As a UCSC undergrad, Luis Delfino lived in all kinds of precarious housing situations: an attic, a closet, even the bed of his truck. It was the housing crisis of the mid-80s, and things were getting dire.
“People were living in their vehicles, or living in the forest because they couldn’t afford to be in Santa Cruz and go to school,” says Delfino. “It made them nuts.”
One group of vehicle-dwelling students took up residence in the University’s East Remote lot, which became known around campus as “College Nine.” In response, university officials issued a car camping ban in 1983.
“They started arresting people for sleeping in cars, and people said, ‘We don’t have any choice,’” says Delfino. “The people that they kept kicking out of the parking lot said, ‘Look, you’ve gotta do something. You’ve gotta provide a space where we can live.’”
After careful and sometimes contentious negotiations between students and university officials, the UCSC Camper Park opened on Sept. 28, 1984. A year later, Delfino moved his grandparents’ travel trailer into what remains today the cheapest housing option on campus.
Back then, students at the trailer park paid about $115 a month to rent space from the university—at a time when UCSC housing cost around $3,000 per year. Other than that, they kept contact with the administration to a minimum, according to Delfino.
“It was like its own planet, which was great,” he says. “That’s exactly what I wanted, and what everybody who was there wanted. There wasn’t a lot of intrusiveness on the school’s part.”
Delfino recalls the park as a quiet place that was still trying to find its footing. “It didn’t feel like a community,” he says, “I think it was too new, and the idea of the place was just so strange. There wasn’t time enough to form an identity.”
By the year 2000, the park had established itself as a quirky counterculture outpost in a university increasingly eager to shed its grade-free “UC Summer Camp” reputation for a more serious approach.
“It was basically like paradise. Your backyard was a redwood forest,” says Joe Culpepper, who lived in the park from 2000-2002. The space provided an offbeat housing alternative for those looking to escape dorm life. Residents gathered for weekly communal dinners, dance parties and even the occasional naked soiree.
“There might have been slightly more streaking at the trailer park than other places on campus,” says Culpepper with a laugh. Still, he adds, residents of the park were far from psychedelic space-cases. “It attracted free thinkers and free spirits, but also people who were radically self-reliant.”
Because students owned the trailers, they were responsible for maintaining them, which often meant replacing tires, fixing leaks and repairing broken electrical wiring. “I learned a ton about basic maintenance,” he says. “It was a much higher level of freedom, but also responsibility.”
The trailers were as eclectic as residents themselves, each painted vibrant hues and surrounded by community garden spaces where residents grew herbs, vegetables and flowers. Even the communal bathrooms were decorated with murals and thought-provoking quotes.
It was important to residents to maintain the community and preserve the trailer park, which they felt was being threatened by university expansion. To do so, they founded the organization Homes on Wheels to spread awareness about the park and its value to the community.
“Homes on Wheels was to protect the trailer park because it’s always, always, constantly been under threat of more development by UC Santa Cruz,” says Culpepper, who describes the relationship between park residents and university officials at the time as tense. UCSC’s Long Range Development Plan had already marked the area as a potential location for Colleges 11 and 12.
Now, almost two decades since its Y2K heyday, the trailer park remains intact, but it looks very different.
In the spring of 2016, the university decided to replace the colorful, student-owned trailers with more homogenous, university-issued mobile homes. Campus officials removed art sculptures, painted over murals and re-designed the entry into the park.
Before, graduating residents could select new students to sell their trailers to from a waitlist of those interested in moving to the park. While the selection process was helpful in maintaining the “ethos” of the trailer park, 2015 resident Mason Scharer says, “In a way, it created a friend-to-friend nepotism for who gets to be in the trailer park that the university was trying to crack down on.”
Scharer and other graduating residents were given 30-day notice to either remove their trailers themselves, or let the university do it for them. The university offered a settlement of $2,500 to each student, but in order to receive payment, they had to sign an agreement not to sue the university or hold them liable for any breach of housing contract, says Scharer.
Now, instead of students choosing new residents, the university dictates who lives in the park. While the changes are reportedly aimed at promoting accessibility, safety and affordability at the campus’ only low-income housing option, 2018 resident Noah Panec, who lived in one of the new university-owned trailers, is skeptical about the motivation for the changes.
“I think their complete goal was to get rid of the community that existed there, so that they could have more control over the space,” he says. “If they really care about it being low-income housing, they should find a way to provide more than 40 spaces.”
Earlier this year, amid another Santa Cruz housing crisis, UCSC officials rejected a proposal from students asking for the right to sleep in their vehicles on campus, citing the “safety and legal issues it would present.” Meanwhile, rent at the UCSC Camper Park now ranges between $629-702 per month.