Earlier this year, the Vanguard argued that the city of Davis faces a crisis on two fronts – one is the massive $655 million shortfall in funding for infrastructure and other needs. The other is a rental housing crisis, manifested by a 0.2 percent vacancy rate and a rapidly expanding university population that the university will not be able to accommodate.
The community got an interesting taste of the world of renters – renters who struggle to find available rental units, are forced to pay high rent, and receive, at least from some landlords, poor service. We heard horror stories ranging from the inability to get a returned security deposit to substandard and often dangerous housing, with landlords refusing to repair windows, electrical wiring, heating and even stoves.
While the city is moving to address some of these issues through inspection, others have quite accurately pointed out that part of the problem is that the tight market disincentivizes landlords to maintain their property – after all, they can still make the same amount without investing in the property and they know their tenants have few resources.
As Mark West put it, “The best way to deal with the imbalance of power between the landlords and their tenants is to raise the vacancy rate up to 5% or so. Landlords lose their power when tenants have realistic options.”
By the same token, we have heard stories where mini-dorms have accommodated as many as 16 tenants at a time – due to the lack of space and to unaffordability. The result is frequent complaints about noise, nuisance, parking and partying.
This is not a problem likely to go away simply with ordinances and monitoring – in part because students need a place to live, and landlords have an incentive to find ways to get extra money. As one landlord put it, this is a business. Interestingly enough, he expressed surprise to the council about the lack of ordinance or regulation.
Two weeks ago, the university in their LRDP (Long Range Development Plan) modified a previous stance about on-campus housing. Back in October, the university claimed it would not be able to accommodate all of the new student growth – projected at more than 6000 over the next decade with as many as 9000 student, faculty and staff. They have now stated that they will accommodate 90 percent of that student growth.
That has been trumpeted as a big victory for the community – and in some respects, it is. At the same time, we need to acknowledge its limitations. First, as we have noted, the university has attempted to grow through the development of West Village and the densification of Orchard and Solano Parks – but those efforts have proven difficult.
Second, while this is part of the preliminary LRDP, it is still early in the process. The LRDP planning document is not even in draft form. If this does get approval from the Regents, it won’t be finalized until 2017 and, as noted previously, there is no timeline for building the housing or guarantee that it will get built.
In short, while welcome news, the announcement from the university does not in and of itself solve the housing crisis.
Moreover, as people have noted, the current crisis exists now at current levels of enrollment. We need to solve the problem as of now. Even taking on 90 percent of the new students leaves 10 percent, at least, that need to be housed off-campus. And 6200 students leaves another 2800 faculty and staff that will not be accommodated with new housing either.
Right now, voters are two weeks away from answering the question about Nishi, but even once that is resolved, there remain critical questions. If Nishi passes, we still need to probably accommodate another few thousand beds. If Nishi doesn’t pass, the number increases to perhaps as high as 3000 to 5000 beds.
Peripheral housing, even in smaller projects like Nishi or Wildhorse Ranch, has proven to be politically uncertain at best and possibly impossible at worst. Infill, as we have seen from small projects like Paso Fino, and larger projects like Trackside and Sterling and perhaps Lincoln40, are fraught with uncertainties. The fact also remains that there are simply not a lot of large infill sites left and those that remain are likely to trigger neighborhood and potentially community backlash.
It has been pointed out that the city is operating with an old and some believe outdated General Plan – there is push for a discussion here. A key question for that process and any other visioning process is how we can deal with the issue of student housing in our community – and hopefully figure out a way to alleviate the pressure of university growth and the pressure that student renters are putting on single-family homes and the neighborhoods.
—David M. Greenwald reporting