Last week, in the discussion of the EIR on Sterling, there were what I thought some interesting points raised by two students on the issue of student housing at the proposed Sterling Apartments project.
Some fair criticism was raised by a reader that I think bears highlighting and clarifying.
First, I have raised this issue consistently over the past six months or so. Right now we have a crisis in Davis – actually two – but here I will focus on the student housing crisis. We have a 0.2 percent vacancy rate. We have a university that is going to grow at a rate of around 1000 additional students each year for perhaps the next decade.
UC Davis this spring has added plans to build housing to cover about 90 percent of that – there is no guarantee that will come and, even if it does come, those numbers will not address the current housing crisis nor will they cover all of the new students.
There are a lot of issues that bleed off of that. Some of the issues involve the living conditions, student-landlord disputes, and the ability for students to deal with such problems as they arise. That is the genesis of the Rental Housing Ordinance which will come back shortly.
There is the issue that students are having to find residences outside of Davis and commute into town.
And there is the issue of the lack of affordable student housing.
To me, this is the backdrop for issues raised by first Nishi during the Measure A election, and now Sterling.
However, there were downsides to Nishi that made that a hotly-contested election. While the project provided 1500 or so beds, that number was nowhere near what was needed to address the housing crisis – though it may have helped. On the other side were questions about the big “A” affordable housing deal and the lack of small “a” affordable housing, along with traffic impacts and air quality concerns.
In short, Nishi might have addressed some of the housing needs, but whether the project was overall in the best interests of the community remained an open question that ultimately the voters would decide – and we might find out as soon as the end of the day on Tuesday whether they voted yes or no.
The same problems loom for Sterling Apartments, without the vote of the people.
There are concerns about traffic impacts from additional residents, criticism that the project will be itself a dorm, renting by the room rather than the apartment, and a question about the number of parking spaces adding traffic to a congested corridor, among other issues.
Most of these, I think, are legitimate concerns. Is the housing too dense for the location, and what happens if we can reduce the number of spaces on the site and therefore concerns about traffic impacts?
In short, I think we need to separate two critical points in our thinking. The first is that there is no question we have an overall crisis in student housing in this community.
As Hayley Benham-Archdeacon, a student who spoke the other night, put it, “I think we need to realize that the city of Davis needs to relieve some of the pressure on the housing market, both for students that can afford market rate housing and low income students like me who would not be able to complete their degree without affordably priced housing.”
“The city can do its part in handling our growing student population. I know there will be some Davis residents who will always oppose new growth … but with the university admitting 1000 more students every year, the city has to put them somewhere,” she said. “That’s the reality of it. It’s become a crisis. We need more housing and the Sterling Development is a realistic solution.”
That is the crisis in a nutshell.
That does not mean that either Nishi or Sterling are an appropriate solution to the crisis. The devil there is in the details. I think there are legitimate detail questions to be raised in Sterling or Nishi – whether it passes on Tuesday or comes back at a later point.
But, that said, I do think we need to be serious about the alternative. If we want to argue Sterling cannot be the solution, I have no problem with that in theory. But the answer can’t be that UC Davis is going to fix the problem.
First of all, as I demonstrated numerically, UC Davis may have agreed to take on 90 percent of the new student growth, but that alone will not solve the problem. We have a problem now. We are taking on between 6000 and 7000 new students, and UC Davis is only planning to house about 90 percent of those. Moreover, that doesn’t account for the 2000 to 3000 in additional faculty and staff.
Further, we need to look at UC Davis’ history here as well. They agreed to take on a higher percentage of student housing in an MOU three decades ago – as Eileen Samitz has demonstrated. She wrote back in October 2015, “In 1989 UC Davis agreed to a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that committed to providing 25% of its existing student population and 35% of incoming students and to rely on the University to provide on-campus housing. This commitment did not happen for many years.”
She continues, “Then in 2002, the University (system wide) produced a report ‘UC Housing for the 21st Century’ that specified the need for more student housing on all of the UC campuses and that the system wide goal was 42% for all of the campuses. Specifically, the direction and timeline for UC Davis was to provide at least 38% by 2012. This plan for UCD student housing never materialized.”
So what is different now in 2016? Talk is cheap.
UC Davis clearly has the acreage to accommodate more housing. But even their plans for housing have fallen through or been delayed. They made plans to build West Village and they have been slow to complete those plans. They made plans to densify at Orchard and Solano Parks – and those plans have not proceeded.
Why is this important? The students are coming. They are coming at a rate of as many as 1000 additional students each year, and yet the housing is not proceeding at that pace – even if they follow through on an unapproved conceptual plan to expand by 90 percent.
Bottom line here for me is that UC Davis agreeing to take 90 percent of new students is not a solution – yet. It may well happen, but history should teach us to be skeptical.
My solution would be to build about four apartment complexes that can house 1500 students. Location and size and scope as well as other details are subject for discussion. Nishi and Sterling might be part of that solution, or perhaps not.
For me at least, we need to acknowledge the crisis, that we have a problem, and then discuss ways to solve that problem. Sterling and Nishi just happen to be potential solutions that are on the table.
—David M. Greenwald reporting