Commentary: Rental Housing Crisis in Davis

A sign we don't see often enough in Davis
A sign we don’t see often enough in Davis

It is not that Davis has ever had a surplus of housing – over the last 13 years, the highest vacancy rate in Davis was 4.2 percent. However, it has never been this bad, according to the most recent housing survey. Just 24 apartments, or 0.3 percent, of 8,274 leased by unit, were vacant, compared with 160 apartments, or 1.9 percent, of the 8,206 units in last year’s survey.

According to the UC Davis News Service, “UC Davis this fall enrolled a record number of students.” According to the same report, overall enrollment increased by 1,240, or about 3.6 percent, from last fall.

Last fall, of course, UC Davis was boasting about its booming enrollment and its overall academic ranking – ninth among all US Public Research Universities, according to US News and World Report.

“UC Davis is drawing promising students from California, the United States and around the world,” said Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi. “It is recognition that we offer a world-class education right here in California for all students.”

As UC Davis continues to move to increase enrollment and as enrollment continues at record levels, it becomes even more important to figure out how to house them.

Today’s local newspaper editorial writes:

“JEERS to Davis’ rental vacancy rate. According to the annual UC Davis survey of apartments around town, there were 24 available rentals. Twenty-four. That comes out to a paltry 0.30-percent vacancy rate.

“It’s a long-term problem, driven by our aversion to growth, and it doesn’t look to be getting any better. Experts say a healthy vacancy rate is about 5 percent, giving consumers some choice while at the same time giving apartment owners some income stability. Our minuscule rate does nothing to help the renters’ side of the equation.

“The Cannery project under construction at J Street at Covell Boulevard should add some rental units, but after that there’s nothing in the pipeline. No wonder the university built another dorm last year …”

Our view, however, is that this is largely a superficial analysis. First, depending on how you view “in the pipeline,” it is largely untrue that Cannery will provide much in the way of rental housing and the analysis ignores the much larger stock of potential housing at Nishi, which is currently in the neighborhood of 500 to 700.

The Vanguard has in the past argued that Nishi could house much higher densities than that if they are able to gain university access and deal with vehicular issues. It is not that Nishi alone can solve the rental housing problems, but if it added about 2000 new units in the next five years, that would go well on its way to a solution.

The bigger issue, from our standpoint, is that UC Davis is generating the demand for the new rental housing, without providing much in the way of solutions.

The planned build-out for the West Village project would house about 3000 students, faculty and staff, including 662 apartments and 343 single-family homes.

However, UC Davis could be doing more – much more – in this area. Earlier this week, we noted the stalled plans to densify Solano and Orchard Parks.

While it is easy for the local paper to point to local growth policy as a culprit, the bigger problem has been the university itself. UC Davis continues to rank near the bottom in percentage of on-campus student housing.

As one of our readers put it in the last week, “Why isn’t UCD doing more to address the need for students/rental housing?”

However, another reader argued, “UCD has no obligation legally to provide student housing, is my understanding.”

They may not have legal obligations, but there needs to be more of a partnership between the university and the city in this area. The university is hoping that the city will help it with its economic development – to provide space for university research to transfer to the private sector, in the form of tech transfer and high-tech startups.

At the same time, UC Davis has to be cognizant of the slow growth inclination of the community. Pushing Davis to grow too fast and in too many different ways will lead to the possible stalling of the innovation parks, which figure to be a boon for the university, the community and the region.

So how do we get there?

As we have noted, there are several prime locations around the campus where high density housing could alleviate the rental crunch on the city. Nishi is the city portion of the project. Currently, the developer is looking at 500 to 700 units, but needs UC Davis cooperation for university access. Can we push up the density of the project?

If we can resolve the issue of parking and the parking structure taking up a sizable footprint, while building the units up and more with greater density, then yes, we can turn those 700 units into 1500 to 2000. There is also land at Solano Park, which is almost the same size as Nishi and which could also house far more units than it is currently housing.

The same can be said for Orchard Park on the western end of campus, and even West Village.

One of the huge benefits to UC Davis absorbing additional housing is that pulling students from in-town rental housing could free up those units for families and faculty.

However, as one notable Vanguard commenter would note, there is a downside as well. By pulling more students onto campus, we pull them out of our community. They become disenfranchised from municipal elections and become less connected to the community during the time of their stay. There is no reason that Solano Park and West Village could not be annexed into the city to avoid that problem.

However, past talks have gone nowhere, with strong opposition coming most notably from some places in the county.

The bottom line is, the problems of lack of rental units is not simply the fault of city growth policies. UC Davis has not done its share of providing on-campus housing options. The city has the chance to do more here with Nishi, but it has to be willing to push for more density in the project and figure out ways around circulation and access issues.

These are sizable barriers for sure, but they are not insurmountable.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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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  1. sisterhood

    Another problem that stems from lack of rentals is the ability for more slum landlords to exist. I’ve already noted my horror stories in other posts here. Suffice it to say, there are many wealthy landowners in Davis (actually, they usually live elsewhere) who have no ethics. They know that renters are so grateful to have a place to live, they do not have to care for their property.

  2. MrsW

    I posted this same comment yesterday on the last housing piece.  I read Wednesday’s article in the San Francisco Chronicle entitled “Airbnb pays tax bill of ‘tens of millions’ to S.F.”
    The article states “[Critics] say Airbnb-style rentals are turning neighborhoods into de facto hotel rows and keeping badly needed rental units off the market.”
    Our neighbor is operating her house exclusively for short-term rentals and advertises on FlipKey and Airbnb.  I wonder if there are others?  And if, collectively, they are affecting rental unit availability and prices?  I did a quick search on for Davis, California, for a weekend in April.  My search yielded 32 rentals in Davis.  FlipKey is only showing 1 rental that weekend.  That’s 35 beds that are unavailable to residents.

    1. Miwok

      Kudos to sisterhood’s comment.

      MrsW, you are right about local housing being unofficial rentals and dorms for UC Davis. IF Code Enforcement were enforced, Davis would have a real crisis. When they talk about future possible beds, we are talking ten years away.

      When a previous article decried the influence students had as voters in Davis, they did not want to recognize temporary “Citizens” of their community. NOW this article proposes the exact opposite, not keeping students on campus in their own world, not affecting voter outcomes, and annexing parts of campus housing.

      The West Village and other campus projects are really not  campus owned. They are partnerships which absolve the cost and liability of the University while proclaiming in the press release they are University initiatives. They benefit the UC Regents as Davis developers know, while costing the UC Regents little if any money. The Students pay for the resulting projects, because the cost is not a factor.

      The cities of Woodland, Dixon, and West Sacramento thank you for this policy, because they get the overflow, and the people who work their way through school, because they cannot afford to live and work or live and matriculate in Davis.

  3. Topcat

    The same can be said for Orchard Park on the western end of campus, and even West Village.

    I notice that Orchard Park if fenced off and unoccupied, so I assume that UCD is going to tear down the existing structures and build something new.  What are the plans for this new construction?

  4. Davis Progressive

    the enterprise editorial was a disgrace.  uc davis plays a huge role in this problem not just cod growth policies.  and nishi could be the answer, too bad the enterprise doesn’t want to use whatever influence they have to push for more density and ucd to accommodate their own student growth.

  5. Davis Progressive

    According to the UC Davis News Service, “UC Davis this fall enrolled a record number of students.” According to the same report, overall enrollment increased by 1,240, or about 3.6 percent, from last fall.

    in other words the problem was ucd.  they generated the growth that CAUSED the housing shortage and did nothing to accommodate those new students they are bringing in.

    1. Mark West

      Please explain why we want UCD to accommodate the new students?  UCD housing provides zero tax revenues for the City, yet provides more bodies for the City to accommodate.  How do we benefit from more students living on campus?  It is astounding to me that someone would look at population growth on campus as being ‘good,’ while holding that population growth in the City is ‘bad.’  Last I checked, the campus and the City were contiguous.

      1. hpierce

        The problem has been that “student housing” apartments, near campus, were acquired by UCD, which took them off the tax rolls anyhow:  Web-Em, Castillian, etc, etc.

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