The narrative offered right now about growth is easy, straightforward and easy to follow. It pits the university as the proverbial bad guy that is generating the growth pressures on the city of Davis.
According to this narrative, the university continues to grow in size over the last few decades, bringing in thousands of new students without fulfilling its agreed-upon commitments to provide housing for these new students. The result is increasing pressure on the city, the neighborhoods and the community to accommodate these new students.
Eileen Samitz argued in a comment on Wednesday night, just as she did in a December column, “UCD’s negligence in providing this on-campus student housing is a main driver of any housing demand that exists in Davis. It is gross negligence, and simply unfair to the UCD students, that the university is not providing them with long-term, affordable, on-campus student housing.”
For her, the simple answer is to pressure the university into accommodating additional growth. She writes, “UCD owns more than 5,000 acres, so there is no excuse why it has not provided the student-only housing it has promised.”
But the university continues to claim that, while they are looking at ways to develop more housing on campus, they cannot provide enough housing to accommodate all new students. Some of the areas where the university might look at new housing are likely to clash with existing residents.
While the expansion of West Village might be seen as a potential solution, recall that there were protracted battles between nearby residents and the university. The prospect of tearing down existing homes at Solano and Orchard Park led to protests from students, with the university, at least for the moment, backing down.
There are those who increasingly believe that the city cannot wait for the university to complete its Long Range Development Plan (LRDP) and begin building housing. They are looking at Nishi, which promised to provide about 1500 beds, and Sterling Apartments as a way to reduce the pressure for growth.
Ms. Samitz recognizes the consequence of the current situation, writing that “a large, disproportionate amount of housing in the city is being occupied by students, and our city housing supply is increasingly not available for non-students.”
Discussions about mini-dorms has become an increasing theme in planning and land use battles in the interior. Homes that are intentionally designed at five or six bedrooms and six bathrooms are coming under increased scrutiny. But at the same time, more and more homes are being converted from single-family to multi-student use.
For students, packing them in at 10 for a five-bedroom house is a way to reduce costs of rent. But for the neighbors it means parking issues and noise.
With the Davis periphery relatively locked down due to Measure R restrictions and vote requirements, this fight is increasingly between students and existing neighbors over infill sites.
Ms. Samitz warns about the over-densification of the new infill sites, under pressure and with financial incentives to pack in as many beds as possible, as the ramification of university policy.
The problem that we face, however, is that the university is not accountable to the city of Davis. Some would argue that, as the city benefits from the university, it has an obligation to provide housing to the students who live here. Others argue that this demand is being artificially generated by the university and that the citizens are under no obligation to provide additional housing.
Personally I think we need to have a more pragmatic assessment of the current situation. It is easy to point fingers at the university – and for sure they bear some of the blame here as their policies are generating some of the growth pressure. The problem that we face is what if the university simply refuses to alter their plans and house more students?
There are some real consequences coming down the pike – something is going to have to give.
First, the mini-dorm problem is real and it is only going to escalate. There is tremendous financial incentive for property owners to convert single-family residences into mini-dorms. Certainly the council can continue to crack down on the phenomena by limiting the number of bedrooms, but even if they do, little is going to prevent 10 students from packing into five-bedroom houses if the owners have the incentive to bend the rules and the students are desperate for a bed.
The mini-dorm situation is a game-changer, because it puts ordinary residents into conflict with students – not just in terms of noise and parties and parking, but also in competition for housing.
Given those stresses, residents in the core and other areas of conflict might start re-thinking city land use policies.
Second, we are already starting to see it. The largest group of people at the recent discussion on Nishi was students. Some suggested that the students were being paid by developers to support the project. I found no evidence of that.
Some argued that the students will be long-gone before Nishi comes on line.
However, to dismiss this phenomena is a huge mistake. The students are well aware of the housing shortage. They are well aware of problems of affordability. We saw a little of this in the piece by Jerika this weekend, but this is actually, in my belief, a coming tsunami that is likely to overwhelm our system if not properly managed.
Don Shor has been pounding this issue for years – the low vacancy rate, currently at 0.2%. Don Shor, who is not a resident, but owns a business here, sees this issue first hand with his employees.
I have noted that Nishi’s best friend is Bernie Sanders, because, between a Sanders presidential campaign that is bringing out young voters in droves and a housing shortage for students, the students are going to come out and vote in large numbers.
In 2006, the long-time residents of Davis were split, probably leaning against Target, but it was student voters in November 2006 who pushed Target over the top. For residents this was a battle between those of us who were opposed to big box, and fearful that Target would drive out local commerce, against people looking at Target as a source of revenue.
For students, this was a matter of survival – a place to get cheap food and clothing without having to drive to Woodland or West Sacramento. The students won.
I am not here offering a solution to this brewing crisis, but I will offer this analysis. If we do not find a solution, increasingly frustrated residents will overcome their slow growth tendencies and join with increasing numbers of students to either approve peripheral housing through Measure R votes or overturn Measure R itself.
Obviously, that is not going to happen overnight. But something has to give. Davis’ history has not been uniformly slow growth, in fact, it might be better characterized as punctuated equilibrium, where periods of slow growth are punctuated by periods of very rapid growth.
Measure J came out of a huge period of expansion over the course of the previous 15 years. But now Measure J and its successor Measure R have largely capped growth, putting the genie in the bottle. If enough pressure builds – and I can see cracks starting to form – the whole system will explode.
UC Davis providing housing might be a start, but the community needs to act sooner rather than later to figure out where and how we accommodate growth, or that decision could be taken away from us.
—David M. Greenwald reporting