reasons I came to love my old stomping grounds — finding the businesses, the joys and the friendly faces that made you want to get out of bed in the morning.

Plus, my roommates are utterly delightful — though they are too humble to admit it. As corny as it might sound, we have spent many a night curling up on the couch, the cats perched nearby, binge-watching whatever’s playing on HGTV or showing each other classic rom-coms (who doesn’t love “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” right?).

Outside of our TV habits, of course, there are so many other things to love: our work ethics in our respective fields, our dry but biting humor, and our collective love of all things fitness. Hell, when one told me she had done two-and-a-half Ironmans, I nearly fell off my seat. How did I get so lucky to have such kick-ass roommates, and have them accept me into this charming home?

Of course, there’s always the possibility of adding someone else into the mix — and that came in the form of a serious boyfriend. Now, just six months after I moved in, an engagement has slightly changed the dynamics of the house; one of my roommates is also the owner of the home. My other roommate and I wondered if we would have to move, and what we would find if we did. What could we find in the market that was similar to this — or would we have to go at our searches alone?

Comparing notes with others

The struggles I have dealt with are similar to what some of my coworkers and Santa Cruz connections have dealt with.

As you the reader might have noticed, Lookout has expanded since I started last summer, and that means some of the other new employees have dove into the Santa Cruz housing market for the first time. Us newbies have discussed our searches extensively, along with our stresses — paying upward of $1,400 for a room in a house with loud roommates, or living in a studio without a dishwasher, full fridge or on-site laundry.

It can be difficult to fully settle into a community when you’re accepting setbacks in your living space — and even more so when the price tag isn’t as friendly as you’d hoped.

Sources have shared their frustrations with the housing market as well. There are those who commute to Santa Cruz jobs every day from Watsonville or Davenport, unable to find a closer affordable option. There are the university students, packed in two or three per bedroom, attempting to finish their studies without going broke in the process.

There are those who live on farms in cramped quarters for cheaper-than-average rents, in exchange for working with the owner on the property. There are the CZU survivors who are struggling to rebuild their homes even as they pay high rents and mortgages at the same time.

There is even one who lives on a boat, having struggled with the unaffordable housing market for years — all while he runs a nonprofit providing showers and other services for the unhoused.

The issue of unaffordability within the market is not unique, nor is it easily fixable in a place like Santa Cruz. The ability to build up — let alone build affordable housing — has not been met with much positivity, leading to long wait times for new developments to break ground and even more strain on finding housing here and now.

That has led to even higher regional housing needs allocation numbers, with a December presentation to the city council showing a plan to develop 3,400 more units of housing for the next development cycle, beginning in 2024.

With the push and pull of all of these different facets of even getting a project approved — let alone finding a place once the affordable options are available — it can lead even the most Type A of people (cough, cough) to feel like they’re spiraling out of control. What options are there — and how can I plan for the future if there doesn’t seem to be a tangible solution?

What’s the future look like?

While it’s been less than six months since I started my role and moved into my current home, it has been a whirlwind. With the arrangement I signed into, you never know when something unexpected is going to happen: a college acceptance, a job offer, a sudden move, a death or an engagement.

As soon as I could, I wanted to make sure we could figure out a solution to what was (a) an exciting next step for our one roommate and (b) an uncertain next step for our powerful female (minus one of the cats) household. We met and discussed options — would she sell the house? Would her new fiancé move in? What would happen with the cats?

We wanted to hammer everything out as quickly as possible, since — as we all know — life can turn on a dime. The homeowner assured my other roommate and me that we would have a home — this home. We all chatted about our gratitude for each other, our plans on finding her replacement for her room, and how we could all spend time together before the move officially happened.

I’ll admit, I did tear up thinking of what could change in the coming months — but I also wanted to make sure we could enjoy some girl time before a new roomie was added to the mix, and life has to continue on.

With all of the “suddenness” of the past few days, it’s also been a semi-calm realization to know that I have had such a genuinely amazing experience of living with these two incredible women here in Santa Cruz, and I could not have asked for more. But, as we have all gotten older and more accustomed to what living in Santa Cruz is like, I think we can all appreciate the connections we made along the way — even if the future still doesn’t seem all too clear.

For now, I can only hope to continue on the work I’ve done with this incredible Lookout team, and continue to get to the heart of the affordability issues surrounding our collective housing needs. Stay tuned for more to come — and plan your HGTV marathons with your roommates, or family members, as soon as you can.