Commentary: The Emerging Student Voice on Housing

A few months ago I hinted that new forces were starting to organize on the housing issue.  We saw a small hint of that on Tuesday as a number of students and recent graduates came forward to speak, even though most of them knew that Trackside itself wasn’t going to provide them with student housing.

We saw more of this last spring when Sterling came up.  I know some people believe that the students were organized by the developer or developer interests, but listen carefully to the stories, the personal stories, and you realize that there is a deep anxiety in students over where they are going to live and what is going to happen after they graduate from college.

I have been talking with students and student groups for much of the past year and these are the stories I hear over and over again.  They can’t find a place to live so they end up living in their car or crashing out on the couch of their friends.  They pack in several to a room so they can share the rent and reduce the costs.

The dynamics here are changing and changing quickly.  On a non-student housing project, enough students came out to speak on Tuesday to basically fight the neighbors to a draw in terms of numerical numbers.

There are student groups that are organizing on campus.  Regional housing groups that are gathering momentum to provide affordable housing options for students and young professionals.

The students are talking about housing, housing and more housing.  The 0.2 percent vacancy rate and soaring rental costs are driving students to organize, to speak.  And it is not just focused on city
housing issues – the university is going to face increased action on campus as well.

As one person told me this week: “The students are awakened on housing and they are going to be a force.”  The coming council campaign will be about housing.

Some have suggested that Nishi should wait until November when they can get more students to vote, but my sense is that if they can put forward a proposal that the left-activist types can back, with affordable housing, that it might not matter.  The housing situation is so scarce and desperate that students are going to come out and vote like they rarely have, and that will make for very interesting dynamics – not only with Nishi, but with who gets elected to council.

One of the interesting policy discussions, probably in my view more interesting than the debate over design guidelines, will be the infill versus peripheral growth issue.

Ron Glick once again on Tuesday raised the idea that the problem here is that, because we have Measure R, all of these projects have emerged as infill projects and Measure R has forced developers – or incentivized them in any case – to seek maximum density.

Now of course Mr. Glick sees infill as a negative for the community, while others believe that denser housing is a very positive thing for the community and can lead to smart growth principals that help reduce VMT (vehicle miles traveled) and get people out of their cars – especially if you can couple it with a jobs/housing balance.

A community discussion or debate over the type of housing that comes with infill seems necessary.  Because, as I have suggested in previous efforts, the housing crisis is so stark and so grave, we are going to be under tremendous pressure to either grow up with greater density or grow outward.

At the same time, there were some suggestions that what we need is a Measure J/R for infill projects.

But, just as I believe the neighbors at Trackside misread where the community would come down on issues like design guidelines and even general opposition to high density infill, I think those who push forward the notion of a Measure J/R for infill are misreading where the community – and in particular the younger segments of the community – are headed on housing in general.

You can certainly attempt to bottle up housing, as we have on the periphery for some time, but at some point the pressure may get too great and people may see pushback from students and younger families – if there are any left.

My biggest concern going forward is whether the middle will hold in Davis.  Or whether Davis eventually becomes a community of students, those under 25, and the retired, those over 65, with not much in the middle.

We have seen the debate over student housing with some pushing for more housing that is one to three bedrooms and traditionally configured.  However, the people I have spoken to don’t believe that, even if Lincoln40 or other proposed projects went to more traditional configurations, it would mean families would be able to live and rent there.

The problem that you face is that the average three-bedroom apartment in town is roughly $2300 a month.  You can rent a one bedroom for perhaps $1600.  But a two-bedroom is going to be in the $1800 to $2100 range.

New apartments are actually going to probably be a little more expensive than the average apartment.  So what does that mean?  A single parent or even a two-parent family who is making around median income in this city – around $70,000 annually – is not really going to be able to afford that high a rent.  Those who make more money will probably even be looking to lower rents, or even purchasing a home in Dixon or Woodland.

We are getting to the point where the only single parents living in Davis are either living in affordable housing like New Harmony or the few available spots that still take Section 8 vouchers.

Sure, you can design some three-bedroom apartments at places like Lincoln40, but who is going to rent there?  It is mostly going to be students – that’s where the demand is coming from.  Something on the order of 85 percent of all renters in Davis are students or those who live with other non-family members.  And it makes sense, whereas families would have to pay the full cost of rent, students can double up in the rooms and therefore vastly lower their rent.

My hope is that by building some of these student apartments, you can get students to not take up single-family homes and open some of those for families.  But more and more I think, without finding ways to build affordable housing – either subsidized or by design – we are going to be a community with fewer and fewer families.

—David M. Greenwald reporting



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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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28 thoughts on “Commentary: The Emerging Student Voice on Housing”

  1. Tia Will

    My biggest concern going forward is whether the middle will hold in Davis.  Or whether Davis eventually becomes a community of students – those under 25 – and the retired, those over 65 with not much in the middle.”

    Ironically, acceptance of projects like Trackside helps to ensure that this will be the outcome. I strongly support infill and increased density for those in need of housing such as students. I favor Nishi, Lincoln 40, and remained largely neutral on Sterling which I saw as not optimal, but perhaps necessary. I personally, and OEDNA as a group, have been portrayed as being anti infill and increased density, but this is not true. I do not stand in opposition to projects that meet real demonstrated need. I do not believe in “trickle down housing” and I believe that this is what the students are being sold. The only people that Trackside “provides for” are the investors, developers, and that handful of affluent downsizing elders and the few young professionals and/students who are wealthy enough to afford luxury apartments. There is no affordable component, and no guarantee that anyone needing affordable housing will benefit in any way.

    1. David Greenwald Post author

      I don’t know why you say “ironically” because as you know I was that much of a fan of Trackside, but I guess I turn irony back on you, because ironically your solution would have been 15 units in the same space as the 27 unit project and had the developers come forward with such a proposal, council couldn’t have prevented it. So I’m not clear of your alternative in this case. I agree with you that this isn’t critical need housing – a point I’ve made before that did not carry the day.

      1. Tia Will

        David

         I guess I turn irony back on you, because ironically your solution would have been 15 units in the same space as the 27 unit project and had the developers come forward with such a proposal, council couldn’t have prevented it.”

        You are conflating my personal position with the position that ultimately was adopted as the only feasible alternative by OEDNA.  I also question whether you are being a little disingenuous since you must be aware from several presentations I made at city council, in comments here and in personal conversations with you, that my personal preference would have been a project which included affordable housing and or housing for identified at risk populations such as students, elderly on fixed incomes, transitional or homeless housing. There are many, many people with real needs in our community. You know full well that my preference is for addressing those needs not the “needs” of the investors, developers, and those affluent enough to afford luxury housing.

        1. David Greenwald

          The problem is that if the project had met zoning requirements etc, the council had no say over approving it.  So they could have passed the 15 unit project without review.  I agree with you on the needs but Trackside wasn’t going to provide them – ever.

    2. Richard McCann

      Tia, “trickle down” housing, unlike trickle down economics, does work because it relieves demand for other housing stock. In most housing markets, “affordable” housing is actually the old housing stock of the wealthier residents who had build new housing. Trackside generally will move Davis residents out of their current house, opening it up to other buyers. See for example: https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/data/todays-luxury-apartments-may-be-tomorrows-affordable-housing/

      Do you have evidence that this doesn’t occur?

      1. Tia Will

        Richard

        Do you have evidence that this doesn’t occur?

        Your assumption is that the released housing stock will be available to residents of Davis.

        I have evidence that it occurs sometimes and does not occur other times. I have previously written about this in terms of the market in Sacramento where I made two collaborative home purchases within the 2 past years. Both were older homes which were on the market for very short periods of time. The purchases were made by my children with my help since they could not have come close to securing the homes on their own. In one instance, after two days on the market there were four bids on the home, some of them in cash from people coming to Sacramento from the Bay area. I secured the purchase by bidding up the price significantly. This is certainly a strategy which favors the “haves” in this case my daughter and me and admittedly does nothing for Sacramento residents in need of housing unless you count that she is renting rooms at less than market price just as I did.

        The second was not so clear cut in that there were not multiple bids on the house, but just the same the result was not the home going to a resident of Sacramento, but rather was purchased in part for the use of my son, a Davis resident. Again a case of “the haves” being able to obtain homes which are market available, but not at a price that the relatively affluent cannot afford.

  2. Todd Edelman

    denser housing is a very positive thing for the community and can lead to smart growth principals that help reduce VMT and get people out of their cars, especially if you can couple it with jobs-housing balance.

    BUT not by hoping that people will drive less even if you give them parking! Really, only IF the parking minimum is reduced or eliminated, combined with a clear and robust program for alternatives to driving, from public transport – with vehicles of appropriate size – operating most of the day – to support for bicycles like they ones used in Europe which are optimized for shopping and carrying children – to more carshare with varied vehicles (e.g. more light trucks available, or even cargo bikes) – to creating a world-class and regionally-rare pedestrian zone in Downtown accessible by all those means, or by private vehicle with parking at reasonable distances (i.e. typical mall distance) at appropriate prices accepted by wise and mature people, who – as responsible citizens and good Americans – recognize that the cost of driving needs to be internalized. Making access great again.

    …And it makes sense, whereas families would have to pay the full cost of rent,  students can double up in the rooms and therefore vastly lower the rent.

    But then Sterling, Lincoln40 and likely Nishi 2.0 are set up with rooms for individuals, and students with less money have to double up in conventional apartments. Not very equitable, is it? To paraphrase a Council candidate, doesn’t “everyone deserve some privacy at the table?”. Just students with more money? Harrumph.

    Perhaps situation-dynamic apartments should be suitable for families and also college students, with some rooms which are very small or footprint-efficient.

    1. Howard P

      Perhaps situation-dynamic apartments should be suitable for families and also college students, with some rooms which are very small or footprint-efficient.

      Please clarify… term is one I’ve not seen, and do not understand… honest request.

  3. Ron

    From article:  “New apartments are actually going to probably be a little more expensive than the average apartment.  So what does that mean?”

    It means that we’re not likely to build our way to affordability.  (Even in surrounding communities, which have comparatively few “growth restrictions”.)

    Personally, I never even dreamed of moving out of my family’s home, until AFTER I had graduated from college.  And that was “a long time ago, in a galaxy far away” (when costs were much less).  Not sure why anyone would expect to be able to attend college full-time (prior to starting a career), while being able to afford tuition, rent, and general living expenses.

    1. Keith O

      Not sure why anyone would expect to be able to attend college full-time (prior to starting a career), while being able to afford tuition, rent, and general living expenses.  Is that the city’s “goal”, here?

      Yes Ron, as always only the extreme cases are presented.  Most students either have subsidies or parents helping them out while they attend college.  I know I had to scrape and work a lot of OT to help my daughters through college.  I just recently paid off one of their loans about 7 years after she graduated.

      1. Ron

        True, Keith.

        Another option (e.g., for those wanting to attend a particular program at a particular university) is to attend a local community college for the first couple of years (and then transfer to UCD, for example).  I believe it’s generally easier to get in that way, as well.

        In addition to avoiding rent (for many), there’s less tuition costs for the first couple of years, as well.  Same degree, in the end.

    2. Richard McCann

      The higher cost new apartments increases the rental market supply, which in turn decreases the rent for the remaining apartments. This is known as the law of supply in economics, and economics, despite what some might think, has a pretty good record of predicting likely outcomes.

      1. Ron

        Not if it causes UCD to cut back or drag its feet regarding its plans (which has apparently happened, in the past).

        The basic question for the city is, to what degree should the city accommodate UCD’s plans, and its accompanying costs and impacts (which is also affecting non-students). The city doesn’t have a lot of financial resources, or land (that isn’t already zoned for other uses).

        Seems like the only “permanent” solution is to arrive at a formal agreement with UCD (as two other California cities have done, with their adjacent UCs).

  4. Ron

    From article:  “My hope is that by building some of these student apartments, you can get students to not take up single-family homes and open some of those for families.”

    Not going to happen, at least for those homes near UCD.  Outside of that area, it isn’t even a factor.

    1. Richard McCann

      Ron, on what basis do you limit the UCD-impacted rental market to an undefined area around the campus? The fact is that rental housing is distributed all around the city. Travel down to south Davis to just see the number of students pretty far away from campus.

      The truth is that increases housing supply anywhere in town will decrease pressure on the rental market everywhere.

  5. Don Shor

    “New apartments are actually going to probably be a little more expensive than the average apartment.  So what does that mean?”

    Pretty sure that’s always the way it works.

  6. Roberta Millstein

    But more and more I think, without finding ways to build affordable housing – either subsidized or by design – we are going to be a community with fewer and fewer families.

    Certainly building housing for the wealthy isn’t going to magically help create housing for others.

    1. Richard McCann

      Roberta, see my response to Tia. Here’s one example of how such housing addresses affordable housing needs: https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/data/todays-luxury-apartments-may-be-tomorrows-affordable-housing/

      1. Roberta Millstein

        Richard, and as I have said to you before, we are not in a closed ecosystem, we are in an open ecosystem.  We get people from Sac and the Bay Area moving to Davis because it is a desirable place to live and, compared to the Bay Area, relatively inexpensive.  This is exactly what happened with the Cannery — the developers actually advertised heavily there (I saw the ads repeatedly in the SF Chronicle).  This is only 27 units which already is not enough to make much of a difference to the overall market, and when you add the likelihood of wealthy out-of-towners taking up a decent number of the units, you’ve got minimal change to the housing situation at the expense of the neighborhood and the neighbors.  A poor decision that seems to value development for development’s sake, rather than a wise choice of a project that is actually worthwhile.

        1. Ron

          Roberta:  I agree.

          The “other way” that the system is not closed is the large amount of existing (and planned) new housing in areas close to Davis.  (That also moderates the cost of housing, within Davis.)

          Made all the more attractive for some parents, since they can still send their kids to Davis schools if they have a connection to Davis or UCD.  (And, without paying the Davis school district parcel tax.)

    2. Roberta Millstein

      Richard, I’d also need to see some evidence that this dynamic would occur in Davis.  The article says this, for example: “There is a premium for a brand-new unit that has never been lived in and everything is perfect.”

      Speaking for myself, this is exactly what we didn’t want.  We loved the old, well-established trees on our street and the people who’d lived there since the 1960s (not so many of those anymore, unfortunately).  So, is the typical person who wants a fairly high end house in Davis looking for something brand-spanking new, or are they more like me?  I truly don’t know.  But I don’t see my new neighbors (several families with young kids have moved on my street in recent years) bemoaning the fact that their houses were built in the 1960s.  They seem quite happy, in fact.

  7. Howard P

    Now that I think more about it, I assumed I street neighbors had the issue… J street, not so much sympathy, here… why not K or L?  How does the proposal affect properties more than 200 feet away?

    Or, is it the principle of the thing?  Meant as honest question, as it would be one thing to have it real close, another to have it > 250 feet away…

    I ask, not caring if it was 2-3-4 stories… not that many dwelling units, in any event, but the mixed use is attractive in any event.

  8. Rebecca Young

    Thank you for writing this article and voicing your clear and logical concerns about the affordability of housing in Davis for families. It is encouraging to read this and makes me feel a little bit more optimistic about being able to live in Davis with my family on a UCD staff salary.

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