Rental housing market suffocated by pandemic and forest fires in Santa Cruz County

Approximately 48 UC Santa Cruz graduate students are staying with a college grant at the Best Western Plus All Suites Inn at 500 Ocean St. in Santa Cruz this fall. (Graycen Wheeler – Santa Cruz Local)

SANTA CRUZ >> Displaced victims of the wildfires and the return to in-person college classes this fall have contributed to one of the tightest rental markets in years in Santa Cruz County, university administrators said this week and county authorities.

When in-person classes at UC Santa Cruz were suspended due to the coronavirus in 2020, many students chose to leave the county and not rent off-campus homes, county housing authorities said. Then the CZU lightning complex fire broke out in August and left 911 households with no place to live. At least some of those displaced by the fire have rented homes in Santa Cruz County, county housing authorities said.

Fast forward to this fall, and about 18,600 UCSC undergraduate and graduate students have returned to class, said UCSC spokesperson Scott Hernandez-Jason. Students found a revamped housing market and often struggled to find accommodation.

“A lot of graduate students fled the burden of rent here during the pandemic as we worked remotely,” said Jack Davies, a UCSC graduate student. “Not everyone has had to back down yet, but the administration is signaling that more and more will have to do so by the winter quarter,” Davies said. Davies is also chairman of UCSC unit at UAW 2865 which represents college students in the University of California system.

Many homes that were rented out to students before 2020 have sold and are now owner-occupied, said Peter Cook, a real estate agent at Lighthouse Realty in Santa Cruz. Cook estimated that more than 50 homes that were student rentals sold in 2020 and are now owner-occupied units.

Most of the remaining units are now occupied by non-student tenants. “A lot of them moved here from San Francisco, San Jose, all of the greater Bay Area,” Cook said. “If you can live in Santa Cruz and telecommute, it’s just a great place.”

Lack of rentals

As of October 15, 2020, there were 394 listings on Craigslist for “apartments and homes for rent” in Santa Cruz County. As of mid-October of this year, there were around 188 listings, less than half of the listings available on the site a year ago.

In the same way, rental announcements on Zillow in October are down roughly a third from October 2020 and nearly two-thirds of October 2019. Santa Cruz City and Santa Cruz County officials said they are not constantly tracking vacant rental housing.

Suzanne Isé, senior planner in the housing division of the Santa Cruz County Planning Department, said rental listings on websites do not give the full picture of the rental market. Still, she said she had heard from housing seekers that the rental market had tightened, especially in northern Santa Cruz County.

“I had my eyes on a lot of data last year because I was part of the CZU Fire recovery,” Isé said.

Isé said she saw an unusual increase in rental housing in 2020. She attributed it to UCSC students who chose not to rent homes in Santa Cruz County when classes were not held in anybody. “We were sharing all kinds of data on the housing market with FEMA to try to show them, ‘Hey, we need you to open up these different programs to help people affected by this fire,’ Isé said.

Ultimately, FEMA identified enough rental housing nearby that it did not need to erect temporary structures to house the displaced residents. Instead, FEMA provided assistance to fire victims to rent or buy in the housing market, Isé said.

The hotel is mainly home to graduate students

This fall, about 120 graduate students remained on a waiting list for on-campus housing, said Dave Keller, executive director of housing services at UCSC.

The university therefore negotiated an agreement with the Best Western Plus All Suites Inn on Ocean Street in Santa Cruz to provide university-subsidized housing for graduate students. The hotel has allocated 60 of its 77 suites to UCSC graduate students, according to a front desk operations manager. Forty-eight graduate students currently occupy these rooms, Keller said.

They will be joined by at least seven other students for the winter term, and rooms are still available for graduate students in need of accommodation.

The university subsidizes the rent of graduate students staying at the hotel, which is equivalent to renting a room in accommodation on campus. It costs the university $ 1,900 per room each month, which is more than it costs to house a student on campus, Keller said.

UCSC second-year doctoral student Abdulaziz Alatawi said he chose the hotel option after an unsuccessful search for other locations.

“To be honest, it was the only option,” Alatawi said. “I was thinking of staying in San José and commuting from there. The hotel was like a gift.

Like many UCSC students, Alatawi studied remotely in the 2020-21 academic year. Now that many students are back on campus, they are finding that rental housing created by the pandemic has been filled in their absence.

Davies, the leader of the university employees union, said graduate students were being billed on many rentals in Santa Cruz even before the pandemic. Now, the average rent for a shared room is up more than 50% compared to 2019, according to UCSC rental data.

Graduate students have always worried about rental prices, graduate student leaders said. But they must also be concerned with availability.

“I am increasingly concerned that if we are only talking about the issue of graduate student awards, we are really only talking about those we are moving,” said Dan Copulsky, vice president of shared governance. for the UCSC Graduate Student Association. .

UCSC students are an important part of the rental market in Santa Cruz, but they are only one component of the rental ecosystem. Solutions like the hotel subsidy can take tenants out of the crowded rental pool. The deal between UCSC and the Best Western lasts until June 2022, but Keller and a hotel sales manager have said similar deals are possible in the future.

Davies said a new student graduating from his program ended up at the hotel after struggling to find a rental.

“He had lived in New York City before and thought it would be good,” Davies said. “He didn’t know Santa Cruz would be much worse than New York or Boston.”

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