Santa Cruz’s Population Roller Coaster
Much ink has been spilled, and airtime filled, discussing the exodus of Californians from the Bay Area and the state altogether, but Santa Cruz managed to buck that trend in 2022 thanks to its large student population returning to campus.
Between July 2021 and July 2022, Santa Cruz added about 7,000 people — a 12.5% increase — to bring its total population to 61,800 on July 1, 2022, according to newly released population estimate data from the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s second only to Georgetown, Texas, for the fastest growing city in the country, among those with at least 50,000 residents.
“I don’t think it’s much of a mystery,” said Santa Cruz Mayor Fred Keeley, “the University of California at Santa Cruz is the single largest entity in our town.”
On campus, the redwood-lined paths and bus stops are bustling. Margarida Costa is a fourth-year student, majoring in feminism and sociology. She first came to Santa Cruz in 2019, but went back home to Colorado in the spring of 2020, and now she’s back.
“I’ve noticed a lot more students on campus, than even my freshman year,” she said.
Although the surfing mecca’s population had a huge jump in 2022, it’s still shy of returning to 2020 population levels. The first year of the pandemic, when campus was mostly closed, the city lost nearly 13% of its population.
But the scale of Santa Cruz’s population swing was relatively unique, with both a steeper drop and steeper climb back than other cities with at least 50,000 residents and large college student populations.
The city of Berkeley, with twice the population of Santa Cruz and close to twice the number of students, saw an 8% decrease in the first year of the pandemic, but only a 4% increase the next year, when students returned to campus. San Francisco saw a 7.2% drop in the first year of the pandemic, and no recovery in the second.
“We’re all thrilled to be back with students on campus and in-person instruction,” said Scott Hernandez‑Jason, a spokesperson for UCSC.
After Georgetown, Texas, and Santa Cruz, the other three fastest-growing cities that round out the top 5 nationally were also in Texas — Kyle, Leander and Little Elm.
Despite the population drop in 2021, the local real estate market has been hot and stretched thin for inventory since before the pandemic, said Sam Bird-Robinson, a UCSC alumnus, and real estate agent in the area for over a decade. And when the pandemic hit, more people were looking for homes, and remote work allowed many people to move further from urban centers.
Bird-Robinson thinks the population gains will continue, for better or worse.
“Attractive places attract people,” he said. “We have incredible weather, a beautiful coastline, majestic redwood-covered mountains.”
Bird-Robinson called Santa Cruz “a little slice of paradise,” but said the limiting factor is available housing.
“I’ve lived here for over 20 years … and I’ve never seen as much of a housing crunch,” he said.
Keeley agrees that the population will continue to grow, and that housing is one of the city’s biggest challenges, especially student housing. He said he is currently negotiating with the UC chancellor about on-campus housing, and voicing his support for getting affordable workforce housing on the ballot next year.
“Santa Cruz will always be a desirable place to live because of our natural environment,” he said, “Demand will always outstrip the supply.”
There are about 800 cities with more than 50,000 residents in the country, and those cities are home to 130 million people, about 40% of the population.
Based on county-level data released by the census earlier this year, except for Santa Cruz County, every county in the greater Bay Area had fewer residents in July 2022 than the previous year. The Bay Area and California both lost about 1% of their residents in the first year, and another .3% in 2022.
Of the nearly 500 cities or towns of any population in California for which the Census Bureau released data in May, Santa Cruz had the third-largest annual population change, and Paradise was the only city with a larger increase. The community in the Sierra foothills had a 24% increase in 2022 as it continues to rebuild and recover from the devastating 2018 Camp Fire.
Susanville had the other largest change in 2022. The Northern California town, close to the Nevada border, saw an 11% drop in 2022 after a local prison, the California Correctional Center, was closed.
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