Erin Blackwolf is a veterinary technician with two kids, two cats and a dog living in a 280-square-foot rental in Felton that costs $1,400 a month.
Since November, Blackwolf, 41, who is divorced, has been looking for a two-bedroom rental for $1,800 but landlords are wary of pets.
“I’m not willing to let my best friends go,” she said.
She looked on Craigslist, where she found scams. She posted on Facebook, trying to team up with another family, but found landlords uninterested.
Rentals are less expensive in Corralitos and Watsonville but that would put her in freeway traffic three hours a day. She makes too much money to qualify for food stamps, working four jobs, including one with a mobile veterinary orthopedic surgeon, and pet-sitting to support her family.
She swings between pessimism and optimism.
“I feel trapped,” she said. “I can’t afford to be here. I can’t move.”
Still, she hasn’t given up, saying, “I’m going to find somebody who will give a chance.”
She is not alone.
Every day, new posts appear on Santa Cruz County and SLV Rental Listings, which has more than 6,300 members, and Santa Cruz Housing, which has 6,500 members, as people look for a rental they can afford.
RENTS OUTPACE WAGES
The economic recovery in the county after the 2009 recession was slow and home building still lags.
Last year, 499 building permits for housing were issued in the county, compared to 1,042 permits in 2007, according to the Real Estate Center at Texas A&M University, which tracks the industry nationwide.
Meanwhile, rents have soared.
Last August, the Zillow Rent Index for Santa Cruz County was $2,914, growing an average of 9.5 percent a year, up from $2,106 in August 2012.
The Zillow Rent Index covers all rental housing types and is the midpoint of what’s available.
Rising rents mean renters have less to spend on food, gasoline and discretionary items such as clothes, dining out and entertainment.
Wages have not kept pace.
In 2016, the average wage in Santa Cruz County was $913 a week, a gain of 1.7 percent a year on average from $855 in 2012.
Affordable, using the federal government definition, is paying no more than 30 percent of income for rent. Nearly half of California’s households could not afford the cost of housing, a 2016 McKinsey report using that definition found.
In Santa Cruz County, housing is unaffordable to 57 percent of households. Even households earning $79,600, which is 119 percent of area median income, are squeezed.
August is the time of year when juniors and seniors at UC Santa Cruz and new students enrolling at Five Branches University to study traditional Chinese medicine are hunting for housing.
UCSC’s incoming undergraduate class size of 5,360 is about the same as last year, when 5,354 new undergraduates arrived, according to campus spokesman Scott Jason-Hernandez.
He said more returning students wanted campus housing, with 498 applications filed during the priority window, a 9 percent increase, and 1,947 students took a renter’s workshop from UCSC, the same as a year ago.
The campus has 9,286 bed spaces, but no new ones this year, having maximized what could be added via densification.
About 75 bed spaces are not available due to the Crown College renovation, which will add 22 bed spaces when complete in September 2020.
The next big addition will be Student Housing West, which could open in 2020 and add 3,000 new beds by 2022 for juniors and seniors, student families and graduate students.
Santa Cruz has more vacation rentals than previous years, judging from the listings on Airbnb.com.
This year, renters report new owners are taking charge, remodeling and raising rent or sometimes selling their properties.
Mitch Mott, 44, who works at Grey Bears in Santa Cruz, is looking for a new rental after a new owner bought Hillside Terrace Apartments. He had lived at the 20-unit complex in Scotts Valley for more than 12 years.
“I always paid the rent on time,” Mott said. “I was a good neighbor.”
His rent was $600. The new owners raised it to $950 a month.
On June 7, he was given a 60-day notice to move out. The new owner wanted to do renovations.
Santa Cruz Pacific Properties, a unit of Walnut Creek-based Rutherford Investments, bought the property in December for an undisclosed price. The complex is assessed at $3.5 million. Rent at a remodeled unit is $1,350 a month.
“We bought the properties from an owner who invested very little to repair and maintain them over a long period of time,” said John Hanoumis, who provided a statement on behalf of Santa Cruz Pacific Properties. “They had significant deferred maintenance, termite damage and other issues that probably resulted in them being let at less than the market. We are fixing the buildings. We invest in our properties for the long term and want our tenants to have a safer and better place to live.”
When the property changes hands, reassessment and higher property taxes follow, which has raised operating costs “significantly,” according to the owner’s statement.
Mott, who graduated from San Lorenzo Valley High School, is staying with a friend until the end of the month. His rental search has been frustrating.
Paying $1,200 for one bedroom in Bonny Doon is too much, he said, and living in Boulder Creek by the country club would be an hour commute.
“I’d risk not being able to get to work or get home,” he said.
Listings on apartments.com were outdated, and one listing in Santa Cruz required applicants to come in between 1 and 1:30 p.m. Friday, conflicting with his work hours.
“Maybe students could do that,” Mott said. “Students are supported by their parents. I can’t compete with that. I make $12 an hour.”
Carol Gomez, 46, who works in insurance, tells a similar story. She and her husband Jose, a Soquel High alum working at Central Home Supply, rented at 875 30th Ave. for 10 years.
Then a new owner came and gave them move-out notices. The family was paying $1,520 a month for a two-bedroom, one-and-a-half bath unit with no garage and no storage.
“It’s $2,800 now,” said Gomez. “We couldn’t afford it. We had to move in with in-laws.”
She feels lucky their 9-year-old won’t have to change schools but she’s frustrated.
“We work decent jobs,” she said. “We know we’re not the only ones. It’s sad.”
Satya Orion, 65, a healing therapist, wants to make Santa Cruz County her home base.
She lived in a Zen community here from 2001 to 2012 and spent five years traveling after the Zen Center closed.
She got a temporary rental in Bonny Doon and opened her healing practice at 501 Mission St. in Santa Cruz, but her rental will end in October.
She said she has “steady income” and “great references” but found nothing suitable.
“Suddenly the only rentals on Craigslist are doubles and triples for students, sublets or room shares that begin at $1,000 a month,” she said. “Today I saw a room in Boulder Creek in a house, at the top of the stairs without even four walls, advertised for $1,200. Many places have no kitchens or outdoor showers.”
She said she sees two big reasons for what’s happened: UC Santa Cruz adding more students but not enough housing and property owners taking advantage of the situation.
“I’m wondering if I will be able to stay here,” she said. “Santa Cruz has always felt like home to me, and to have to leave would feel very sad.”
The Zillow rent index shows how rents have increased over time in Santa Cruz County.
The index covers multifamily, single-family, condominium and coop homes in Zillow’s database.
These are August figures.