It is clear, as UC Davis embarks on their LRDP, that they are, in effect, the 800-pound gorilla in the room. In essence they can do whatever they want. They don’t answer to the city. If the city wishes to partner with the university on innovation and tech transfer, great, but if not, UC Davis is perfectly happy to expand into downtown Sacramento.
So if the university wishes to expand by 5000 to 7000 students in the next 15 years and not provide enough housing, there is nothing Davis can do about it.
At the same time, I want to believe and hope that UC Davis doesn’t want to be the bully on the block and does want to work with the city to resolve mutual issues such as student rental housing. However, by acknowledging, “Even in our highest on-campus housing scenario, we’re going to study some very high on-campus housing scenarios, we don’t anticipate being able to house every single new student. That’s something we’ll have to work through in terms of the implications of that,” the university is setting the stage for potential conflict.
On Sunday, Eileen Samitz provided some excellent analysis on the subject.
As she noted, the MOU between the university and city acknowledged that providing high density apartment housing on-campus had some keen advantages.
First, they can be legally dedicated to UC Davis students. Housing in the city cannot be dedicated for students – on the other hand, designing the units as small apartments close to campus will likely create student housing de facto, even if others can technically move in there.
Second, and probably most importantly, “It can better absorb fluctuations in the number of student admissions.” This is critical, because if there are empty housing units on campus, the campus does not have to worry about the market conditions like a private landlord or property manager would have to.
There are other factors such as the reductions in transportation and parking issues that are created by commuting students and the fact that the university has the space to accommodate these students.
However, as Ms. Samitz points out, “It is important to note that UCD has also promised to provide more faculty and staff housing as well, but it has yet to accomplish that. It has provided only 2,000 of the 3,000 beds promised for students in its West Village project, and no faculty or staff housing yet.”
But she also offers a devastating critique of the Nishi proposal, that UC Davis has promoted with some enthusiasm (albeit somewhat diminished in the last year).
She writes, “It is more evident now that it is the 650 apartment units that the University is most interested in. However, since these apartments would be in the City, not on-campus, they cannot be legally reserved, nor rent controlled for students to be affordable long term. Only the University can legally dedicate and control the affordability of student housing built on their land, so the long term solution to student housing need is for it to be built on University land, not in the City.”
She argues that “the Nishi proposal is not a good solution for long term affordable student housing, plus its recent fiscal analysis has revealed that the Nishi project is a fiscal loser for the City even with its small innovation park portion.”
Ms. Samitz adds, “These deficiencies together with the significant access issues make the Nishi project a losing proposition for the community, bringing major impacts, rather than real solutions. One consolation is that at least our community gets to weigh in on Nishi since it is subject to a Measure J/R vote. (Note: the Nishi Draft EIR mentions that the UCD LRDP adds another 7,000 students between 2025 and 2030).”
I offer a somewhat different assessment of Nishi. The city holds the cards on Nishi, and if it wants to provide a place for students to have rental housing, it could push for the project to densify greatly. Housing 2000 to 3000 students would have a marked impact on the student housing crunch, even if it does not completely solve the problems.
While I understand there is fear that non-students could move in there, let us be realistic. Small, dormitory-styled apartment units right next to campus can really appeal to students and is not going to appeal to a huge number of non-students.
The city can resolve some of the access issues by discouraging cars in Nishi. While there is a sizable student population without cars (probably half my interns at any one time do not have cars), there are also some innovative ideas on storing cars for infrequent use off site and on the campus itself.
And while there is no rent control, rental pricing has leveled off greatly in the last decade, and the availability of more units would help out as well.
While I firmly believe that UC Davis needs to step up more during the LRDP process to provide more student housing, I also believe that the city should not sit back and wait for the crisis to develop before acting. Nishi is a golden opportunity that could quickly turn into a lost opportunity if city leaders cannot act in time.
—David M. Greenwald reporting