Some love it, others not so much
I lived in the Santa Cruz area for 20 years. UCSC alum. Our kids were born there. There are wonderful things about Santa Cruz, but also many serious problems that we could no longer ignore.
First, the good.
Spectacular natural beauty with beaches, ocean cliffs, and redwoods. Great mountain biking, miles upon miles of great single track meandering through redwood, oak, and chaparral. Scenic hikes. I hear the surfing is great, though I don't surf.
And now the bad.
Crime is off the charts terrible. Property crime is even worse than the stats indicate because many have given up and no longer report it. Nothing happens, even if the perpetrator is caught, so why bother. If you park your car on the street it will eventually get broken into. Even if you don't leave anything of value in view there's a good chance your window(s) will get broken. Anything not locked or bolted down will eventually be stolen. Gets old fast. There are pockets where this is less of a problem, but these areas are the priciest.
The city itself has the potential to be gorgeous, yet it's run down and grimy. Human excrement, trash, and filth on the sidewalks. Used hypodermic needles discarded on the street and in city parks. Large numbers of people camping and injecting along the river greenbelt and otherwise polluting the river. When it rains this pollution is flushed out to the bay, and the needles wash up on the beaches. Roads are generally in very poor condition. City parks are also run down, with bathrooms in particularly bad condition as homeless bathe/wash clothes in the sinks and inject in the stalls. Some neighborhood groups have lobbied to have park restrooms permanently shuttered due to the problems they attract.
Traffic, especially during the summer tourist season when you most want do stuff, is atrocious. Bad. All. The. Time. Forget about parking at beaches/trailheads on weekends or holidays during the high season. Due to no-growth policies, HWY 1 is essentially the only option for East-West travel and is severely congested. There are "back roads" but these are just as congested, if not more. Need something in Aptos midweek afternoon? Forget about it! You'll be sitting in traffic for an hour.
Climate is very mild, which can be good or bad depending on one's preferences. Sept-Oct are *the* best months to live in and enjoy Santa Cruz. The tourists have gone home, it's warm, and the June-gloom is gone. June-gloom is when the marine layer blankets most of the city with fog/overcast. It's cold and dreary. And it's a bit of a misnomer... June-gloom often happens during much of July and August. Yes, Santa Cruz summers are often quite chilly. Winters aren't icy, yet often very rainy. Or not, which usually means drought and water rationing and fire danger.
Housing is unbelievably expensive. Unless you're wealthy/very high income, you're basically looking at cramped and/or substandard housing. We were fortunate to have purchased before housing prices got too bad, yet we could see it was extremely unlikely that our kids would ever be able to even afford rent. It's nearly impossible to make ends meet unless you're in the highest income brackets.
There's essentially zero affordable housing. A few affordable units may occasionally open up, but expect hundreds of people on the waiting list. I cannot emphasize this enough: Do not move to Santa Cruz without a solid plan for how to cover housing expenses or you will end up homeless (couch surfing, living in your vehicle, camping, etc).
In short, if you're wealthy and can easily afford the priciest parts of this extremely expensive city (e.g. beachfront or ocean views, gated property, garage), or if you just love the ocean and beach and redwoods so much that none of the other stuff matters, then you'll love it. However, if you're looking for a good, clean, safe, livable city then there are many better options.
NC | Boise City, ID