Stacey Falls, a science teacher at Santa Cruz High School, has been keeping a nervous eye on rents in recent years, as she’s watched friends and colleagues move away.
Falls, who sat on the high school’s hiring panel, says Santa Cruz High won’t even consider candidates who would have to relocate to Santa Cruz “because it would be too challenging.”
“It’s hard for people to relocate here, and we don’t even want to go there,” says Falls. “I’ve heard stories about teachers accepting jobs, and then they can’t find housing, and they have to apologize and say, ‘I can’t accept the job because of housing.’ This is happening in Santa Cruz.”
If Falls ever became forced to move in the middle of the school year, she has no idea how she would make it work. It can take months, after all, to track down a new place—a concern her fellow teachers share. “People are freaking out a little bit,” she says.
Seventy percent of renters surveyed for a forthcoming UCSC affordable housing report are “rent burdened,” meaning they pay more than 30 percent of their gross income on rent and utilities. Surveyors for the study “No Place Like Home: The Santa Cruz County Affordable Housing Crisis Report,” spoke with 1,700 residents, who were given gift cards and renter’s rights handouts, as part of the investigation into the housing market’s impact on renters, especially those who are low-income.
“We haven’t seen another issue where people across Santa Cruz, and across income levels, come together, because we’re all experiencing the housing crisis,” says Steve McKay, associate professor of sociology at UCSC, who co-led the study with sociology professor Miriam Greenberg. The report will be out in the spring, and McKay will present the preliminary results at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 19, at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, for the first of many Affordable Housing Week events.
A majority of the survey’s respondents live in the city of Santa Cruz, with others living in Watsonville and Live Oak. McKay admits that his research group intentionally “over-surveyed low-income areas,” choosing to focus only on renters because his previous research with Greenberg showed that those are the people most impacted by housing costs.
According to McKay, 57 percent of respondents said they had experienced at least one major problem with their rental, like maintenance or the overall condition of the unit. And one in four renters, the report found, devotes 70 percent of their income to rent and utilities.
Additionally, 50 percent of renters who moved in the last five years said that move was “forced or involuntary”—most often due to eviction or a rent increase.
Tice Vierling, a massage therapist, briefly faced homelessness last month, after being forced to move out due to a 25 percent rent increase. When he couldn’t find a new place, he asked co-workers to cover all of his shifts at work for the whole month. He began couchsurfing at various friends’ houses, while looking full-time for his next home.
“I almost had to quit my job and move out of Santa Cruz,” says Vierling, who has since found housing, something he credits to knowing people in town. “If you don’t know anyone in Santa Cruz, it’s almost impossible to find affordable rent.”
Vierling, who’s lived in Santa Cruz for nearly seven years, adds that he knows a handful of people who are splitting rent with people who are not signed onto leases, just so they can afford it.
Thursday’s event, kicking off 10 days of housing-related events, will feature a full roster of housing advocacy groups, who will be tabling and passing out information. A visual and literary art exhibit on the meanings of “home” will be on display.
On the housing front, Mayor Cynthia Chase and Planning Director Lee Butler have been on a “listening tour” in recent months, to take suggestions from residents on how to address the housing crisis. Councilmember Chris Krohn says he hopes the council starts voting on possible solutions by the end of the year.
Santa Cruz routinely gets listed as one of the most expensive markets in the country, and the current housing predicament is hurting businesses and affecting local government’s ability to attract prospective employees.
Deputy City Manager Scott Collins says he’s seen that high housing costs are “definitely a factor in potential employee decisions about taking jobs.”
“This is true not only with the city of Santa Cruz, but all major employers in the region, such as the university, school districts, health care providers, etc.,” Collins says. “We are working with a group of representatives from these large employers to come up with potential solutions.”