Every morning, first-year applied mathematics master’s student Anish Sambamurthy pours his first coffee of the day from the 24/7 lobby coffee machine in the Best Western lobby before heading out to the gym. When he returns, he grabs his complimentary breakfast from the empty lobby, and, rather than making the trek up Science Hill, he once again walks down the identical hallways to begin his fight against sporadic WiFi and differential equations.
Sambamurthy is one of 60 UC Santa Cruz graduate students currently housed at the Best Western All Units Inn on Ocean Street, about two miles from campus across from the San Lorenzo River. For him, this is the best of the limited housing options available to UCSC graduate students.
“The issue is that if you want to live in Santa Cruz, you have to pay through the nose,” said Sambamurthy. “I have a slightly different perspective because I have money from a [National Science Foundation] grant. If I was stuck on only a TA salary, I would be significantly more stressed.”
UCSC reported from October 1, 2021 to December 31, 2021, that the average monthly rate in Santa Cruz of a single room in a household is $1,703 and $2,299 for a studio apartment. For the entirety of 2021, the school reports similar averaged numbers as a single room in a household is priced at $1,637.39 per month and a studio apartment is priced at $2,001.93 per month.
Rooms at the Best Western are only offered to those who are on the waitlist for on-campus graduate housing. A single room at the Best Western is $1,247 a month, the same price as an on-campus apartment unit. Students are billed monthly through their student account, just as they would be for on-campus housing.
The Best Western, like on-campus housing, includes utilities but also offers free daily continental breakfast and cleaning services twice a week. What the hotel lacks in comparison to on-campus housing, however, is a kitchen.
Not having access to a proper kitchen has been one of the biggest drawbacks for first year STEM master’s student Dylan Clip, who requested to remain anonymous under a pseudonym.
“There are not many options for cooking,” said Clip. “All I can use is a microwave and an Instant Pot, and I have been avoiding frying any food so that I don’t accidentally set off the fire alarm.”
Graduate students are allowed the option of purchasing their own air fryer and Instant Pot, as an addition to the included hotel amenities: a microwave, mini-fridge, and WiFi.
But while the mini appliances have received few complaints other than a lack of freezer, the unreliable WiFi has become one of the main grievances among graduate students.
During Anish Sambamurthy’s first month at the Best Western in December, the WiFi would go down every 20-30 minutes, making his work nearly impossible and leading to many complaints from fellow students.
“I was talking to one of the floor managers and she was going to have a student night,” Sambamurthy said. “But she was worried that if she did the student night it would just be [sixty] grad students complaining about the Internet.”
Sambamurthy described the Internet as “god-awful,” unable to handle the large sets of data needed for his independent research, which qualify him for his National Science Foundation grant.
On Dec. 17, Best Western installed a 1G modem to improve the Internet connection. Now, according to Samabamurthy, the WiFi removes a user every 6 hours. With the university awaiting approval from the city for a new internet line, and no solutions being proposed by Best Western, Sambamurthy purchased his own router for $50.
“[My router] is also garbage,” Sambamurthy said, “but it’s consistent garbage, so I alternate between trash and trash depending on what’s up and what’s down.”
An online internet-speed test showed that the download rate of the Best Western WiFi is 2.45 Mb/s, compared to 310.56 Mb/s from his T-Mobile LTE internet router.
Despite the issues experienced by the graduate students living in the Best Western, Sambamurthy believes this is the best option for graduate students in Santa Cruz, and that the real issue is the lack of housing offered by UCSC.
Between the Best Western and the Graduate Housing complex on campus, UCSC only has 142 beds available for graduate students. This is roughly only 7.2 percent of the total graduate student population, leaving many graduate students struggling to find a place to live.
As of now, there are no distinct plans to continue the contract with Best Western after June 2022. Dave Keller, the Executive Director of Housing Services and Facilities, stated that the university will “evaluate [potential renewal] based on how it goes this year.”
“It is very important that our university feels responsible to provide or help to find housing for our students, whether it’s graduate students or undergraduate students,” Vice Provost and Dean of Graduate Studies, Peter Biehl stated. “For me, it is essential for students to have housing. As a university, we have to acknowledge that if a student is not secure in their housing, that student will most likely struggle to be successful.”
The UCSC student body received an email from Biehl on Jan. 12 announcing the Implementation Task Force for Inclusive Excellence in Graduate Education that will be in effect from 2021 to 2023.
In the email, Biehl introduced the Graduate Student Success Life and Well-Being subcommittee that will “suggest solutions around housing and cost of attendance.”
The task force headed by Biehl was announced in the midst of graduate students’ demands for a quarterly housing stipend, to build off of the annual stipend won during the 2020 Wildcat strike. This past quarter in Oct. 2021, graduate students demanded a $2,500 quarterly housing stipend to keep up with the rising housing costs in Santa Cruz.
Despite the administration’s optimistic attitude, graduate students remain apprehensive. Many wonder what the future may hold with a continuing pandemic and the uncertainty it brings to graduate student housing.
“The housing situation in Santa Cruz isn’t going to improve, so hopefully the university has a plan for extending the hotel contracts into summer and fall,” said Sambamurthy. “The university sent a lot of talk about ‘looking into solutions,’ but other than creating task forces and committees, there has been nothing concrete. The pandemic gave them two years to figure out housing solutions, and they seem to have done nothing with it.”