When I studied political science my work centered on public opinion and mass communications. From the body of literature comes the notion of agenda setting, which argues that the media’s coverage has the ability to elevate the public perception of the importance (or salience) of a given topic or subject area.
However, the media lacks the ability, under modern agenda-setting theory, to influence the direction of the public’s view.
I have to believe that the notion of agenda setting applies not just to the media but to all political actors. The power of activists is to raise the importance of an issue in the public sector with elected officials, the media, and voters. But while they can raise the perceived importance of the issue – the direction of the public’s support for an issue may be uninfluenced by activists.
In September 2015, Eileen Samitz wrote a guest piece in both the Enterprise and Vanguard entitled, “UCD needs to build more student housing now.” In it, she noted the beginning of the LRDP process and argued that “UCD has not taken enough action on building on-campus housing for its own rapid student population growth for more than two decades.”
Over the course of the next two years, Eileen Samitz led the way on arguing that UC Davis has the primary responsibility to build on-campus housing to accommodate their growth.
In most ways, she has been successful at elevating the importance of the issue of student housing. UC Davis eventually announced they would be willing to go up to 6200 new housing units, accommodating 90 percent of the new student enrollment growth and 40 percent of the overall student population with on-campus housing.
But that, she argued, was not good enough. She pushed for 100 percent of all new housing on-campus and 50 percent of the overall student population housed on campus. The city of Davis would send multiple letters to UC Davis to that effect.
In addition to gaining the support of the city of Davis and later Yolo County to push for 100/50, the university has modestly shifted from an initial position of “even in our highest on-campus
housing scenario, we do not anticipate being able to house every new student,” to a hard number of 6200 beds, to a softer commitment to attempt to add additional height and density on a project by project basis.
At the same time we have seen the limits of pressure on UC Davis. The university is a few months away from issuing its draft EIR and it will not commit to building more than 6200 beds and certainly has balked at committing to get to 10,000 new beds or the 50 percent of all student enrollment housed on campus.
Moreover, Ms. Samitz and others have taken the position that any attempt by the city to build housing in town is simply subsidizing UC Davis’ irresponsibility.
In this respect, Ms. Samitz has been far less successful. While she has succeeded in elevating the importance of student housing in segments of the community, many have not gone down the line with her and have argued that the city is probably going to need to add their own student housing to accommodate the 0.2 percent vacancy rate.
As a result, the council last spring, over her objection, passed the Sterling project. This fall, they are expected to consider the Lincoln40 project, which she also opposes.
Here she has argued that we are being presented with mega-dorms that should be housed on campus. She argues that the structure is such that they are not serving families and other populations beside students. However, here she has been less successful.
While the council can simply vote to approve projects like Sterling and Lincoln40, projects like Nishi require a Measure R vote. Last spring, Nishi fell just over 600 votes shy of passage. Segments of the community balked at the project based on its lack of affordable housing and traffic impacts.
But Nishi is now back with a project that addresses both of those concerns while adding about 2600 beds. As we argued last weekend, doing the math, Nishi plus Lincoln40 and Sterling gets the city to about 4100 new beds and if you combine that with the 6200 UC Davis has committed to building in the next ten years – you get to the 10,000 bed mark which the Vanguard and others believe is needed to alleviate the housing crunch.
On Tuesday, Eileen Samitz pushed back during public comment, arguing among other things that the city would be subsidizing UC Davis’ irresponsible growth practices.
But, while the council clearly agrees with Ms. Samitz on some issues, they are not in lock step.
As Will Arnold put it, “It’s absolutely critical that we continue to put pressure on UC Davis to do their part and to fulfill the obligations that they’ve already made as well as respond to what the city has requested of them with regards to increasing their share of students that are housed on campus that is more in line with the rest of the university of California system.”
He added, “I also believe there is value to an all-hands-on-deck approach here too.” He said, “I’m unfortunately not convinced that the university is listening to us in any way.
“No matter what we do – whether we build enough to address our vacancy and to address the affordability for students,” he said. “There’s a worry – and I share that – that by doing this we’re somehow letting them off the hook. But at the same time, whether we did it or not, UC Davis has proven one thing, they’re going to do whatever they want regardless of what the city does.”
Robb Davis had similar comments, noting people’s concern “that if we do this, we’re somehow letting UC Davis off the hook.”
The mayor argued, “I don’t see it that way. I see what we’re doing as being responsible.”
“We’re trying to be responsible people and say, whether you fulfill your responsibility or not, we’re going to try to fulfill ours,” he said. “I think that’s what this community has always done with students – it’s tried to fulfill its responsibilities.”
In the end it is hard to know if Nishi will pass, but given that the project has addressed the two biggest causes for the project’s June 2016 downfall, it seems much more likely that it would pass this time. But if it does, it may be because Nishi will address a huge chunk of the remaining student housing problem – and part of the reason that has gained resonance has been the dogged determination of Eileen Samitz.
In the end, while she was able to put the issue on the radar of many in this community and to raise the profile of the student housing issue to a top issue throughout the community, she may not be able to control the direction that policy importance takes us.
—David M. Greenwald reporting