Did Students Endorse A Project That Is Good For Profits But Bad For Students?
By Skylar Johnson
On June 7th, Davis voters will have the opportunity to vote on Measure A regarding development of the 43-acre Nishi property that is now ag land sandwiched between I-80 and the railroad tracks on the south side of campus. If approved by voters, the Nishi property could be developed into 440 rental units and 210 for-sale condos, as well as 325,000 square feet of office/R&D space and 20,000 square feet of commercial/retail space.
This project is supported by almost all the local politicians, real estate developers, and business groups in Davis who claim it will provide sorely needed economic stimulus and rental housing in Davis of the type that will be desired by and suitable for students. This massive development project is being opposed by an underfunded, small coalition of progressive Davis voters who claim the project is illegally avoiding normal affordable housing requirements and is actually building luxury-type student apartments affordable only to upper income students.
The No on Nishi campaign also claims there are numerous financial give-aways from the City to the developers and that the project will result in traffic grid-lock through downtown Davis and the University on Old Davis Rd. They also allege the project is green-washed and not nearly as sustainable as represented, or should be, and that the air quality of the development will be the worst in the region because the site sits in a bowl crammed between the elevated grid-locked I-80 freeway and the railroad tracks.
BACKROOM SHENANIGANS WERE USED BY ASUCD TO ENDORSE THIS PROJECT
In addition to asking how this project’s features really benefit students, this article questions the wisdom and the rushed, almost secretive process by which this endorsement occurred to make it appear that the campus as a whole supported the project.
In reality, the ASUCD Senate urgently introduced and rapidly passed Senate Resolution #13 unanimously without any outreach to the student body.
While student input on such massive developments such as Nishi is crucial, but completely lacking in this case, it is also clear that there was not even any informed discussion addressing both the pros and cons of the development. Instead, the ASUCD only heard developer-driven talking-point arguments. When asked to speak about the opposition to the project, there was no detailed information presented, but instead it was only stated “there are people who are no-growthers,” clearly aiming to characterize opponents as selfish NIMBYs.
Important questions were raised by Gender and Sexualities Commission Chair Ivon Garcia specifically regarding whether the development was going to be really affordable for students. This was met with a response of “not having a lot of that information” (Tommy, line xi Senate Meeting Minutes 2/4/16), but that the “development is geared for students” and they have been “keeping in mind the needs of the students” (Hiba, line viii Senate Meeting Minutes 2/4/16).
Let’s be clear, incredibly, the ASUCD Senate voted to endorse this project in early February, almost 2 full weeks before the final details of the project were worked out and approved by the City of Davis on 2/16/16. Has this ever happened before in the ASUCD? Unfortunately, it now appears that the rental units for the project will be completely priced out of range of all but the most well-to-do students.
It is apparent from the record that our Senate should have been more informed when this endorsement resolution was discussed and passed, It was clearly outside of the proper process for the Senate to urgently introduce and pass such a resolution for which they didn’t have adequate information. Because of this flawed process, I am also strongly against the ASUCD representing that the student body as a whole supported this development so that now “Yes on A” has featured this ASUCD endorsement prominently on their campaign literature, newspaper ads, and at public forums.
It appears the ASUCD has been used as a pawn by the developer to extract an endorsement of a project for which they did not have all of the necessary information and that that mostly benefits the developer with little to offer the student of average means.
THE TYPE OF AFFORDABLE HOUSING STUDENTS REALLY NEED
If the developers truly were keeping student interests in mind, they would really take a look at the true economic needs of the student population.
As stated on the UC Davis website “Student Profile,” 63% of Fall 2014 undergraduates were awarded family income-based grants and scholarships. Additionally, 41% of 2014/2015 undergraduates were designated low income by the federal government. On a city-level, the most up-to-date information from the City of Davis Affordable Housing Program website estimates 46% of all Davis households experienced some level of excessive housing-cost burden, and of these, 71.5% were very-low income households. Does this appear to be a demographic that will be well served by expensive Nishi units that are huge and high-priced? I certainly don’t think so! I could never afford to live there.
And what is even more disturbing to me is that the Nishi development provides no affordable housing set-aside units which have been required in every other large development in Davis . The Nishi development will only be providing more housing for upper income students or renters who already have home security. What is being provided for the average student of limited means who is struggling stay in school and buy books, let alone pay for housing?
Whether or not it was illegal for the City of Davis to exempt the developers from the City’s Affordable Housing Ordinance (currently under litigation), it is immoral to not responsibly serve the needs of all in our community. This development is showing the lack of city values in providing affordable housing by not investing in it. It furthers the commodification of the housing process and divides the markets by saying if you can afford it, you get it! And if you can’t, too bad!
Furthermore, it is a joke to justify this by claiming the housing is “affordable by design,” as proponents of Measure A have claimed when I have questioned their lack of affordability. What does “affordable by design” actually mean, and who sets these standards? The developers say 176 of the 440 total units (40%) are 850 square feet or smaller. But it is also true that 264 of the 440 units (60%) are greater than 1,100 sq. ft and going up to 1,600 sq. ft! These apartments are larger than a lot of the houses in Davis.
And not only are these apartments large but they are going to be expensive! According to an independent study commissioned by the City of Davis, average rent for a 1,100 sq. ft, 2-bedroom, 2-bath apartment will be over $2,400/month. That’s hardly what I would call “affordable by design” for the average student.
You may refute this by saying, “But Nishi has promised to contribute $1 million dollars in donation to the Affordable Housing Trust Fund!” Well whoopee! If the developers were, instead, required to pay the full equivalent in-lieu fees, they would have to pay $11,550,000 ($75,000/unit x 154 units). I agree with the “No on Nishi” campaign that this is a blatant give-away to the developer. And even more so, because that donation to the Affordable Housing Trust Fund will only be paid proportionately when each of the parcels (residential AND commercial) are actually occupied. That means that no money will actually begin to be seen for at least five years and some may never materialize. Students deserve a better promise of affordable housing.
While this development does add much needed beds to the Davis housing stock to accommodate the growth in UCD’s student population, the University’s recent dramatic shift in emphasis in its draft Long-Range Development Plan proposes to provides 90% of new students and Staff with on-campus housing. Thus there is not the urgent need to take whatever a developer offers Davis. If the ASUCD endorses a project like this, they should demand a project that really fits our students’ needs. For instance, because the property is not on University land, there is simply no way to guarantee these units will go to students. For all we know these expensive units will fill up those commuting to Sacramento or the Bay Area every day. Great for the developer who can charge Bay Area-like rents…not so good for students looking for affordable housing.
NISHI IS GREEN-WASHED AND NOT NEARLY AS SUSTAINABLE AS PROMISED
In terms of environmental sustainability, this development also falls short. The Environmental Impact Report, as required by California law, highlights “significant and unavoidable” air quality impacts even with mitigation. Its location is sandwiched between the freeway and railroad tracks which puts residents at high risk for poor air quality, especially from particulate air pollution from diesel trucks which is listed as one of California’s worst contaminants in terms of harmful health impacts. This makes it unsafe for residents according to Dr. Ton Cahill, who is Professor Emeritus of Atmospheric Science at UC Davis and an acknowledged expert on San Joaquin Valley human health impacts from air pollution. I realize that the developer is touting an urban forest buffer designed to filter the air. But, this buffer is only going to be 50 ft wide and who knows how long it will take to establish the buffer or how much pollution it will actually filter from the air because there is no quantifiable data. It is a complete guess that this will remove any significant pollution for decades until the tree growth and canopy are fully established.
What is even more disturbing is that this Environmental Impact Report has no legal bearings– it is simply a disclosure document. It is up to the public to hold the developer accountable for its findings. Even with its purported sustainable technologies, there is no plan set in place to help educate residents on living sustainably and using its sustainable features. I think there is a high probability that this development will just turn into another West Village with unaffordable units and higher than projected energy and auto use, virtually destroying its intentions of being a zero net energy community.
In fact, the project’s Environmental Impact Report states that even with mitigation, the project will still produce over 24,000,000 lbs per year of greenhouse gases. This is hardly what I call a model of sustainability. And the developer has even managed to turn the large photovoltaic system planned for the site to his advantage. Originally it was stated that the solar energy output would be used to offset energy usage by students (like at West Villages) thus lowering student costs to live there. Now I find out that the developer is selling the solar electricity and pocketing the money so the student renters do not receive any of the benefit of the solar energy system. What’s up with that? Seems like it was a “bait and switch” to me.
We need to find housing solutions that meet the simple needs of average students and not the wealthiest among us. I want to see responsible development that focuses on sustainability in social, economic, and environmental realms. I want Davis to be a model for change in California and the greater United States, as it has been with previous developments. The Nishi project does not come close to meeting these goals but instead relies on slick advertising and paid student minions to spread its false gospel.
With this, I ask you to join me in voting No on Measure A to demand a more fair and greener future for Davis.
Students can learn more at NoOnNishi.com and Facebook.com/NoOnNishiDavis/. The website has the hard data while the Facebook link is the more light-hearted discussion.