Nearly 70 percent experience "rent burden" in Santa Cruz County, according to UC Santa Cruz survey results

University researchers partnered with community organizations to survey 1,700 renters across county; overcrowding and maintenance are issues, too

Photo of undergraduate student researchers
Dozens of undergraduate student researchers helped conduct a survey of 1,700 renters in Santa Cruz County. (Photo by Carolyn Lagattuta.)
Photo of professors Miriam Greenberg and Steve McKay
Sociology professor Miriam Greenberg and her colleague Steve McKay are co-leaders of the "No Place Like Home" project, a sweeping ongoing, multidisciplinary effort that engages students in the social sciences, arts, and humanities. (Photo by Carolyn Lagattuta.)
Photo of students interviewing a renter

Undergraduates Hermes Padilla and Karen Mestizo interviewed a resident of Watsonville about his experiences as a renter. (Photo by Steve McKay.)


Nearly 70 percent of renters surveyed in Santa Cruz County experience "rent burden," defined as spending more than 30 percent of their income on rent and utilities, according to preliminary results of a survey of 1,700 renters across the county conducted by UC Santa Cruz.

The survey also found that one in four renters devote a shocking 70 percent of their income to rent and utilities.

"This means only one-third of the people we talked to could be considered to be getting by," said Steve McKay, associate professor of sociology at UC Santa Cruz, who co-led the project with Sociology Professor Miriam Greenberg. "Housing is the number-one issue in Santa Cruz County, and we have to find ways to relieve the burden renters are experiencing."

Renters also face significant challenges with overcrowding, evictions and forced moves, and major maintenance, the survey revealed. Additional findings include:

     • 27 percent of respondents experience overcrowding, with more than two people occupying a bedroom—a finding much higher than official statistics, McKay noted.

     • Of renters who moved in the last five years, 50 percent said the move was "forced or involuntary," most often due to eviction or a rent increase.

     • 57 percent said they had experienced at least one major problem with their rental, with maintenance and overall condition of the unit the most commonly cited problems.

McKay, Greenberg and their team will present their results during a free public event on Thursday, October 19, at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium. The event, which kicks off Affordable Housing Week, begins at 7 p.m.; Spanish translation will be provided. Co-sponsored by the City of Santa Cruz, the event also features a visual and literary art exhibit on the meaning of "home."

The study, "No Place Like Home: The Santa Cruz County Affordable Housing Crisis Report," was produced in collaboration with the Community Action Board of Santa Cruz County and Community Bridges, with financial support from the UC Humanities Research Institute, the UC Santa Cruz Institute for Humanities Research, the UCSC Division of Student Success, and the UC Office of the President, and others.

The findings build on results of an earlier survey McKay and Greenberg conducted of nearly 500 residents of the Beach Flats and Lower Ocean neighborhoods in Santa Cruz that documented similar levels of financial hardship.

In the latest installment, students reached out to renters in four additional neighborhoods—Live Oak, Watsonville, the Westside, and Downtown Santa Cruz—to talk with them about their experiences. Respondents were asked about rent, overcrowding, evictions and forced moves, and problems with maintenance, among other issues.

"By talking with 1,700 people, we are able to tell an important story that captures the experience of renters across our county," said McKay. "The story is sadly consistent, and these results underscore the need to address the housing crisis in our community."

The research is the product of a new model of "community-initiated student engaged research" being pioneered by McKay and Greenberg, who have worked with more than 200 UC Santa Cruz undergraduates since February 2016, many of whom are native Spanish speakers. This spring, McKay taught a new class in research methodologies, and students then administered surveys, traversing the county in bilingual pairs, knocking on doors and asking residents to spend 20-30 minutes responding to survey questions.

Respondents were offered $10 Safeway gift cards as an incentive, and all were offered a pamphlet explaining their rights as renters, whether they participated in the survey or not. Responses were collected on computer tablets, which allowed for rapid data analysis, said McKay. In addition, about 75 respondents participated in in-depth, follow-up interviews, some of which were edited into "digital stories" that will be debuted at the event.

"The students loved it," said McKay. "They came alive out in the field." For native Spanish speakers, many of who have been told they are deficient because they aren't native English speakers, the experience was particularly empowering, he said.

"Latinos, particularly non-English speakers, are perpetually undercounted and underrepresented in survey research, but we were able to reach them because our students could speak to them," said McKay. "These students became the most important asset in the research. They were bringing skills I don't have, and they are creating better research because of it."

McKay's students were also able to connect with vulnerable populations, including undocumented immigrants, who might otherwise be wary of survey research. "Many of our students are vulnerable themselves, so they could make a connection with the people they were interviewing," he said.

Community partners contributed to the success of the survey effort, said McKay.

"Respondents were more likely to open up, because we were working with community organizations they trust," he noted. Students attended events and got to know the clientele and staff of the Community Bridges' Resource Centers and the Community Action Board's Day Worker Center. They distributed flyers about the survey, and community leaders encouraged residents to participate.

Financial support from the UC Office of the President funded spring and summer research internships for participating students, who were paid $15 per hour, working 20 hours per week; that support enabled low-income students to participate in the research opportunity, noted McKay.

"We're trying to build this model of community-initiated, student-engaged research," said McKay. "This is one of the most fulfilling things I've done as an academic. It's what research at a public university should look like."

McKay and Greenberg worked with undergraduate teams of about 10 students, each of which focused on a particular area: field surveys and interviews; data analysis; expert interviews; background and policy research; digital mapping; digital storytelling; web design; art and literary production; events; and outreach.

"It's been an amazing opportunity to be part of this project," said Hermes Padilla, a senior Community Studies major who administered surveys, conducted in-depth follow-up interviews, and is now helping with data analysis. "It definitely changed my whole educational and career goals."

Talking with renters was eye opening, said Padilla, who learned of hardship that is "way harsher" than what renters experience in his hometown of Los Angeles. He was also struck by the gratitude of Watsonville residents, who appreciated his willingness to come to South County to speak to them in Spanish about their experiences.

"They thanked me for asking them about their experiences, and they thanked me for getting educated, like it was empowering for the community as a whole," said Padilla, who plans to build on the experience by doing a six-month field study of displaced homeless people in Latin America.

"No Place Like Home" is a sweeping, ongoing, interdisciplinary project. In Greenberg's classes, students researched the historic roots and impacts of affordable housing crises. Literature students wrote creative nonfiction inspired by renter experiences. A conceptual art class focused on the meaning of home.

Collaborators include the Center for Integrated Spatial Research, the Center for Statistical Analysis in the Social Sciences, and the Everett Program. The project also received funding and support from the Center for Labor Studies, the Critical Sustainabilities Project, departments of Sociology and Literature, Division of Social Sciences; the Chicano Latino Research Center; the Economic Justice Alliance, and the UCSC Sustainability Office.