As a rental crunch that has the city at a 0.2 percent vacancy pushes forward a slew of new housing projects – notably the already approved Sterling Apartments, along with the proposed Lincoln40, Plaza 2555, and most recently a revised student-housing only Nishi project, the opposition has pushed back calling them “mega-dorms” and arguing if we are to develop housing in town, it should be housing for a range of needs.
A letter sent out by a local activist last week captures some of this rhetoric, notably: “I am writing with concern regarding the many mega-dorm project proposals including hundreds of apartments designed specifically for adding 4,500 – 5,000 or more students in the City, but would not help with the market-rate housing needs for our community’s families and workers. These projects including Lincoln40, Plaza 2555 in South Davis, and now Nishi would be predominately 4- and 5- bedroom enormous apartment suites. Generally, each bedroom has an individual bathroom.
“Since these mega-dorms use a rent-by-the-bed format targeting students, this is not a design that works for families and local workers. This design also does not encourage water conservation as it does not charge by water usage and would put enormous impacts on our water and waste water facilities. These 3 new multi-family projects in the City need to be inclusively designed with 1,2, and 3- bedroom traditional apartments so that anyone can rent them, families, or workers, or students. I urge Council to direct City Staff to clarify that new multi-family projects need to be predominately, if not entirely 1,2, and 3- bedroom traditional apartments offering market rental housing for all.”
While the term “mega-dorm” does not appear to have a formal meaning, it is clearly being used as a rhetorical device to attack the projects. The screen-shot here shows the sheer volume of usage.
We have questioned the appropriateness of the term in general for describing off-campus but predominantly student-oriented housing apartments that generally are between 500 and 1000 beds.
But, as we can see with the Plaza 2555 project, the label itself seems to be evolving to fit the projects – even in cases where the fit is less than ideal.
The key aspects of the mega-dorm appear to be predominantly large apartments – four or five bedrooms, but also with individual bathrooms for each bedroom and a rent-by-bed format.
As Eileen Samitz at one point described (inaccurately) when referring to Lincoln40, Sterling, Nishi and Plaza 2555, “these are all mega-dorms because they are all predominately 4- and 5- bedroom suites
each bedroom with an individual bathroom and rented-by-the-bed.”
Instead, she has advocated, “The format of 1-, 2- and 3- bedroom traditional apartments is needed for families and workers.” She said, “The traditional 1-, 2-, and 3- bedrooms apartment formats can be rented by students or non-students, so these apartments serve all, not just some.”
So you would think that Plaza 2555 would be a better fit for Eileen Samitz, right?
After all, there are 200 total units. Of these, 130 are admittedly designed as student housing. But you also have 70 units which range in size from micro-units up to three beds. Before, she said that we need “traditional” one-, two- and three-bedroom apartment formats. That is what Plaza 2555 offers.
Not only that, but Plaza 2555 will not have individual bathrooms and they will rent by unit rather than by the bed. You would think this would be something she could support, but no.
But not only does she not support it (which is her right), but she continues to insist that it is a mega-dorm.
She writes that “yes, Plaza 2555 is a mega-dorm too for heavens sake. 130 of the units are 4- and 5- bedroom. It is absurd for anyone to say that these mega-apartments in the mega-dorms would be rented by families even if they are not rented by-the-bed. I mean come on… 554 students beds? Seriously, you need to question if Plaza 2555 is a mega-dorm just because it has some smaller units and some affordable units?”
I kind of thought the definition of mega-dorm was it would be like a dorm, not with townhouses, and micro-units, and row houses and all sorts of other features for a range of families.
But when I pointed this out, she responded, “Don’t try to assume you know how I am defining mega-dorm.”
Shouldn’t it be evident how she is defining a term? If she hasn’t made her definition clear, isn’t that a problem with her argument? Especially when she specifically writes that “these are all mega-dorms because they are all predominately 4- and 5- bedroom suites each bedroom with an individual bathroom and rented-by-the-bed.”
Apparently not. Instead, now she argues: “It is the 4- and 5- bedroom mega- apartment format that makes these mega-dorms, and the overwhelming predominance of that exclusionary design of units in these mega-dorms.These mega-apartments (1,500 sq. ft. and bigger which is bigger than most smaller-medium sizes houses in Davis) they are specifically designed for students whether or not they have individual bathrooms. The ones that do have individual bathrooms, such as Sterling, makes that mega-dorm format even worse due to the impacts.”
So basically even if you have a project that caters to families and workers in addition to students, if the mix is 65 percent student-oriented and 35 percent other, regardless of the actual format of the apartments, it is a mega-dorm.
I’m glad we cleared that up. I now find the term even less usefully descriptive than before.
By the way, Eileen Samitz then asserts, “This ‘mix’ is not at all a proportional ‘mix.’”
What is a proportional mix? For example, when we used the 2010 census, we learned that we had 25,869 housing units in Davis. Of those, approximately 57 percent were rental units – 14,745. Of them, 12,949 were rented either by students or non-family households, and that comes to 88 percent.
In other words, while we cannot quite come up with an exact percentage of rental properties occupied by students, we know that 88 percent were rented by students or groups of people who were not in family units.
So Ms. Samitz is correct that the mix is not proportional, but she’s wrong about the direction of the proportionality.
It has also been pointed out to me by many in the community that lumping family housing in with workforce housing is problematic. There are workers who have families, who have different needs than workers who are young people without families. It was pointed out that many of the latter group may well fit in just as well with student housing, where they can save costs by sharing rent.
The bottom line here is that the rental market in Davis is dominated by student housing and therefore any new project needs to keep that in mind. If you want to argue that we need housing for a range of needs, it seems like Plaza 2555 is actually a very good mix rather than a problematic one.
But I think something different is going on here.
The reality is it would be much more honest for the opposition to simply state that they oppose all student housing that is not on campus, but they have chosen to attack the form of that housing, which has made for inconsistent statements and a moving target – at best.
It is a reasonable position, but then we would be able to have a debate that I want to be able to have, which is how much of the housing should be provided on-campus versus off-campus.
The Vanguard has long supported a 100/50 mix for UC Davis. But UC Davis thus far has only been willing to supply 6200 of the 10,000 needed new beds. That leaves us with a choice – we can fight UC Davis and hope they add to the 6200, or we can plan to accommodate as many students as we reasonably can here in town so that they don’t end up getting the short end of the stick.
To me it is entirely reasonable to build additional student-oriented housing in town and preferably close to campus where students will bike or take the bus to school rather than drive. And I still believe building more capacity for students, at places like Lincoln40 and the like, means that families will have a better chance to get the single-family housing in the neighborhoods – and speaking as one of these families, that would be my hope.
—David M. Greenwald reporting