UC Santa Cruz students wear masks as in-person classes resume on campus
Students on campus at UC Santa Cruz.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Santa Cruz

‘Factually accurate, and untrue’: Was Santa Cruz really the second-fastest-growing city in the U.S. last year?

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the population of the city of Santa Cruz grew by nearly 7,000 in a single year, or a growth rate of 12.5% between July 2021 and July 2022. But one researcher says all of the growth very likely came from a rebound in Santa Cruz’s student population when college and university campuses reopened after pandemic closures.

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For the past several weeks, Santa Cruz residents have been reading headlines declaring that Santa Cruz was the second-fastest growing city in the country last year.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the population of the city of Santa Cruz grew by nearly 7,000 in a single year, or a growth rate of 12.5% between July 2021 and July 2022. That made it second only to Georgetown, Texas, which grew by 14.4% — the fastest-growing city in the U.S. with a population above 50,000.

How could a city with a housing affordability crisis — the country’s most expensive rental market and exceptionally low inventory — as well as a declining K-12 student population have experienced so much growth last year?

The simple answer is: It didn’t. In fact, the city’s non-student population appears to be shrinking.

Researcher Hans Johnson of the Public Policy Institute of California points out that all of the population growth last year very likely came from a rebound in Santa Cruz’s student population when college and university campuses reopened after pandemic closures.

Johnson used data from the state’s Department of Finance to illustrate this point. Those data show that the number of people living in what the agency calls “group quarters” dropped by 8,500 in 2021 before growing by more than 8,000 in 2022.

The agency defines group quarters as group living arrangements other than residential housing, such as nursing homes, correctional facilities, transitional housing for the homeless, military barracks — and college and university dorms.

UC Santa Cruz spokesperson Scott Hernandez-Jason said the on-campus population went from more than 9,000 to just 1,500 between 2020 and 2021. He added that the school typically has enough housing for 9,300 students.

Meanwhile, the rest of the city — those living in households, not group quarters — declined by 1,272, or 2.5%, between April 2020 and January 2023.

While not everyone counted in the group quarters category is a student, Johnson said the vast majority of the population changes over the past few years have come from college and university dorms.

In March 2020, as the pandemic took hold, colleges and universities moved to remote instruction, emptying dorms. While the vast majority of students were already gone by census day, April 1, 2020, the U.S. Census Bureau opted to count students among those living in group quarters, as if they were still living in their dorms.

Hernandez-Jason said the university asked students to leave the dorms to return to their permanent residences March 10, 2020. UCSC continued to provide housing for students who “had nowhere else to live or were living somewhere not conducive to learning.”

Students didn’t return to campus until the fall of 2021, so they weren’t counted among the “group quarters” cohort for April 2021. But they were for the 2022 census counts, which took place on April 1 of that year.

“In terms of this huge drop, and then the huge increase — college dormitories were the only ones of those kinds of facilities that emptied out as colleges went to fully remote instruction,” Johnson said.

An empty pathway winds uphill at UC Santa Cruz, where officials plan to continue with mostly remote coursework through
An empty pathway winds through the UC Santa Cruz campus.

As for the city’s non-student population shrinking, Johnson said cities across California are experiencing similar drops in their household populations as the number of people living in each household declines. There are fewer children and there are more people living alone, despite Santa Cruz slightly increasing the number of housing units, according to Johnson.

While there is nothing incorrect about the census data, characterizing Santa Cruz as the second-fastest-growing city in the country “gives people a very misleading picture,” Johnson said.

“When most people hear something like that, they’re thinking, ‘A lot of people are moving here, we’re building housing, we’re really expanding,’” he said. “And it’s a very different picture from the reality — which was, a whole bunch of dorms closed, the university went to online instruction and then it opened back up again and a bunch of students came back. It wasn’t anything other than that.”

Santa Cruz Mayor Fred Keeley called the census data “factually accurate, and untrue” as the city isn’t the fastest-growing “or anything close to it.”

“There is not some building, population, housing boom going on in Santa Cruz County, or in the city of Santa Cruz,” Keeley added. “But there’s a lot of new development that is going to be taking place — it’s already underway and going to be underway for the next five to seven years.”

Other cities that also have large student populations, including those with University of California campuses, saw similar drops and increases in population because of the pandemic. The reason that Santa Cruz’s population swings seem so large is that students make up a much larger proportion of the city’s total population than the other cities.

For example, the city of Berkeley saw the number of people living in group quarters jump by nearly 6,000 between 2021 and 2022 as students returned to campus after remote instruction. But Berkeley has a total population of 125,000, roughly twice the size of Santa Cruz, meaning changes in the student population have less of an impact on the city’s growth rate.

“Berkeley has a lot of different living arrangements, and so does Santa Cruz,” said Johnson. “But Berkeley has a lot of apartment buildings and has their co-op system, which is private and separate from the dorms, and the co-ops did not close during the pandemic, whereas the dorms mostly did.”

Berkeley Student Cooperative houses more than 1,300 students in 17 houses and three apartments.

Santa Cruz County Chamber of Commerce CEO Casey Beyer says data showing the long-term exodus of people out of California, and coastal areas like Santa Cruz, emphasizes the need to bring more affordable housing options to the region.

He’s been watching census data closely with a focus on how to keep students and young workers in the area. He recalls how the loss of students during the pandemic hurt downtown businesses that lost that pool of employment.

“If [students] can stay here and contribute, the community grows exponentially in a beneficial way,” Beyer said. “If they can’t stay, then we’re losing our brain power to some other community. That hits home with what the chamber is about — economic prosperity.”

Johnson points to the Southern California city of Menifee, which had the fastest growth rate in its household population for a city with a population of at least 100,000.

Menifee has more affordable housing and is within commuting distance of larger metropolitan areas, likely contributing to its growth, he said.