.Santa Cruz’s Poor Rental Health

Maritza Ortiz is no stranger to the burden of rent in a crowded home.

After work at her nonprofit job, Ortiz, a recent college graduate, comes home to a three-bedroom Watsonville apartment, where she lives with her parents, two sisters and two brothers. One of her brothers has a bed in the living room. She makes $15 per hour at her part-time job, and contributes $200 in rent. Her parents receive Section 8 vouchers, and pay $1,800 in rent, says Ortiz, one of more than 300 people who attended an affordable housing talk at Santa Cruz’s Museum of Art & History on Thursday night, Oct. 13.

Associate UCSC professor Steve McKay, who headlined the event, was with sociology professor Miriam Greenberg, revealed the results of a Santa Cruz renter survey on the effects of the housing crisis. For an hour, Ortiz heard accounts from the 400 people surveyed in the Beach Flats, Lower Pacific and Lower Ocean neighborhoods, about the difficult choices and long work hours required to survive in one of the country’s five least affordable cities for renters.

“I just heard these stories, and now I know I’m not alone,” says Ortiz. “We do see it as a norm, but we shouldn’t have to live like that. We should have our privacy.”


Scary Statistics

UCSC students administered Greenberg and McKay’s 150-question survey in bilingual teams, knocking on every door in those mostly Latino neighborhoods. Topics included the percentage of income devoted to rent, the number of people per bedroom, forced evictions and issues with safety and building conditions.

McKay listed some troubling statistics about the area: In 2014, the Santa Cruz area was named the least affordable metropolitan area in the U.S. Factoring in the cost of housing, Santa Cruz’s poverty line for renters is $34,000. That means more than one in five Santa Cruz residents are living in poverty, McKay says.

The housing crisis is bad for homeowners, but it’s worse for renters, who make up 57 percent of Santa Cruz residents and who make an average of $13 per hour. The fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $1,600, he says.

“By that standard, in order to be affordable, the average renter in Santa Cruz has to work 96 hours a week—or, in other words, hold 2.4 jobs to afford a place to live,” says McKay. “So the actual housing wage, how much do you actually need to earn to just get by, is $30 per hour. That’s $60,000 per year. That’s about our median income, just to get by.”

The team has completed the survey’s first phase, and in the next year, McKay and Greenberg plan to survey the county’s other two areas with large concentrations of Latinos: Live Oak and Watsonville.

So far, about two-thirds of those surveyed make less than $30,000. Around half are Latino, and around half have children.

Three quarters of respondents said they spent more than 30 percent of their income on rent. Around 25 percent said they spent more than 70 percent of income on rent.

McKay and his colleagues published more results on overcrowding, evictions and other problems online at noplacelikehomeucsc.org. The event kicked off Affordable Housing Awareness Week in Santa Cruz, which runs through Saturday, Oct. 22.

Oralia Palacios, a Live Oak resident, was one of many in the audience disturbed by the results.

If there’s any help the government can give, housing is the best place to start, Palacios said in Spanish.

Palacios works 35 hours per week cleaning a restaurant, and her partner works odd jobs in landscaping and construction. She said 80 percent of their income goes to pay $1,200 in rent for a mobile home they share with their two children.

The manager doesn’t fix things when they break, she said, and sometimes she has to decide between food, rent or new clothes for her daughters.


Bleak Outlook

Greenberg called for the construction of dense affordable housing in Santa Cruz, to combat the sprawl that’s pushing low-income workers to the county’s borders. The housing crisis is also a sustainability issue, since the further workers commute, the more greenhouse gases their commutes generate. Equity has to be at the core of any sustainability plan, she says.

In one of the museum galleries was a resource fair of a dozen local affordable housing organizations.

Carol Berg, the city’s housing community development manager, handed out packets describing the city’s affordable housing. The biggest need is housing for extremely low-income people, 22 percent of residents, who can only afford 4 percent of the city’s housing.

The landscape of funding for affordable housing changed dramatically after the state’s redevelopment agency dissolved in 2012, Berg says.

On pie charts showing funding for the Riverwalk Apartments, the Tannery Artist Lofts and Gault Street Senior Housing—affordable housing complexes funded before 2012—Berg pointed to funding sources that have dried up, such as tax credit equity and state multi-family housing loans and grants.

“You take away this, you take away that,” Berg says. “What do you got?”

Remaining events for Affordable Housing Awareness Week include a tenant issues’ forum for Santa Cruz City Council candidates from 6:30-9 p.m., Wednesday, Oct. 19 at the Louden Nelson Community Center, 301 Center St., Santa Cruz; a Habitat for Humanity talk on helping seniors “age in place” from 6:30-8:30 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 20 at the Santa Cruz Democratic Party headquarters, 740 Front St., Santa Cruz; and a talk on the pros and cons of vacation rentals 1:30-3:30 p.m., Sat. Oct. 22 at the Police Community Room, 155 Center St., Santa Cruz. For details, visit santacruzcommunitycalendar.org.


  1. Where does someone find a 2-bedroom place to rent for only $1600 around here? The average is more like $1900 for 2 bedrooms. Unless you want to live somewhere further out with a 1+ hour commute each way. When is the city council going to do something about this? Does 57% of the county have to move away? Who will take the menial jobs then? The techies from over the hill who keep buying up all the property around here? I don’t think so.


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