On Tuesday night, a city council that we have criticized for lacking leadership stepped up and did what they could not turn away from – took a modest but meaningful step to try to alleviate a student housing crisis of frightening proportions.
There are those who do not like the use of the term “crisis,” however I see no other term to describe a situation where one student told the council, “I struggle from April to August to find a place to live in Davis and I had to prepare myself to be homeless if I could not find a place.” And she was far from the only student who mentioned homelessness as a possibility.
For 18 months the debate that has taken place perhaps most prominently on these pages has been over UC Davis versus the city of Davis having the obligation for housing. For their part, ASUCD in a resolution “believes both the City of Davis and UC Davis should plan and/or prioritize projects that provide affordable housing options to students, staff, and community members in order to combat this housing crisis and its current and future repercussions.”
But even more, what we saw on Tuesday night was a glimpse into the lives of students and into a situation that, quite frankly, is far worse than many of us have imagined.
This is not a zero sum game where the university needs to build housing so that we do not – we have been fighting the wrong fight and arguing over the wrong issue. Councilmember Rochelle Swanson was absolutely correct that this has gone from a land use issue to a social justice issue – how can we turn our backs on the students that are the life blood of this community and the future of our society?
We have talked about 0.2 percent vacancy until it has become clichéd, but the number itself does no justice to the human costs that underline it. Sara Williams was one of at least two students who talked about taking on multiple jobs in order to pay rent.
In addition to the student who talked about preparing herself for homelessness, Georgia Savage warned, “from a student perspective, not passing this project is risking homelessness for students, which I would argue is a significantly more present issue.”
It was too common, too stark, too desperate to dismiss this talk as simply rhetoric.
As ASUCD Senator Daniel Nagey put it, part of making education affordable is making housing affordable because “without affordable housing, students will spend all of their hours working and not studying to afford their house. Then the whole point of attending college is moot.”
Samantha Chiang, ASUCD Senate President Pro Tem, said that many students are “forced to start their housing search in November of their first year, only to not find a house and be forced to couch surf in the following year. We cannot be pawns in the game between the city and the university – we are consistently advocating on both ends to increase housing.”
Students should be focused on their studies, not worried about where they are going to live or how they are going to pay rent. This is unacceptable and, while the university is a huge part of the problem here, this community can no longer look the other way and say that this is not our problem.
What I saw on Tuesday night is that too many people – many of whom have stable housing – are nitpicking this project because, like most projects, it has flaws. We can argue over whether having one bathroom per room is the right set up, whether this is too dense, whether it creates too much of an impact on the neighbors and traffic.
But, as Rochelle Swanson put it, “How many students are going to stay homeless on our watch while we struggle for perfection? It is true that the perfection is the death of the good.”
I recall the lady who listened to the students’ situation and was clearly moved by it, but then she said that she worried whether this is going to be affordable for them. And yet the students in this situation were not nitpicking the project, they were looking for a life raft to save them.
The current situation is what is not workable for them. Don Gibson noted that “13 percent was the approximate increase in rent from this time last year because landlords have all of the power in the city of Davis.”
Daniel Nagey noted, “Renters (landlords he meant) can capitalize on the fact that there aren’t a lot of housing spaces – so they can charge double or triple the amount that they should be charging.”
This is the lack of affordability that the students had to deal with.
At the same time, council is to be commended on two fronts. First, they did not turn their backs on Rancho Yolo, whose senior residents are themselves in a vulnerable population group here. The council, led by Will Arnold and Brett Lee, vowed to protect the Rancho Yolo residents.
Will Arnold, speaking first, said, “There is a legitimate fear of potential displacement in the Rancho Yolo residents, that must not be ignored.” He added, “As long as I am on the city council, I will fight to support Rancho Yolo, period.”
Councilmember Arnold said he is committed to Rancho Yolo remaining an affordable senior mobile home community “in perpetuity.”
Brett Lee backed that up by making the protection of Rancho Yolo a condition of his support for the project, while Lucas Frerichs and Robb Davis are working on a county ordinance to protect all mobile home residents.
Past councils would have simply rammed this project through when they had the votes, but this council took the extra steps to make sure that the needs of Rancho Yolo residents were protected, even if the residents were still not happy with this project.
But the council went further than just this. Many have argued that the university can simply wait for the council to act to resolve the housing problem, and that approving projects like Sterling lets the university off the hook.
The reality is that this is not true. If anything, this action by the council strengthens their position to push UC Davis, because now they can claim that they have stepped up to the plate to do their part.
And, as Will Arnold put it, “UC Davis is not doing enough to house its students on campus, that’s not just my opinion it’s a fact based on their own previous commitments to the city.”
At the same time, we have to recognize that UC Davis will not solve this problem alone.
Will Arnold made this point as well: “But even in the best case scenario in which UCD tomorrow agrees to our request which they’ve given no indication that they plan to do, and then they keep their word on that promise which they’ve never done before, the best case scenario is that the current dismal state of housing stays exactly the same for the next ten years and beyond. That is unacceptable.”
Sending the message to UC Davis, he said that “should we approve this proposal tonight, we are stepping up to the challenge you have created. It’s time for you to do the same.”
And Will Arnold was backed here by all of his colleagues.
The students did not let the university off the hook either.
Josh Delavai, President of ASUCD, said, “I wanted to assure everyone that student pressure is not focused solely on the council and the city level, but with campus housing and their obligation to provide housing as well. It’s a multifaceted approach.”
Georgia Savage, with the ASUCD Office of Advocacy, said housing was voted the most pressing issue in the UC System. “We are in the process of urging the university as well as you all to build more housing. We are still in the process of negotiating our LRDP with the university.”
Samantha Chiang said, “I want to assure (you) that ASUCD has done its best, we authored Senate Resolution 7 earlier this year to encourage the university.”
At the same time, “The university alone cannot bear the burden of housing. Students are not issues, we are a vibrant part of this community. I’ve heard so much rhetoric that this would profit the university, but in the meantime, students are being used as pawns. Each day that we wait for the perfect project and the perfect time is another day that our students suffer from housing and security. We are the ones (who) truly feel the brunt of the 0.2 percent vacancy rate.”
So I say to the council, do not wait for the university to act in order to alleviate the suffering that our students are experiencing.
At the same time, I say to the university, go to 100/50, and do not wait for the LRDP process to be complete – you can start acting now. Housing does not get built overnight. This situation is urgent, please, for the sake of our next generation, we need leadership now and no more excuses.
—David M. Greenwald reporting