The opposition to Nishi landed strong blows early on by alleging that the project and the city council’s decision to exempt the proposed project for affordable housing requirements violated the city’s own ordinance.
Ultimately, as the Vanguard thoroughly examined those allegations, it appears that the city did not violate the affordable housing ordinance, first because vertical mixed use is explicitly exempted in the ordinance and second because it appears that it is permissible for the council to simply change the requirements in the development agreement.
However, I believe that this does not get the project, the council and the developers completely off the hook. As Nancy Price points out in her op-ed this week, whether this is legal or illegal, the housing exemption could still be morally wrong.
She writes, “I believe it is fundamentally wrong for the city to completely waive the requirement for any developer to build 154 units of affordable housing as is minimally required at Nishi by the Davis affordable housing ordinance based on the project’s massive size. Nor are the multi-millionaire developers otherwise required to pay equivalent in-lieu fees of $11.55 million ($75,000 per unit times 154 units).”
She adds, “And what also bothers me is the complete lack of proper public process by which this exemption was granted by the city to the developers.”
This ultimately comes down to a value judgment by the voters – a political calculation. Is the $1 million that Nishi is giving the city better than the $0 the city would get if Nishi does not pass and remains a vacant field? Again, this is a political judgment.
But the affordable housing requirement is not the only vulnerability that Nishi suffers from. The charge that opponents have made is that the project is ultimately unaffordable, in the small “a” sense.
In their ballot argument they argue, “Nishi’s housing will all be luxury rental apartments and for-sale condominiums. Independent analysis projects rent for an average 1,100 sq. ft. 2-bedroom, 2-bath apartment at over $2400 a month!”
The developers have disagreed with this characterization, but only now have agreed to put some numbers behind the assessment.
Tim Ruff told the Vanguard, “The average rent for a 2 bedroom unit in Davis according to 2015 UC Housing survey was $1,462. Since our units will be newer and more expensive to build we are anticipating rents at $1800 for a 2 bedroom.”
That is certainly significantly lower (by 25%) than the opposition’s estimate for rent. However, that is still a lot of money. But the developers point out that, with students likely to double up, two to a room, the cost to them effectively would be $450.
They point out that with brand new apartments and great amenities, the costs will be quite affordable. Plus students would be living across the way from campus, meaning easy foot and bike access – that reduces the other costs of living including car trips, gas, and traffic hassle.
The whole affordability argument has been kind of strange from the start, particularly since most of the people who are making the point are homeowners, long removed from the days of having to rent apartments and figure out how to make it all pencil out.
On the other hand, back in February, the ASUCD Senate voted 11-1 to endorse the project. A strong point for them was the ability to create more student housing at a time when vacancy rates are dwindling, forcing more and more students to commute out of town.
ASCUD Senator Ana Tresh, a third-year neurobiology, physiology and behavior major, said, “They’re going to be taking this land and making something useful out of it by doing many things like adding 1,500 beds for students such as myself who struggle to find housing due to how little vacancy there is and how much demand there is.”
Rosy Martinez, a second-year human development student, said, “This means there will be less competition and more listing for apartments, which is a personal issue that I’ve had to deal with before.”
Students are definitely worried about the issue of housing. The issue of affordability of that housing, they seem less concerned about. Many tell me that they often spend $500 to $600 for older housing anyway. They view Nishi as not only adding housing stock, but doing so in a place where they don’t need to drive to campus and therefore can save in other ways.
Tim Ruff, in his press release, argued, “Estimates show that students and other residents can reduce their cost of living by approximately $7,000 annually by reducing or eliminating car expenses and through lower utility bills with energy-efficient buildings.”
That seems like a very high number, but even with potentially a $100 more in rent per month than other places, that only amounts to $900 during the course of a school year – a number that probably is easily offset by a reduction in other costs.
I have seen student activists oppose Nishi due to the lack of big “A” affordable housing requirements, but I have yet to see a student argue against Nishi because it is not affordable. What should that tell the homeowning residents in the community?
There are a lot of other factors to consider when deciding on whether to vote about Nishi. As Nancy Price points out at the conclusion of her article, “The courts will determine whether the exemption of Nishi from the city’s affordable housing ordinance is legal or illegal. But I think all the other evidence points to the fact that is an economically bad deal for the city.
“And it just seems morally wrong to me that our supposedly cash-strapped city is making an $11.5 million giveaway of affordable housing money to multi-millionaire developers so they can construct luxury rental housing.”
Ultimately, as I have argued previously, I would be very surprised if the courts are the determining factor here. More likely the voters will have to decide whether the project holds to its obligations regarding the Affordable Housing Ordinance and whether the apartments are affordable to students and a benefit overall to the community.
The voters will decide whether Nishi is affordable enough.
—David M. Greenwald reporting