Sunday Commentary: What We Learned at a Townhall Meeting – Does Nishi Even Matter This Time?

A few months ago, I came up with the idea that rather than have a formal debate over Nishi, we would have a Student Housing Townhall Meeting.  The idea would be to allow the student voice to be specifically heard.

To accomplish this, we created a panel that would be able to address student concerns – it included Mayor Robb Davis, ASUCD President Michael Gofman, Matt Dulcich from UC Davis, Sean Raycraft who represents workers, and Toni Sandoval, a single mother who lives in Solano Park and who ran for ASUCD President herself.

But there was a second panel as well – we invited the nine council candidates to the townhall meeting.  Of those, six showed up.

When we set this up, we didn’t know that we would be going up against the DA candidate forum in Woodland with the only appearance by Jeff Reisig.  Still, we had over 100 people sign in at the front table, with 67 of those people being students.

That is an incredible showing in my estimation – with massive efforts on campus aimed at voter registration, we will see just how many people show up when it comes time to vote.

A large student turnout will likely benefit not only Nishi, but a candidate like Eric Gudz, who is the youngest candidate and who has at least in part geared the campaign toward student issues.

When this townhall was set up, I expected that the overriding concern among the students would be Nishi.  Part of that may be timing.  The university released its LRDP on Friday the week before.  This was the first time the students had a chance to express their views on the LRDP and the university housing plan.

Give Matt Dulcich credit, he came to this meeting, knowing that he could be hammered, and hammered he was.  The students pressed him on issues, mainly of affordability.

My take away from all of this is the following.

First, there were enough individual horror stories that came out on Wednesday, just with the dozen or so students who spoke, that we should be alarmed.  One person talked about their rental increase that a city official told me following the meeting was likely illegal.

The struggles of individual students came through.  As a Cal Works eligibility worker pointed out, the panelist who is a single mother and living at Solano Park has limited options for attending UC Davis.  The family can either live in Solano Park – under apparently intolerable conditions, provided that they are accepted – or they can live outside of Davis, commute, and incur even greater transportation and childcare costs.

We learned about stories of students living in their cars on Lake Blvd. and students living in the library or couch surfing.

Simply by airing their stories, some of the individuals who spoke out on Wednesday may actually receive help.  But the question is how many more students are in similar positions that we simply do not know about.

Third, as mentioned at the outset, Nishi barely came up.  It is not that the housing issue is not important, as there are a number of efforts to register students to vote in order for them to cast their vote in favor of the project.

But there is also an anger and frustration aimed at the university and, frankly here, while I give Matt Dulcich credit for having the courage to come and listen and participate, his answers suggest that affordability is going to remain a serious challenge.

He rejected out-of-hand calls to rein in administrative salaries, focusing on such solutions as restricting initial rents and growth of rent, and reducing amenities.  He noted that projects are “expensive” because the university must purchase building materials – which would seem to be universally true.

He also noted the formation of the Housing Task Force which, among other things, is currently working to define “what affordability means.

“Are there other levers (to increase affordability) that the task force could be looking out for?” Mr. Dulcich asked.

Among these so-called levers was an option to build above-the-market housing, for students who could afford expensive rents. He argued that this might cross-subsidize more affordable housing projects.

The university has been under heavy pressure for the last two and a half years to increase their allotment of housing on campus.  They have actually done so – on paper.  Their first note was that they did not anticipate being able to accommodate all enrollment growth with housing on campus.  That morphed into a proposal for 6200 beds, then 8500, now 9050.

Is that enough?  I know most would like to get to 50 percent of all students housed on campus, which would require about 950 more beds.  But that’s a nice round number and 48 percent gets us most of the way there.

What I think is most important now is the secondary discussion of pressuring the university to make those beds be affordable in a real sense.  And to make sure those beds actually get built.

That is a real concern if you look at the history of university housing – promises made that were not kept.

The university has promised 5200 beds by 2020, but beyond that their plans seem much more fuzzy.

Finally a key point is this: there are those who have argued against off-campus housing because they feared that the university would be allowed to shirk its responsibility if the city of Davis built housing in the city.

That does not appear to be remotely true.  If anything, the city building housing and approving Sterling, Lincoln40 and putting Nishi on the ballot has taken the city off the hook and put all the focus – at least by the students – on the university itself.

What Matt Dulcich undoubtedly walked away with on Wednesday is that the students remain angry – very angry.  A lot of them came out to an event that normally would not draw many students.  And I think, most importantly, he had to be moved by the stories he was hearing.

That remains to be seen.

You can watch the whole discussion and decide for yourself:

—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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7 thoughts on “Sunday Commentary: What We Learned at a Townhall Meeting – Does Nishi Even Matter This Time?”

  1. Alan Miller

    I went to the last hour of the forum and found it very sad.

    The stories were real.  Economics is also real.  And almost nothing will help those who spoke as anything launched will be years in the future, insufficient, and new pressures of regional and University growth will overwhelm.

    While still cheaper than most urban U’s, because of Measure R, population growth, and the University luring rich foreign student for high tuition, the Bay Area rent price bubble has enveloped Davis. And University policies and union contracts guarantee they cannot deliver the same project on campus for even double the cost of the same project off campus — thus artificially higher rents.

    As land becomes even more valuable, the value of property due to a vote to maintain Measure R becomes more valuable to homeowners and rental property owners who live in Davis.

    Affordability by subsidy does not decrease the cost of building housing.  Therefore, subsidized housing creates affordability for those who qualify — on paper — as low income.  The “rich” can afford the high rents.  Thus, subsidy pushes out a percentage of those just above the qualification line.  Not the rich.  And the inefficiency of subsidy means some percentage of the money is lost to bureaucracy, and thus a percentage of housing is not built, which raises the cost of housing.

    I heard a lot of venting to sympathetic ears.  Feeling heard does not change reality.  Due to a vacancy rate that is unlikely to rise in the next few years, a lot of former spending money is being vacuumed from the 55% rental population.  Yet it is the owners that tend to vote.  No doubt more students will vote in the upcoming election than in years past.  Will there be enough students voting — for their Council Candidate or a 2020 vote to repeal Measure R (if most would even understand how this would help lower rents vs. a desire by many to preserve farmland) — to help relieve the steady rise in rental rates for future students by the mid-2020’s?

    I doubt it.  So what we are hearing today will likely be the story for many years to come.

    And that just sucks.

    1. Howard P

      Have a friend, who has not only financial issues, but who has significant physical issues… rent going up 10% by end of August… no way to adjust for the financial issues… “affordable” up to this point, but no longer… a 1 br apartment, shared by the friend and the guide dog…

      Guess we are “housing privledged”…

    2. Howard P

      and rental property owners who live in Davis.

      Ironically (?) those who live in Davis who do/did own rental property are less likely to jack up rental costs… ‘absentee owners’ are the Simon Legree… just an investment… all the market can bear…

    3. Ken A

      Great post Alan, this would be a good one for David to save and send to any current students (now or in the future) who ask why housing is so expensive.  David can also send it to the many in Davis who think UCD could easily build hundreds of apartments and rent them for $800/month.  (I have just cut and pasted it and saved it so I can send it on to people giving Alan credit as the “wise older Davis resident who understands the housing issue”)…

      P.S. When I tell UCD kids “and that just sucks” I add “at least it dies not such as much as it does for the kids at UCSF, Cal, and UCLA who (on average) are paying about 100% more than they are every month for rent”…

  2. David Greenwald

    Alan: I do think if UCD follows through on the 5200 by 2020 and the lawsuit against Lincoln40 gets cleared up and Nishi passes, things could improve by 2020 or 21.  My hope was to make people aware just how bad it was – you were one of the few community members to see it.

  3. Alan Miller

    > My hope was to make people aware just how bad it was – you were one of the few community members to see it.

    On that, with me, you succeeded.

    Certainly any large increase in housing stock will help the vacancy rate — IF by the time it’s built there is enough stock to get the needle off the zero mark.

    Still, these active students are potentially helping future students, not themselves — which is what the student population needs to do in perpetuity if they are to be politically represented in Davis.   Will be interesting to see how significantly they turn out for the election.

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