A rainbow archway opens up into a handmade wooden deck draped in velvet curtains, the entry to one of the oldest standing trailers at UCSC’s camper park.
Next door is a shiny, new, and—by comparison—incredibly plain recreational vehicle, one of the six new identical trailers that UCSC has purchased in hopes of completely revamping its camper park, a community tucked into the redwood forest on the northwest corner of the campus. Empty spaces are scattered throughout the park, too, where old trailers have been removed before new ones are brought in to replace them, leaving what was once a vibrant community of 42 students temporarily down to just 26.
“The number of parkies living here started going down at the beginning of last school year,” says Avery Candelario, who is living in the trailer park for her third consecutive year. “The university started asking certain students who were graduating to remove their trailers because they weren’t up to code and didn’t pass inspection.”
The student-owned trailers, which have resided in the camper park for the last three-and-a-half decades, stand in stark contrast to the university’s new ones. Many of the trailers resemble living works of art, complete with generations of passed-down murals, craftwork and gems. Many residents fear that their vibrant, quirky community is at risk.
Since the camper park was established at UCSC in the early 1980s, it has been the school’s only low-income housing community. Camper park residents purchase the trailers when they move to the park and pay monthly rent, ranging from $575 to $650, to the university.
Historically, students who are graduating or moving out of the camper park have been able to resell their trailers to other students waiting to move in. According to Candelario, a trailer in the camper park costs a student between $1,500 and $7,000 dollars to purchase from the previous owner—money that they expect to make back when they graduate or move out of the trailer park.
In the spring of 2016, however, the university released a statement to all of the camper park residents notifying them that graduating students would not be able to sell their trailers to incoming students, and all of the old trailers had to be removed from the park to make room for new, university-owned ones.
Graduating students were given 30 days to move out, and the university offered them a settlement of $2,500. According to UCSC spokesperson Scott Hernandez-Jason, that money is “an assistance payment, which acknowledges that students paid for their trailers in the park and were not allowed to resell them in the park.”
In order to receive the money, students had to sign a document releasing the university from any liability caused by the action. The university also offered to tow the old trailers off the land within a reasonable distance, and the students who owned them could sell them on the open market, keep them, or have the university take them to the dump. This process is ongoing for any student leaving the trailer park.
Kyle Ortega, a former camper park resident who graduated last spring, says students were notified of the policy change only four days prior to the start of finals week. “I was scrambling to finish school, and I had to move my attention off of the end of my senior year and suddenly rearrange my plans,” he says. Ortega opted not to sign and accept the cash on principle, saying it violated his lease.
In addition, it’s often “a lot harder to sell a trailer on the open market,” Candelario says. “There’s generally less interest, and the value is lower because generations of students have been passing down these trailers in the park for relatively the same price.”
Hernandez-Jason acknowledges that the university’s timing wasn’t great. “We know that for students focused on finals, having something like this was not the sort of thing they wanted to think about or have to deal with,” he says. “So, it was regretful timing, but we wanted to get the plan moving.”
Hernandez-Jason says that by removing the old trailers from the park, the university aims to create affordability and remove the burden of maintaining an old trailer from students’ responsibilities. “It’s a lot of cash up front for any student,” he says. “And some of the trailers were getting up there in age, so when there were problems during inspections, students would have to repair them and get them back up to code.”
Candelario agrees that the community will benefit from students not having to shell out money for a trailer up front, but she says that the so-called burden of maintaining her trailer has been a beneficial experience for her. She calls it “homeownership-in-training,” adding that she built the two bed frames in her trailer herself, fixed the roof, and is currently working on repairing her sink. “Having 42 people around who might be able to teach me or help me to work on this little home has been an awesome bonus,” she says.
Students say they don’t want a bunch of sterile-looking new trailers to replace the look and feel of the old ones. Hernandez-Jason says the university is working with the students to try to preserve the trailer park’s aesthetic and might bring in some retro-style trailers in the next round to preserve the “quirkiness of the park.”
“We’re looking at whether we can build kind of a structure over the new units so that students can paint them and decorate them and have that personal artistic flair,” he says.
Candelario acknowledges that the university is working with the students to help preserve their community, but she fears that it’s not enough. Historically, the trailer park has remained open to students year round, and residents have been allowed to live there for as many years consecutively as they choose until they graduate. The new model makes the trailer park function as any other housing option on campus, with an academic-year lease. Students can apply separately to live in the camper park during a summer term. Candelario fears that these changes will create turnover, making it difficult to pass on traditions, like twice-weekly potlucks.
“When people are allowed to live here for consecutive years, they really get the chance to feel at home, and trust the people around them,” says Candelario.
Hernandez-Jason says that UCSC’s housing department is working to address the larger county-wide housing crisis. This year they have added more beds, including adding them to former open spaces like dormitory lounges. He says leaders are also looking at renovating Kresge College and expanding affordable housing on the school’s west side.
Some residents fear that the camper park, which is at the top of the campus’s west side and above Kresge College, will also be looked at down the road as another place for the university to build something bigger, although Hernandez-Jason says the park will be there for a long time.
And as a housing crisis continues in Santa Cruz, Candelario fears that low-income communities are at risk in what’s become one of the most expensive counties in the U.S.
“Right now, there are 16 blank spots that could be someone’s home,” says Candelario, adding that there’s a constant waiting list of about 30-80 names on it of students interested in moving into the camper park. “I know there are a lot more homeless students than the school would like to admit, and it’s an issue that’s not really talked about or recognized. It’s a hard realization that someone who might be your friend in class is sleeping in their car every night, and they don’t want to tell you because there’s a negative stigma that surrounds it.”