By Blake Atwell
Istanbul, Turkey native Savas Siricki came to Los Angeles in 2008 with plans to study English at UCLA for five months. Upon arriving to Los Angeles’ westside, Siricki faced one major issue: housing.
He couldn’t secure a reasonably priced off-campus UCLA apartment and quickly became sick of the culture within West Los Angeles’ student housing system. With no way to communicate his housing needs or get them resolved, Siricki founded a company designed to function as a bridge between students and landlords.
Nearly 12 years later, Zuma Housing stands as the westside’s largest student housing provider. With offices in both Los Angeles and Istanbul, Siricki’s company employees around 50 people. The young entrepreneur constructed a housing company built around the needs of students, with the motivation to help other international students like himself.
Despite Siricki’s efforts, international students attending schools such as UCLA and Santa Monica College (SMC) continually struggle to find housing across the city’s westside. Siricki attributes these difficulties to the expectations of incoming students, many of whom move to Los Angeles with very high standards.
The market conditions in Santa Monica and Westwood – for the prices students are looking for – don’t always reflect these expectations. Bridge-makers between students and landlords, including Zuma, SMC’s International Education Counseling Center and Apartments.com, have run into issues assisting their clients as a result.
“It’s difficult to explain to each side what they need to do and how they need to get the best benefits out of this business,” Siricki said.
Keryssa Robinson, the manager of Apartments.com’s new Santa Monica retail store, encounters similar difficulties.
“How expensive it is, sometimes [students] don’t realize it,” Robinson said.
In addition to high pricing, Robinson’s found language and transportation to be other recurring roadblocks for students. These issues are especially present in the circumstances of international students with plans to attend SMC.
“Sometimes that traffic up [near Westwood] getting towards the 405 can be quite challenging even though on paper it will say three miles. Three miles can mean 30 minutes.”
SMC, which holds more than 3,000 students from over 110 countries, works through many of the same challenges in assisting the housing needs of their international students. Teresa Morris, a Student Services Specialist at SMC’s International Education Counseling Center, finds most international students who come to SMC don’t have Social Security Numbers or credit histories.
To support the students, she provides international students with a letter that explains to the housing provider that they are not allowed to enter the country without a minimum financial guarantees.
“Each student must show proof of adequate funding before they may be issued an I-20 from Santa Monica College’s International Education Department and an F-1 Visa from the American consulate or Embassy in their home country,” Morris said. “Many housing managers will accept this letter in lieu of the SSN or credit history.”
Morris agrees with Siricki and Robinson in describing the West Los Angeles housing market as “expensive,” to say the least. To work around the high prices, Morris encourages some students to pursue a niche as an “empty nester,” a strategy that includes a veteran Santa Monica resident allowing students into their home.
“The new students need safe, close accommodations and the empty nesters need the extra cash, and often enjoy having young people in the house again, so it works out for everyone,” Morris said.
Neither Apartments.com or SMC work directly with Siricki’s Zuma Housing. Morris frequently directs her students to homestay agencies, since lease terms are typically flexible. SMC doesn’t have school-sponsored housing.
On the other hand, departments at four-year universities, like UCLA’s International Student Department, do sponsor outside agencies. Zuma has been sponsored by UCLA’s International Student Department since 2013.
Siricki describes his company as an “experience provider” that secures comfortable living for students. As a former international student himself, Siricki knows how it feels to scramble for last-second housing in West Los Angeles. He decided to do something about it, in hopes of changing student housing culture.
Through Zuma Housing, along with the efforts of housing aids like Apartments.com and SMC’s International Education Counseling Center, Siricki can only hope international students are able to reap the benefits.