One of the big issues facing the city of Davis is the growth pressure being exerted by UC Davis’ enrollment growth, combined with their either inability or unwillingness to provide housing for some or all of those new students.
The city already faces a rental housing crunch with a low vacancy rate and limited ability to grow beyond the current boundaries.
The result, as we have been exploring, is pressure on the city for growth to provide rental housing, with students pack into to formerly single-family homes, often in large numbers – creating noise and nuisance issues, while displacing young families.
On Monday, a piece in Next City brilliantly captured a similar problem in San Marcos, Texas, home of the rapidly growing Texas State University. The article entitled, “The College That Ate a City,” captures a phenomenon that is very similar to the one we face, and yet very different. “Fast-growing San Marcos, Texas, faces an ever-expanding anchor institution and a student-focused real estate industry that’s pricing families out of housing.”
Writes Daniel McGraw, “The City Council’s development decisions and the boom in private student housing have made that typically tricky relationship (between “townies” and college students) tenser in recent years.”
The backdrop: “San Marcos, population 58,000, was listed as the fastest-growing city in America according to 2014 census data. The growth is mostly thanks to an expanding Texas State University — the largest employer and largest property owner in the city. With the anchor institution showing no signs of slowing down and the invasion of national developers that have seized on a growing real estate opportunity to provide housing for an increasing number of college students, city residents find themselves much more concerned about the consequences of that growth — including rising rents and flood waters — than noisy parties.”
As one resident put it, “It’s not that I’m against growth, it’s just that this area has been consumed by Texas State, and everything we have now is for the students, and no one thinks much about the people that have lived here for a while. I know many people who have lived in San Marcos for years who have moved out, because almost every neighborhood in town now has one of these huge apartment complexes right next door to them.”
Davis, with its strong growth control measures, is not going to be one of the fastest-growing cities in the country. But the possibility of residents being displaced by students is very real.
Texas State, like UC Davis, has been growing rapidly. In 2000, the campus was 22,000 students. Now it’s 38,000. Writes Mr. McGraw, “The school has long been the big player in town, but while it has set a new enrollment record for 18 straight years, it hasn’t increased the number of on-campus dorm units.”
“In big cities, absorbing big housing needs like this might not be noticed,” says Jared Miller, San Marcos city manager. “But we are in many ways the canary in the coal mine on all this, given the size of the city and the growth of the school. We are feeling the pinch now that other cities are going to be feeling very soon with the way the student housing market is going.”
This will sound familiar as well: “For Texas State’s part, a larger enrollment helps it become more recognized as a top-tier research institution, which comes with a large amount of funding. So new classroom and office buildings were prioritized over dorms.”
Writes Mr. McGraw, “As the student body ballooned, private housing became an issue. The school seemed to not care much about what kind of housing was built — or where specifically, as long as it was within a 10- to 15-minute bus ride to campus.”
“The school saw that they didn’t get a return on building dorms … so they figured let’s keep our hands off that and let the private developers do it for us,” says Jay Heibert, who was an adjunct business professor at Texas State University for six years.
This has been part of the problem at UC Davis as well. The university has struggled to build housing. The touted West Village is still not complete, with costs and labor agreements slowing down progress. Other issues have cropped up as well, such as student protests over the demolition of Solano Park, slowing down a planned densification project there.
UC Davis has rapidly built new research facilities and things like Mondavi, the UC Davis Conference Center, the Alumni Center, the Hyatt, museums, and the like, but residential housing has lagged.
The article continues, “Owners of single-family homes in older neighborhoods nearest to campus had the clout to keep the big apartment complexes out. The little downtown area was also difficult to develop because existing buildings would have to be purchased and bulldozed. Vacant properties farther out offered a cheaper alternative, and there were property owners who wanted to cash in. Enter complexes like the Woods — and approximately 12,000 other bedrooms built since 2012.
“Taking San Marcos’ population into account, such growth would be like Austin adding 200,000 bedroom units in the space of four years,” writes McGraw.
“As far as we know, the school has never asked whether the environment in San Marcos could support a growth of so many people,” Mr. Heibert charges. “I would argue it cannot, given the water issues in this part of the state and having to build student housing in flood plain areas. San Marcos is the bastard child of the university, and the school really makes no effort to interact with the city.”
The article notes, “Indeed, the school does not see planning for housing as part of its purview. According to its master plan, the school expects to grow to 50,000 total students by 2020, which will leave San Marcos looking to accommodate 12,000 more students, likely with off-campus apartments.”
“There is not a plan where we work with the city and say we have 5,000 students coming in and we need additional housing,” says Joanne Smith, vice president of student affairs for Texas State University.
The priority at Texas State has been adding more dorm units to have enough for freshmen who are required to live on campus. This year, the incoming class was 7500 students. “About 27,000 undergrads now live off campus in San Marcos, and longtime residents feel the dominating presence of the complexes that have been built to house them.”
That puts the on-campus percentage at 28.9 percent, which is actually a higher percentage than what UC Davis houses.
As one person told Next City: “I think where students live and how they interact with the campus is a very important part of the college education experience. What [the university] helped create is an environment where the campus no longer matters much. They are a bus ride away and the private developers provide what they need at the apartment.”
The similarities here are remarkable. The size of the two campuses are nearly the same. The growth rate is a bit faster at Texas State, but UC Davis has grown by a lot over the same period of time and is projected to continue growing.
San Marcos is slightly smaller than the city of Davis. In a way, San Marcos is better able to accommodate the growth of Texas State because they don’t have the land use laws. But that is creating a huge strain on their city, as they have no protections from the change.
Texas State, like UC Davis, is not prioritizing housing for students, but, as indicated, actually has a slightly higher percentage of on-campus housing units than UC Davis. But, at the end of the day, they seem to have the same view as UC Davis in terms of prioritizing other aspects of their campus for growth.
The bottom line is that residents in San Marcos are facing scarcity in housing and are being displaced by students, and that is the same problem faced in the city of Davis.
—David M. Greenwald reporting