Stacey Falls and Steve Schnaar in their motorhome | Janjaap Dekker
By Andrea Patton
Photos by Janjaap Dekker
Santa Cruz teacher Stacey Falls and her husband, Steve Schnaar, have made six full-price offers on houses in Santa Cruz over the last two years. Each time another buyer has swooped in with cash offering over the asking price, and their offers were ignored.
“People kept saying to me, ‘If you write a nice cover letter, and explain that you’re a local teacher, you’re going to have a seller that cares about supporting local teachers and they’ll sell to you,’ and it just never happened. It just felt so demoralizing,” Falls told me over the phone.
For Falls, an AP chemistry teacher at Santa Cruz High School, the urgency of buying a home heightened recently after she received a notice to vacate from the house she and Schnaar have rented for 12 years.
With rent costs skyrocketing — her current neighbors of eight years recently moved because their rent has been raised over the last two years from $1,600 to $3,200 per month for a two bedroom home — and the uncertainty that renters face in general, the couple recently bought a fifth wheel trailer. The couple plans to live in the motorhome for the next year while they save up more money than the standard 20 percent down they’ve been offering on homes.
The couple has received help from Landed, a social justice-minded mortgage program that has partnered with the Santa Cruz County Department of Education to help teachers with 10 percent of their down payments on homes.
Falls is also a housing justice activist. She says that until the rent control campaign for Measure M got underway, she and Schnarr enjoyed an amicable relationship with their landlords. That was until they responded to an article in the Santa Cruz Sentinel.
“The Sentinel did a story saying rent control doesn’t work,” Falls said, “so Steve and I wrote letters to the editor from the perspective of renters. What does it mean to work? What would make it work? If it protects workers, then it does. That was January of 2018. About a month later, we got a notice of our rent increasing, and we were being put on month to month.”
The landlord told them she reads the Sentinel. The couple later penned a longer editorial.
After the letters to the editor published, she was asked to speak in favor of Measure M. She hadn’t wanted to be a spokesperson, but she was convinced to speak at a forum hosted by the People’s Democratic Club.
The event was widely advertised and Falls spotted her landlady in the audience before she began to speak. “The whole time my heart was racing and I was completely panicking because my landlady was there,” she says.
Shortly after that speech, and three days after her cat of 14 years died, she received the eviction notice taped to her door. “I feel fairly certain that I am being evicted in retaliation, but because I can’t prove it there’s nothing I can do about it,” she said. “So I’m having my life of 12 years turned upside down.”
'As industrious as I was, we were just scraping by.'
One of the most common stories I would hear as an Uber driver in Santa Cruz involved the struggle to find housing.
In 2015, I had picked up Uber driving while teaching in Ohio for the extra money. Also, as an aspiring writer, I had romanticized the cab driver experience. When I moved to Santa Cruz, it became a primary source of income in addition to working part-time as an office manager at Good Times until I got hired by Cabrillo College as an adjunct English instructor, while also doing freelance writing and dog walking.
Like most renters, you can’t say I wasn’t hard-working.
Of course, I had my own story to share with my riders. I had returned to Santa Cruz in the summer of 2016 after my partner, Leia, had accepted an adjunct teaching position at UCSC. It was exciting for me since I’d grown up in Salinas and lived in Santa Cruz after high school.
For months leading up to our move I had been scouring the Craigslist ads for housing and I had a good sense of the market, so when I found a 250-square-foot studio near the Mission for $1,250 a month, I decided to go to the open house even though I was staying at my brother’s house in Lake Tahoe, and Leia was at a family reunion in Mississippi.
I woke up at 4:30 a.m. and headed down the mountain to be the first in line at the open house. My friend from elementary school met me there and pointed out the 15 or so other people behind me had portfolios with them. She suggested I go downtown, buy chocolates and a card to include with my application to sweeten the offer. I felt that my money orders for first and last month’s rent, my partner’s job offer I had printed, and my 15 years of teaching were sufficient, but they weren’t. Because Leia wasn’t with me to meet her, the landlady passed on us.
Fortunately, we ended up finding a great place with good landlords on the Westside. After her first semester at UCSC, Leia began teaching as an adjunct professor at CSU Monterey Bay, and I continued juggling my four jobs.
Our hope was to make it work in the place we loved, but the adjunct salary was too low, and as industrious as I was, we were just scraping by. She was offered a research fellowship at the University of Washington in the fall of 2018, and it seemed like our best opportunity to carve out a future where we could become homeowners.
That year, a tenure-track position became available at CSU Monterey Bay, and realizing that she really enjoyed teaching, she also applied for a diversity teaching fellowship that caught the attention of Reed College in Portland.
She was offered both jobs and we were faced with the difficult decision: move back to the Monterey Bay, where we had quickly established a sense of community in Santa Cruz but would probably never afford to own a house ourselves, or start all over in Portland, where the cost of housing wasn’t going to exclude two working teachers from being homeowners.
That’s how I found myself at the Oregon Educator Job Fair in Portland where I met the assistant superintendent of Santa Cruz City Schools, Molly Parks.
"If it’s just like ‘oh Santa Cruz is a cool place to live,’ it doesn’t work out.”
Parks has been attending the Oregon Educator Fair for five years. It’s one of several she attends. Some years, she goes to six, most of them in Southern California. This year, because of declining enrollment, which she attributes to the fact that housing is unaffordable for young families, this is one of two that she attended outside of the job fair that Santa Cruz County puts on.
“When I’m out doing recruiting fairs, I try to find out: Do they have a connection here in Santa Cruz?” Parks said. “Do they have friends, do they have family, kind of a support to come here because if they don’t, if it’s just like ‘oh Santa Cruz is a cool place to live,’ it doesn’t work out.”
Parks says that, In 2016-2018, 46 percent of the job offers sent to candidates for Santa Cruz jobs were rejected due to the cost of living. She adds that 31 percent of the district’s resignations in the last year were tracked to not being able to afford to live in the area.
Parks tells me over the phone that Santa Cruz has an older workforce that was able to establish stable housing early in their careers. Of this year’s resignations, 35 percent are retiring, and that means replacing those teachers with new teachers in the middle of a housing crisis.
Santa Cruz is one of several Central Coast districts developing plans to offer affordable workforce housing to teachers. Parks says the district has a parcel of land near Natural Bridges Elementary School. It’s a vacant lot that was once used to store tractors, but district officials are looking at the property as a possible site for teacher housing.
'I feel for my students ... but I have to take care of my own life.”
Alicia Meyers is a new teacher in the Alisal School District. Three years ago she moved from Orange County to Marina for her teaching job at Virginia Rocca Barton Elementary School. She plans to move again after this school year, though. “I’m 30. I’m not close to paying off my student debt, and I have three roommates. That’s not how it should be,” she said.
Meyers doesn’t have family in the area, something she points to as a life raft for other new teachers struggling to afford housing. She is looking for jobs in a more affordable part of the state. “Most of the school districts in California you get paid the same amount,” she said, “but the cost of living is so dramatic that it doesn’t make sense for me to stay.”
Her first year was very challenging, with almost half of her take-home pay going to rent. Like other teachers, she finds other creative ways to secure income.
“I’ve done Saturday school, summer school, tutoring, piano lessons, house sitting, little things that help,” Meyers said. “We also have things through the district where we can get paid extra, like additional trainings on Saturdays. I’ll go to those sometime.”
She said she will regret leaving her school.
“I really like my school and the people I work with,” Meyers said. “We have good admin, students, families. I’ve always known I can’t stay. It’s always been in the back of my head that this wasn’t going to be the place where I was going to end up. That’s kinda sad. I feel for my students, and all that change and whatnot, and I wish I could be a constant, but I have to take care of my own life too.”
'Nobody in this town seems to care. I just feel super unappreciated.'
Stacey Falls, the Santa Cruz teacher who worked the Measure M campaign, said she recognizes that the rising cost of housing affects the entire Monterey Bay region. “During the campaign, people would say to me, ‘If you can’t afford to live here, you can just move,’” she said.
“Some people, that’s what they’re doing, They’re like, oh, I can move to Watsonville and that would be cheaper, so you have all these white middle-class people who can’t hang in a rich people’s town, and they’re moving to Watsonville, which is making Watsonville more expensive. Then you have people from Watsonville moving to Salinas, making Salinas more expensive. It’s like this wave of gentrification.”
That’s why Falls continues to fight for better housing options for everyone. “The Movement for Housing Justice, which was the main coalition working on Measure M, is still trying to get stuff done,” she says. They are looking toward Community Land Trust’s model of decommodified housing as well as the East Bay Permanent Real Estate Cooperative. The cooperative is made up of community-owners who follow a particular model of real estate acquisition that is based on community investment and organizing to effect lasting change.
“We’re looking at what does it look like to have housing for community, and not for profit,” Falls says. “And maybe it’s the community land trust model, and maybe it’s different, but our goal is to start something like that in Santa Cruz.”
“One of the good things that came out of the election, even though Measure M lost, is that we for the first time in decades elected a truly progressive city council majority,” she says.”They have a lot of pressure on them.”
In the meantime, Falls waits for the community to recognize the crisis and act. “I’m a teacher of 14 years and I have a master’s degree,” she says. “I teach a hard subject and I do a good job of it. And nobody in this town seems to care. I just feel super unappreciated.”
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