Students walk through a quiet Quarry Plaza at UC Santa Cruz in March.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
UC Santa Cruz

Some UCSC students struggle to return to campus as affordable, available housing remains elusive

With UCSC resuming classes for the 2021-2022 school year in a few weeks, many incoming and returning students are finding themselves at a loss for housing options. As one returning student shared, “I can’t focus on my job, I can’t sleep — this is completely awful.”

Keller Lahr was excited to move to the area from Sacramento when he was accepted into UC Santa Cruz as a transfer student in February 2020.

But when the pandemic hit and canceled his in-person junior year, he was forced to stay in the state capital. Despite the campus opening in a few weeks, Lahr said he’s not sure he’ll ever be able to live in Santa Cruz, given how hard it is to find a place to live.
For a university that he feels cares about its students, he’s not sure its biggest issue is being addressed well enough: “With the greatest struggle being housing, they don’t seem to offer that much.”

Though UCSC provides on-campus housing to a higher percentage of students than any other school in the system, the school’s longstanding struggle to meet demand has been compounded by the market effects of COVID — with workers being able to live where they want — and the CZU fire — which destroyed nearly 1,000 homes and displaced thousands of people.

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When the fall quarter begins on Sept. 23, 68% of courses will offered as in-person instruction only. Suddenly, a campus that can only house half of its students, and has a high percentage of students who don’t hail from the county, is bringing them back into one of the most difficult rental markets in the country.

Despite a years-long effort to build more on-campus housing with the controversial and lawsuit-stalled Student Housing West development, UCSC will continue to face the challenge of an increasingly expensive rental market. And that will put a continuing strain on students left to fight for limited on-campus housing options, or struggle to locate feasible off-campus options via Facebook, Craigslist or word-of-mouth.

As senior Jillian Allen told Lookout via email of the scramble for an off-campus place to live: “I can’t focus on my job, I can’t sleep — this is completely awful.”

students
With UC Santa Cruz returning to predominantly in-person learning this fall, activities like Downtown Day will provide meaningful ways for students to reconnect to the campus and the community.
(UC Santa Cruz)

‘I genuinely don’t know what to do’

Allen, from Yuba City, posted to a Facebook Housing group last week, “I’ve been looking since March and have had no luck — I genuinely don’t know what to do if I can’t find housing. I can’t afford to take the quarter off and my major isn’t offering online classes.”

Allen, a Literature major who works on campus at The Dickens Project, has the added difficulty of needing to also house her emotional support cat, Ziggy. Previously, she lived in an on-campus triple room for $1,100, split a living room with another student for $612 a month, and is currently in a private room in a home for $850 per month, but she has to move because the landlord is converting to a family home.

Now, as she searches for single rooms, most options range from $1,700 to $1,800 — price points Allen cannot afford.

As of Aug. 25, she has reached out about nearly 60 potential options and heard back on only six; she has had to resort to giving her cat to a friend, and is now looking at doubles — a single room split between two persons, with two mattresses — as a potential option.

“I’ve seen a lot of landlords that have ridiculous specifications, such as you can only shower every three days or only cook on Sundays,” she said. “And those are still going for $1,200 — I can’t afford that with my job.”

Allen’s current landlord has agreed that she can stay until she finds a new home, but: “It’s uncomfortable being in a place where you know you’re not wanted.”

Unexpectedly ‘expensive,’ ‘competitive’

Graduate students like Florencia Vilches deal with similar pressures, even with department support. Vilches — a Fulbright scholar and second-year graduate student researching marine mammals — was searching for housing from her native Argentina during the pandemic.

“At my orientation day, we were told that about 55% of our stipend should go to housing, so I knew it was going to be really expensive and highly competitive,” she said. “But I didn’t realize back then how expensive or competitive it would be at all.”

Vilches asked her graduate student mentor for help as she searched, given as she has no rental history or credit score she can point to given her international student status. Moving to the area during the spring quarter also aligned with the start of the tourist season, adding further pressure to the market.

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She ultimately found an Airbnb for six days and rushed to find a longer-term room. Looking back, she thinks the best option would have been to enroll in on-campus housing months ahead of her move.

“It’s really hard to know how hard this market is if you’re not actually here,” she said.

The university’s Campus Housing office acknowledges the issue and has tried to offer resources through its SLUG Support program. But school officials note the pandemic has taken a tough situation and just made it worse.

UCSC spokesperson Scott Hernandez-Jason said the university could not give any housing guarantees, as it has in the past for some students, because of the uncertainties caused by the pandemic. Instead, he said the plan was to prioritize certain student groups.

“In developing our plans for fall 2021, we prioritized first-year students and transfer students and were also able to provide on-campus housing to all of the second-year students who requested housing during the priority period,” he said.

Hernandez-Jason added there are “several hundred” students currently wait-listed for campus housing, with Campus Housing providing resources for off-campus options. He pointed to additional housing projects, such as Student Housing West, which has continued to face legal challenges.

“Despite the opposition, we will continue to advocate for this important housing project for our current students,” he said. “Students should try to remain optimistic and continue to network with peers and check the listings.”

Hands tied countywide

Jenny Panetta, executive director of the Housing Authority of the County of Santa Cruz, has had a front-row view of the confluence of high demand and low volume. Their office doesn’t typically work with students directly, but Panetta acknowledges students are experiencing similar issues to other low-income community members.

“Rents are up and supply is down,” she said. “I hope students are making use of the resources offered through the school itself.”

While UC Santa Barbara’s chancellor recently took the unusual step of addressing their student housing crisis by asking professors to open their homes to students, no such initiatives have come forth in Santa Cruz yet.

Hernandez-Jason referred to a few grant options for undergraduate and graduate students through SLUG Support, ranging from $1,000 to $1,500. But students in a bind like Allen feel like there should be some bigger solutions.

“The university has put out nothing about what our options are if we can’t find housing,” Allen said. “No help to try to give us any options or anything.”

For Allen’s program, the department recently changed some courses from in-person to remote instruction, which could be the result of the housing crisis, the pandemic, or both. Lahr, the incoming senior from Sacramento, hopes the entire university will follow suit.

“I feel like if UCSC was to offer more virtual options, that would help to solve the problem,” Lahr said.

Even if the school were to go remote for the fall, Allen is still concerned that the university may switch back to fully in-person classes in the winter or spring quarters, leading to another difficult housing search for students.

Vilches said she hopes the university, and local government, will take this crisis into account and work to regulate housing prices for students.

“This could jeopardize students’ academic capabilities when they’re constrained by the crazy amount of rent,” Vilches said. “The housing costs are so exceptional here — maybe the university should also spend an exceptionally high amount toward student housing.”