.UCSC Expansion Meets Santa Cruz Housing Crunch

At a United Nations meeting in the ’60s, Nikita Khrushchev famously banged his shoe on his desk in protest of another delegate’s speech. Santa Cruz City Councilmember Chris Krohn likes to imagine UCSC Chancellor George Blumenthal wielding his footwear in the same manner at a UC Regents meeting.

“I just see him reaching out to these people, grabbing them by the collar, and saying ‘No, we aren’t adding more students!’” Krohn says. “Then they all go out to a $30,000 dinner.”

In 2015 the UC regents mandated a 10,000-student increase over three years across all nine undergraduate colleges, and as enrollment numbers climb, both UCSC and the city have scrambled to accommodate the influx of students. The student housing crisis led to a virtual cold war between UCSC and the city in the mid-2000s; since then, the relationship has thawed, but the mandated growth—which comes as Santa Cruz is already one of the most priced-out rental markets in the country—could make things worse than ever.

“It is not a ‘city on a hill’ as UCSC’s masthead says,” says John Aird, co-founder of the Coalition for Limiting University Expansion (CLUE). “That name suggests that it’s a self-contained, self-supported community and organization. That is really more myth than reality.”

Aird notes that more than 80 percent of the Santa Cruz population growth from 1995 to 2009 was directly attributable to UCSC. Since 2009, he says, the pattern has continued as the university population climbs at more than three times the rate of the rest of the city.

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UCSC is a public entity committed to both serving the growing state population and expansion. Anti-expansionists say that based on growing housing, water, and transportation impacts of UCSC, the city cannot accommodate more student expansion.

“At the very least, I think it’s reasonable and necessary for there to be a pause in terms of any further growth here now until this community has had a chance to catch up,” Aird says. “It’s going to take some time to regain some equilibrium here.”

It’s a problem that no amount of shoe-banging is going to solve. Just as the city certainly won’t tell people to stop moving to Santa Cruz, Blumenthal won’t tell students to stop coming to UCSC.

“Things were really difficult between the city and university 15 years ago—and there was enough fault to go around—but things improved a lot a decade ago because we opened up conversations,” Blumenthal says.


Thinking Long-Term

As UCSC looks to the future, others remember the past. A decade ago, UCSC and its host city were in a gridlock. UCSC was determined to accommodate an increasing student body, and the city was frustrated by the UC Regents’ failure to acknowledge the student housing crisis.

The city, along with CLUE, sued over the Environmental Impact Report proposed in UCSC’s Long Range Development Plan (LRDP). Mediation led to a settlement four years later, which resulted in quarterly committee meetings to implement the settlement agreement, which seem to have pleased both sides.

“The city and the university relationship is a lot better than it used to be before the settlement agreement,” says city manager Martín Bernal. “Nonetheless, the city’s position continues to be that the impacts should be mitigated, particularly now with respect to housing.”

“At the very least, I think it’s reasonable and necessary for there to be a pause in terms of any further growth here now until this community has had a chance to catch up.” — John Aird

Chancellor Blumenthal says that the priorities of UCSC reflect those of the UC, and he doesn’t always have the final say when it comes to expansion issues. When the UC Regents mandated enrollment growth, he says, the state did not provide the funding to support it, and tuition doesn’t cover all of the associated costs. Likewise, because the state doesn’t provide funding for housing expenses, and UCSC’s debt ceiling limited how much they could increase their housing budget, campus administrators felt they were doing as much as they could to accommodate students.

“There is a desire from the UC to grow, and that’s a legitimate desire, but some campuses wanted to grow and some did not,” Blumenthal says. “The university should grow to meet the state’s need, but there should be money available to do that. If there isn’t money, then we shouldn’t grow.”

Other UCs’ relationships to their respective cities aren’t exactly perfect, either—representatives from UC Davis, UC Santa Barbara and UC Riverside all admit to having some bumps in the road. Yet none have ever been sued by their own city government.

“We really try and roll up our sleeves and work with them before that happens,” says UCR Director of Local Government and Community Relations Jeff Kraus.

In fact, Santa Cruz has sued more than once. The first lawsuit was in the mid ’80s, also in response to university expansion and development of Rachel Carson College. By and large, it seems, Santa Cruz’s problems are unique, and stem from not only the university’s geographic isolation from the rest of town, but also from the differing goals of the UC and the city.

But a new LRDP is due, and the hope is that is can appease both the university and the city. As UCSC looks to map out the next 20 years of development, many remember the political turmoil that the previous plan stirred up.

“LRDPs aren’t an enrollment plan, they are a land use plan,” Blumenthal says. “It is not a plan to build enrollment, it’s a plan to figure out the land if you do.”

The current LRDP outlines a 19,500 student limit by 2020—less than 2,000 more students than the current enrollment. Though the future 2020-2040 LRDP plans are still in the early stages of development, and there is no mandate that UCSC reach 19,500 by 2020, UCSC will likely look to again increase enrollment in line with California’s population for the next 20 years.

“You can’t go over the LRDP, but you can go under,” Chris Krohn says. “But once you put it out there as a benchmark, that becomes the conversation starter.”


Trying to Be Accommodating

In the last few years, UCSC has been playing catch-up with student housing, while also adhering to the previous LRDP enrollment outlines. The administration is trying to mitigate the impacts of its own swelling student body, having converted 141 lounges into residences and double rooms into triple rooms while also changing class times to squeeze in more classes.

UCSC currently houses more than 52 percent of students on campus, among the highest of all of the UC campuses. But UCSC’s housing prices are much higher than the average rates in town, at more than $1,500 monthly for one space in a quadruple room, including a seven-day meal plan.

“You can get a nice place in Santa Cruz for $1,500 and maybe even hire a cook,” Chris Krohn says.

In recognition of the housing crisis, and also the comparatively high on-campus housing rates,  UCSC has introduced the Student Housing West Project, scheduled to begin construction in the fall. The project aims to have at least 900 beds online by 2020, with about 3,000 total by completion. Since state funding cannot be used for housing projects, the facility will operate on a public-private partnership (P3) model, meaning that it will be financed through a private third party instead of the university.

“[I have] no doubt that people will have different perspectives and there will be different answers and there will be some individuals that fundamentally do not want the university to grow,” says Vice Chancellor of Business and Administrative Services Sarah Latham. “We have an obligation to reflect the diversity and growth of the state of California, but we must make sure we do that in a way where the impacts are identified and addressed, and solutions are posed.”

The final facilities will not be affiliated to any of UCSC’s colleges, and will house mainly graduate students and upperclass undergraduates. For many community members, student containment on campus is a breath of fresh air, particularly for those who feel that campus expansion is infringing on the city’s housing and traffic control.


When Santa Cruz Wanted Students

When UCSC began in the early ’60s, the city council approved campus enrollment upward of 27,500 students—an attractive economic draw for the city when the population of Santa Cruz was just over 25,500.

“The [city] leadership at that time was conservative and business-oriented and came upon the idea of ‘why not have a university here?’” John Aird says. “The grounds upon which this was pursued came before any environmental movement or anything, and Santa Cruz was itself just a small community that pretty much viewed growth as a good thing. But times change, circumstances change.”

Currently, UCSC generates over $1.3 billion in economic activity within the Santa Cruz regional area, while the city provides much-needed utilities and housing for UCSC’s population. Aird also points out that many of the city council members have close ties to UCSC, and suggests that it’s a conflict of interest for those members to vote on issues between the city and university.

“The city on a hill really is the city on a hill, there is such a distance between what happens downtown and what happens up there,” says Krohn, who is the environmental studies internship director at UCSC. “Am I putting myself in jeopardy by being upfront in criticizing the university and being part of the dialogue? Possibly, but I do think there are people who wouldn’t do that because they are worried about their job or politics, but I don’t think the conflict of interest is huge in this case.”

Krohn added that if he and other council members don’t speak out against the university, the quality of education will suffer. He says that the city council has a tremendous amount of power that they don’t use, and if UCSC continues to expand beyond what the council approves of, students will ultimately bear the brunt of increased enrollment.

There are no more lounges that can be converted on campus, and in many spots on campus students are packed into rooms like canned sardines. With options running low and continued enrollment swelling, UCSC administration is now restricting housing guarantees for transfers (one year guarantee instead of two) and those involved in Education Opportunity Programs (three years instead of four). This will result in more students seeking off-campus housing over the next few years as UCSC enrollment numbers climb.

“It’s pretty clear that having the university here is a mixed bag,” CLUE negotiator Reed Searle says. “It certainly has improved the city—we have a lot more stuff here because of the university—but it has also very adversely affected housing. The people that work here cannot afford to live here any more.”

Coupled with more student expansion into town and an increase in vacation rentals, Santa Cruz’s housing crisis doesn’t have any easy solutions. In an effort to mediate past anxieties and better communication between the university and city, UCSC has invited various community groups, including CLUE, to take part in an LRDP community advisory committee. The group will meet regularly to discuss concerns of university impacts and be more inclusive of community voices.

“The university has done everything that it’s required to do. The problem, of course, is if it has been required to do enough,” Searle says.



  1. I would argue that an influx of tech companies and highly paid tech workers may have as much or more influence on increasing housing costs in Santa Cruz as the growing number of UCSC students. Foreign investment in Santa Cruz real estate may also play a role, as well as the purchase or rental of Santa Cruz residences by wealthy Americans who simply desire to live, part-time or full-time, in a hip university town on the coast of California and can easily afford to do so. I would hope that these market forces will be factored into any serious analysis of the drivers of local housing unaffordability.

  2. I agree with Jim, you can not point to UCSC as the sole reason for increased housing costs in Santa Cruz. Competition with Silicon Valley markets, investors buying property here for VRBOs, landlords setting rent at well over $1,500 per month (as Krohn was quoted here as saying was a “good” rate – a laughable statement, at best).

    There are statements made in this piece that are missing sources – for example the ‘graph that starts with “UCSC currently houses more than 52 percent of students on campus” – where is this figure from? It continues, “But UCSC’s housing prices are much higher than the average rates in town, at more than $1,500 monthly for one space in a quadruple room, including a seven-day meal plan.” What are the average rates you’re writing about? And what is this comparing – the rental rate per room, the rental rate per house, the rental rate for four people in a single room?

    And again, the ‘graph that starts with, “There are no more lounges that can be converted on campus” the entire paragraph could use a source.

    Perhaps there should be some follow-up with real estate agents in town, property managers, or even city council members who are landlords (oh wait Krohn is/was one) who can attest to the entire smorgasbord of causes for the housing crunch.


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