Santa Cruz tops the list for worst place to rent in the country
Here’s how bad the housing market has gotten in Santa Cruz: for $350 a month you can rent a cot in the kitchen area of a tiny downtown studio.
The Craigslist ad for what may be the most affordable “room” in the county asks for someone who is preferably a student, who doesn’t eat meat, smoke or drink, and who goes to sleep and wakes up early. The quarters may be cramped (and far from private), but there is surely someone out there who will find it appealing that the dresser and cot are conveniently a foot away from the fridge, sink and dishwasher.
Other listings for “studio apartments” outfitted with a microwave or hotplate for a kitchen can start around $1,100 not including utilities (and shoot straight up from there). These units often come with their own restrictions; no pets, no overnight visitors, no fragrances, no Section 8 (Santa Cruz’s housing-choice voucher program), to name a few.
As housing prices rise during Silicon Valley’s job boom, owners are selling their rental units and evicting longtime tenants, while landlords are inundated with scores of applications in minutes, for less and less square footage.
Santa Cruz County has the fifth most expensive rents in the state, with the average tenant having to make at least $33.77 an hour to afford a two-bedroom apartment, according to a National Low Income Housing Coalition report aptly called “Out of Reach 2015.” That’s quite a gap from the state’s minimum wage of $9 an hour, even with the imminent raise to $10 in 2016.
The city of Santa Cruz also has the highest rents in proportion to salaries in the U.S., according to a Zillow study published in The Wall Street Journal—worse even than San Francisco, San Jose, New York or Boston. The median home here rents for 9.4 times the median income.
Hairdresser Laurie Teitzel, 30, doesn’t need a chart to know how bad it is. She combs Craigslist every day trying to find an affordable home for the family she and her husband are planning.
The Teitzels live in an 800-square-foot apartment, which shares a lot with four other units. After months of searching, they thought they had found the perfect opportunity for an 1100- square-foot home listing for $1,900.
“We drove by it and it looked great,” she says. “So we gave the guy a call and told him our story. An hour later he called back saying he had 50 requests for the place and was shutting his phone off. However, if we wanted it—the current tenant was there and willing to show it—it was ours.”
The couple quickly thanked him and drove to the location, riding on high hopes that they were a few of the lucky ones that caught a break. But the silver lining soon began to tarnish.
“The second we walked in I thought, ‘This is not going to work,’” she sighs.
The advertised square footage listing turned out to mean the whole property, which was divided up between the house and an added-on studio. The actual two-bedroom house was approximately 700 square feet.
“It had a wood-burning stove, and not even a cool one,” she says with a disheartened chuckle. “Half of the stove didn’t work, along with the dishwasher. The laundry unit was out back by the other studio and [the house tenant] distinctly said ‘The people that live in the studio pay for the water for the washer and dryer, so they don’t want you using it very often.’ Which is great, since the whole point of us moving in was so we could have a baby with extra space and laundry.”
To make matters worse, her current rent has been rising by $100 a year.
“Every year I think, ‘maybe it will go down and we’ll be able to move,’” says Teitzel. “And then it’s higher! I can only make so much money.”
Teitzel’s mother, Dale Davis, has an equally painful story.
In 2011, she and her husband Floyd Davis, both residents of Santa Cruz County for three decades, finally found a place to rent in their dream area of La Selva Beach.
“Our landlord said she would never sell our house, as it was her parents’ before they died,” Davis explains.
However, in February, the 875-square-foot house next door sold for $2,000 over the asking price of $799,800, after just one day on the market. Soon after, the realtor called every owner on the street, telling them there were already buyers lined up with money ready. That’s when Davis received the bad news.
“The landlord called and said we had 60 days to move,” she says. “We are both in our early 60s with a 4-pound Yorkie. The stress of trying to find a place we could afford, and also took a pet, was nearly impossible.”
The Davises eventually found affordable housing, but it is far from ideal.
“We wanted to stay closer to the Santa Cruz and Capitola areas, as our children live there, but were forced to settle for a place in Watsonville that might not be the safest for people our age,” says Davis. “In my opinion, Santa Cruz County needs to embrace the older renters and try to get the landlords to appreciate what we can offer them as far as stability, no noise, pride of ownership, etc.”
In a report entitled Out of Reach released last month by the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC), the group announced “rents for apartments have risen nationally for 23 straight quarters.” What’s more, in 13 states, including D.C., “ the housing wage is more than $20 per hour,” meaning renters need to earn more than $20 an hour to afford a two-bedroom unit—a feat not often possible for single parents, working-class families and many working professionals in Santa Cruz.
NLIHC also named California as having the third-highest housing wages in the country (behind Hawaii and D.C., respectively) with the average full-time worker needing to earn $26.65 an hour to afford a two-bedroom unit.
Even with the economy turning around, 44 percent of the jobs created since the recession are minimum wage and low-skilled (retail, field labor, cleaning, etc) and many pay well under a living wage in some of the most expensive states, including California.
Try finding a house as a kindergarten teacher, like Kat Beaulieu, 64, who has lived in Santa Cruz for 30 years.
“I have Section 8,” she begins. “And places are either too expensive, don’t allow pets—I have a well-behaved little kitty—or don’t take Section 8.”
Beaulieu has lived in her current home with another roommate for two years. Before that, she lived in a private studio for 13 years before the landlord decided it was time to sell.
“I really wasn’t interested in having a housemate,” Beaulieu states. “But I was ready to move. Even then, it took me months to find something!”
Recently, her current housemate (who is the primary rentee) decided their living situation wasn’t ideal anymore, and Beaulieu needed to move. After a lot of research, she was able to find two potential residencies—however, both passed on her because of her cat. As with Teitzel and Davis, moving out of the area is not an option.
“I have a good job here,” she says. “I don’t have family anyplace else.”
Those interviewed by Good Times agree that rent control is one option that could help alleviate the current renting crises. But it’s not currently on the table in City Hall.
“It’s been a long time since rent control has come up,” explains Santa Cruz City Councilmember Micah Posner. “Very few cities do rent control anymore and one of the reasons is because the corporations [will often take the issue to court].”
But don’t start packing to move out of Santa Cruz just yet. On Tuesday, June 2, the City Council hosted the first part of two workshops to tackle the current housing and renting shortage.
“Everything is expensive and it’s rising exponentially,” says Posner. “Buying a home has risen twice the rate of inflation over the last 30 years and renting a place has risen four times. There’s a huge percentage of people spending over 30 percent [on rent], which is what’s recommended.”
While the City of Santa Cruz did add roughly 125 low-income housing units last year, it did not meet its goal set by the Association of Monterey Bay Area Governments. What’s more, last year the city lost millions of dollars in redevelopment money when agencies throughout the state were cut. Less housing means even fewer low-income units. However, our elected officials are working on it.
“One thing that was brought up is a new tax called the ‘Transfer Tax,’” says Posner. “So whenever someone sold a house, the city would get some money for affordable housing. That’s an idea I’m interested in. Another is raising the minimum wage.” Which brings up a burning question: If cities like Los Angeles and Seattle—which are cheaper to live in than Santa Cruz—can raise their minimum wage to $15 an hour, why can’t Santa Cruz raise it even a little?
This very questions was posed to City Council members on May 26 when seven city workers were arrested for disrupting a meeting. The Service Employees International Union Local 521 workers handcuffed themselves together to protest their lack of wage increases after taking pay cuts or wage stagnation during and since the recession.
“As soon as we finish with these budget hearings, which are taking up all my time, I’m going to put some work into that and try to get it to the council,” says Posner.
Until then, Santa Cruzans will have to continue the dog-eat-dog rental search, or find happiness in the convenience of washing their dishes from bed.
PHOTO: Two new reports confirm just how dire the situation for Santa Cruz renters has become.