Illustration by Ry X

*Pseudonym used at source’s request.

It was fall 2019, and on the fifth floor of Building A at Merrill College second-year Archer Willems and his friends decided to turn the empty quintuple room down their hall into the lounge it once was a decade ago. 

“We got a petition together, we talked to our RA, we went to the [Coordinator for Residential Education] CRE, and that’s about where it stopped,” Willems said. “The Merrill CRE made the point that there’s the possibility of people moving in during winter quarter, which at the time was a very real possibility.” 

But this never happened, as Merrill A’s fifth floor quintuple was one of an increasing number of dorms on campus to be left partially or fully empty. This quarter, there are 711 beds on campus without a student assigned to them — a number that Kevin Tresham, UC Santa Cruz’s associate director of Colleges, Housing and Educational Services (CHES), said is certainly higher than normal.

“For the sake of comparison, last year at this time we had approximately 385 spaces available,” Tresham said in email He added that in fall of this year, there were about 400 vacancies, compared to about 72 in 2018. 

This year’s uptick in vacancies, he explained, was due in large part to the reopening of the once fenced-off Galen and Harvey houses at Crown College, a relatively small class of transfer students admitted to UCSC this year and a larger number of students living off campus.

This bears out in the numbers. UCSC admitted 1,469 transfer students in fall 2019, compared to 1,815 in fall 2018, and Galen’s and Harvey’s renovation re-added about 130 beds to the university’s housing inventory.

But few students are aware of the especially high number of on-campus housing vacancies this quarter. Campus organizations that broker housing advice, like Slug Support, Educational Opportunity Programs (EOP) and UCSC’s nine college housing offices, often recommend open dorm slots as an option to students who ask. Yet the exact number of vacancies campuswide is not information housing administrators make public.

Illustration by Ry X

This lack of information deters some students, especially those with expired housing guarantees, from pursuing on-campus housing they would otherwise be likely to obtain. 

“Two people that I know, they’re third years without housing guarantees,” said Fae Lewis,* a third-year Crown College affiliate. “And they applied for on-campus housing, and they just got in.”

City on a Hill Press asked Tresham whether or not more students would pursue on-campus housing if they knew about this year’s large number of vacancies.

He said that in circumstances where students apply for housing midyear, “housing staff work with those students to promptly assign them to available housing,” and that while more students might wish to move into university housing, “students living off campus must adhere to the terms of their rental agreements.”

Of course, student housing isn’t a single variable equation. It’s a balancing act between preferences and practicalities, with vacancies at one extreme and crowding at the other. College housing coordinators assign roommates based in part on shared interests, habits and attitudes, making it inevitable for some rooms to be filled to capacity, and others only in part. 

These vacancies allow students to move around campus when needed. Roommates fight, accidents happen. Lewis recalled that in her first year on campus, after quickly realizing that she wouldn’t get along with her roommates, a vacancy in a triple allowed her to move out of her initial dorm at Crown College’s Harvey House. 

“It seems really common, with my whole experience in my first year moving in with somebody who was living alone for basically the entire first half of the school year,” Lewis said. “Nobody else moved in with us, up until the end of the year.”

But while maintaining a certain number of vacancies is a necessity, this year’s spike has created bizarre situations where some dorms aren’t occupied or used by students for the whole year. To this day, the Merrill quintuple room that Archer Willems and his housemates petitioned to convert into a lounge hasn’t seen a single resident over the last quarter-and-a-half. 

“Our concern was ‘okay, if we do this […] are we going to be cutting people off from housing?’” Willems said. “And apparently not. Because there will still be, what, 695 beds?”

Housing Guarantees

This high vacancy rate is unlikely to last. CHES associate director Kevin Tresham said the need to relocate Kresge affiliates while the residential college undergoes renovation, combined with larger enrollment goals for fall 2020, will probably offset the higher number of beds available this year. 

As a result, campus policymakers have had a hard time arguing for the expansion of on-campus housing options for certain groups of students. Pablo Reguerin, EOP director and associate vice chancellor of student achievement and equity innovation, said that if his office wanted, for example, to reintroduce the four-year housing guarantee granted to students with EOP status who arrived at UCSC before fall 2017, such a policy would need the backing of new physical housing, not just temporary vacancies. 

“The reduction in all the guarantees that happened, including the EOP one, were related to vacancies and housing availability,” Reguerin said, “Anything that gives us more inventory allows us to be more generous with housing guarantees.”

That said, the EOP debuted a new, “enhanced” housing guarantee beginning in fall 2019. Applying to about 200 students who meet certain financial and need-based requirements, the enhanced EOP grant guarantees four years of on-campus housing to new first-year admits, and two years to new transfers.