By Ashley Glazebrook
City on a Hill Press Reporter
For the average UC Santa Cruz student, looking for housing is, to say the least, a time of high stress and minimal enjoyment.
The university educates approximately 15,000 undergraduate students, all of whom require shelter. But the city of Santa Cruz — and the campus — have reached residential capacity. Inevitably, needy students have ended up settling for less-than-desirable domains while the university masses feel plagued with worry over roommate compatibility, living conditions, exorbitant rental costs, and, of course, location.
Second-year student Brett Gilbert applied last spring to live in an on-campus quad apartment with three other people in the fall of 2008. He hoped to finally have a room to himself along with the camaraderie of hand-picked housemates. Instead, what he got was an uncomfortable triple room and roommates with whom he is far from comfortable.
“They don’t have enough apartments,” Gilbert said. “[I was] placed with random people [I] don’t really know … it’s just a huge personality clash. I feel like for the dorms they make an effort to match people for personalities, but for apartments they just needed to fill the space so they throw everyone together.”
Kevin Tresham, assistant director of Student Housing Services, spoke on the difficulty of matching the personalities of roommates based on paper applications.
“We do our best to find a compatible roommate while at the same time asking that students understand their roommates may not share all the same interests, outlooks and attitudes,” he explained in an e-mail. “Meeting the challenge of sharing and learning from alternate perspectives is one of the most infinitely rewarding experiences of college life. Students are encouraged to engage their new living arrangement with an open, interested and considerate attitude.”
University match-ups can sometimes result in the “infinitely rewarding experiences” Tresham referred to. But second-year student Scott Frazer notes that even when students go out of their ways to make the job of matching housemates easy, somehow things still end up far from perfect.
“We had six people willing to apply as a group for the apartments, and from what we had been told, we were pretty much guaranteed,” Frazer said. “But by the time we got to the lottery, only three spaces were available in the Cowell apartments, all spread out.”
Frazer decided to make the best of the situation.
“I knew I didn’t want to live off-campus because it was too expensive and too much hassle,” Frazer said. “So I chose the Village.”
The Village is a university-run housing community located near the campus’s lower quarry, on the east side of the UCSC sprawl. The Village site is located near the campus farm and garden, amid meadows and redwoods. Beautiful as it may be, the Village is generally less impacted than other on-campus housing options since it caters primarily to transfer, re-entry, and graduate students, rather than continuing students like Frazer.
According to figures published on the UCSC website, approximately 4,550 newly admitted freshmen and transfer students enrolled in the fall of 2008 — the school’s largest incoming fall class to date. These numbers have been felt in the realm of student housing in the form of an overall lack of adequate room at the various colleges. Because of this school year’s record-high enrollment, more and more students like Frazer are resorting to less traditional housing arrangements.
Tresham responded to this recent influx in student numbers and its effects, saying that accelerated action is under way to create more space for future years.
“The campus is in the planning process on the East Campus Infill project, [which] will provide 550 to 600 apartment spaces in housing units that will be constructed between Crown and Merrill colleges and Crown-Merrill apartments,” Tresham explained.
Still, the project will not produce livable student housing until at least the fall of 2011.
The rental housing market in the city of Santa Cruz is congested, to say the least.
According to an article in the Santa Cruz Sentinel published in September 2008, in the entirety of Santa Cruz County, about 40 percent of the population rents their residence. In the city of Santa Cruz, that number is above 50 percent.
For the many UC Santa Cruz students who choose to live off-campus, particularly during their third and fourth years, this spells inherent competition as they enter a severely overstuffed city search of appropriate, convenient, inexpensive housing.
Jan Kennedy, manager of the Community Rentals Office at UCSC, said that overcrowding often forces students into an eclectic mix of accommodations.
“[I see students in] rented rooms in shared housing, studios, one, two, three, four, five or six-bedroom houses,” Kennedy wrote in an e-mail. “But the larger houses are harder to find.”
Michael Casserd, property manager for Advantage Properties in the Aptos community of La Selva Beach, and a former UCSC student, agrees with Kennedy that this anything-goes reality is a direct result of the jumbled local market.
“Generally it’s termed as a tight housing market with more renters than available units,” Casserd said. “Then you compound that with the current crisis of people losing their homes and coming back into the rental market. In addition, this year I’ve seen people moving here and taking up housing units that traditionally would have been [occupied by locals].”
Though most property managers claim a creed that dictates nondiscrimination against students, many landlords may not uphold this same standard.
“The bad stories seem to take precedent over the 99 percent of good students that leave things in good condition,” Casserd said. “I would estimate that if we rent to four units, maybe one of the four will give us some challenges when they move out. That’s just the trouble. Bad stories always take over good stories.”
The party-hardy, destructive reputation that landlords often affix to young renters in Santa Cruz is not the only disadvantage that students face. Economically, Casserd pointed out, students are also at a distinct disadvantage.
“Our [home]owners — the people we’re working for — have certain criteria,” Casserd said. “In terms of marketable applications, they’re more income and credit score-based.”
Without independently having this type of economic wherewithal, students often fall victim to unjust landlords and abysmal living conditions because they simply have nowhere else to go.
Gerard Balon, a former UCSC student, says that calling his former off-campus residence “subpar” would be an understatement.
“My first complaint is that we didn’t get the house in a very clean state [to begin with],” Balon said. “It was really dirty, the ventilation in the bathroom was horrible, it grew mold and there was no heat. In the winter we had to walk around the house in our jackets.”
According to Balon, despite these downfalls, the worst part about the residence was that the initially exorbitant deposit was never returned.
“Our deposit was $3,300,” Balon said. “And even after we cleaned the entire house we each only got $16.08 back.”
According to UCSC’s Community Rentals Office, living off-campus can range in monthly cost from $450 to $1,000 for a room in a house, depending on inclusion of utilities, furnishings, location, and the size and condition of the residence.
On student budgets, and with little previous renting experience, these prices and the added stress of an entirely new living situation are often difficult to manage.
To help students with the transition into the market, the UCSC Community Rentals Office provides an online workshop.
“We increased promotion of our online renters’ workshop over the years and saw the numbers of students taking it increase dramatically in the last two years,” Kennedy reported. “It educates the first-time renter in preparing for the housing search and in their rights and responsibilities as a tenant.”
“We give a certificate upon completion of a quiz that students can use as a type of reference in their rental application packet,” Kennedy added. “Knowledgeable tenants have an easier time finding housing.”
With plans for expansion, many students are hopeful that on-campus housing accommodations will improve over the next few years. With a market that is not inherently prepared to house masses of students, though, Santa Cruz will have a hard time keeping up with the ever-growing number of residence-seeking students who currently account for more than a quarter of the city’s population.
“Santa Cruz, in my personal opinion, was developed as a second-home market, so when they brought the university here, Santa Cruz wasn’t really prepped with housing to begin with,” Casserd said. “Building houses that adequately accommodate the university has been — and will continue to be — very difficult.”