The rental ordinance, passed in August 2010 by a 5-1 vote, spells bad-news-bears for those of us renting in Santa Cruz. The rhetoric around the measure was mostly about cracking down on illegal units and rentals that don’t meet basic habitability standards. At first glance, this might seem like a step towards a safer and saner rental market in Santa Cruz. Will this finally be the end of uninsulated garages listed as studios (at $800 a month) or two-bedroom bungalows crawling with rats and mold (at $1400-1600)? Maybe it will, but it’s going to cost us.
The rental ordinance was part of a deal made between the City and the University in 2008. City officials have debated it for years, and only recently has it taken its final form. The city has been asking the university to house more students on campus for a long time. Understandably so, since the city is under pressure from homeowners who feel like college students and their parties are ruining their quiet Westside neighborhoods. The ordinance is a response to this pressure.
The rhetoric behind the rental ordinance is aimed at “illegal units” or rentals that don’t meet basic habitability standards. The ordinance calls for periodic inspections of rentals, to be paid for by the rental owners. Rental owners must correct code violations that are found, which may lead to displaced tenants. Even Mike Rotkin admits that this displacement is inevitable. Property owners are angry that they have to pay while some renters are afraid of getting thrown out of the only rentals that they can afford.
Tenants are also worried, and rightly so, that the rental ordinance will drive up rental prices. There are two main reasons for this. The first is that the ordinance passes costs onto landlords, who will in turn pass them onto tenants. The second reason is that the most affordable rentals in this town are the obviously illegal ones. By eliminating these, many people will be priced out of the remaining rentals.
It would be naïve to think that the ordinance is actually about protecting renters. To understand who the ordinance actually serves, we can see who stands to benefit financially. The $322,000 budget for the rental ordinance is paid in half by UCSC. The rental ordinance is part of a push by UCSC to house two-thirds of the student population on campus in the next phase of campus growth. Connecting these facts, it’s obvious that the UC can make a significant amount of money by housing students on campus. By raising rental prices in town, the university can entice students to move onto campus. Sharing a room in a university apartment costs more than $1500 a person for the 2010-2011 school year. For that to be cheaper or more appealing than housing in town, rental prices in town will need to go through the roof.
Though this ordinance will address the concerns of homeowners, desperately clinging to their property values, and of the UC, which wants to capture student’s rental money in the wake of its financial implosion, ordinary renters in Santa Cruz will bear the brunt of its effects. As rental prices increase, our wages won’t. We will be forced to pay higher prices and, unlike some students, Mom won’t be footing the bill.
The proposed campus expansion to accommodate the students would develop 120 acres of previously undeveloped land around UC Santa Cruz. The very forests that attract students to Santa Cruz will be destroyed to accommodate them. Those of us who have nothing to gain from campus expansion are also losing a precious wild space. This may be ground for interesting alliances. Those of us who care about rental prices have common ground with those who want to protect wild places.
Capitalism is full of false choices. The rental market in Santa Cruz has asked renters to choose between pricey habitable rentals and less-expensive shoddy rentals. That we might want affordable and habitable rentals is, to them, laughable. Recent efforts by groups like Santa Cruz Solidarity, which bills itself as a “mutual support network for tenants and workers”, are interesting attempts at demanding both.
There is a pressing need for working class folks in Santa Cruz to stand up for themselves. I hope that this article creates conversations among friends, sipping 40’s or sipping coffee (or both, for a really crazy time), about the current situation in a new light. As working class folks, we need to come together to defend our interests. Those with money and those with power are organized to exploit us; we need to organize to defend ourselves.