Back on October 27, 2015, in response to an op-ed from Eileen Samitz, I would begin: “It is clear, as UC Davis embarks on their LRDP, that they are, in effect, the 800-pound gorilla in the room. In essence they can do whatever they want. They don’t answer to the city.”
I continued, “So if the university wishes to expand by 5000 to 7000 students in the next 15 years and not provide enough housing, there is nothing Davis can do about it.”
UC Davis had just come out with their viewpoint in the LRDP. They took the position, “Even in our highest on-campus housing scenario, we’re going to study some very high on-campus housing scenarios, we don’t anticipate being able to house every single new student.”
The university was setting the stage for potential conflict, but it was one that they ultimately would not win.
On October 25, Eileen Samitz fought back. The message was simple and unyielding: “UCD needs to build more student housing now.” In it, she laid out the history of UC Davis’ promises to provide more housing on campus, and their failure to do so.
Her message: “UC Davis has recently announced that it wishes to add 5,000 more students, yet it has not even provided sufficient student housing on-campus for its current population. This is why is important that our community give input now during UCD‘s current LRDP process that it is time for the University to ‘step up’ and actually produce the student housing it has promised for so many years. UCD’s inaction for over 26 years has spilled over to our community resulting in using a disproportionate amount of our rental housing, over-densification pressures, and the formation of ‘mini dorms’ in our neighborhoods and the subsequent added impacts of traffic, transportation, and parking problems.”
While a lot would happen over the next year – and in hindsight it seems pretty clear that Eileen Samitz set an agenda that day with a simple but direct message, if we were lacking housing in Davis, we had to look to UC Davis as a culprit. Growth in enrollment at the university coupled with the university’s failure to live up to its own agreements with the city on the provision of on-campus housing was driving the housing shortage in the city.
By May 2016, the university had shifted from “we don’t anticipate being able to house every single new student” to a commitment to provide 90 percent of all new students with housing and increase on-campus student housing to 40 percent of all students.
Perhaps that was a subtle change, but the university went from a nebulous statement to a concrete commitment.
One might be able to argue that history was on the side of Ms. Samitz and other slow growth advocates. After all, in October 2015 we had not yet seen the rise of scandals that would bring down the UC Davis chancellor. Would UC Davis have pushed back harder with Chancellor Linda Katehi still in place? Hard to know.
2016 would also bring the end of the city’s peripheral innovation park proposals and the defeat of Nishi at the polls.
Even taking into account that vacuum of leadership at the university, what Eileen Samitz and company managed to accomplish is still remarkable.
90/40, as we now call it, was not enough for Ms. Samitz and other advocates, such as Friends of the Russell Blvd. Fields. They pushed for more. The university had put on the table, as a proposal, building housing on the athletic fields on Russell Boulevard – that led to another battle with neighbors, city residents, and the council that was ultimately decisive in favor of the latter. The university would withdraw that proposal.
However, UC Davis maintained their plan to accommodate 90/40. But by now, the push of the residents led to the Davis City Council joining the fray.
This was a council not necessarily aligned with the slow growth community. They had unanimously supported Nishi – which Ms. Samitz and her portion of the slow growth community successfully defeated.
Nevertheless, the council in mid-December pushed through support of a letter pushing back, asking the university to further change its LRDP.
Among the most important asks were twofold: “[T]he City requests that UC Davis provide for a minimum of 100 percent of the projected enrollment of all new incoming students starting with the 2017 academic year and at least 50 percent of total UC Davis campus student population in the LRDP.”
The second was just as important, and it had in its origins the point that Eileen Samitz had made back in October 2015 – that UC Davis had made commitments before, but failed to deliver. The council asked “that UC Davis develop an accompanying construction and financing implementation strategy to ensure the delivery of these units and facilities in a timely manner.”
This was a huge win for the community.
The influence of the agenda-setting power of Eileen Samitz’ push was evident in the language of many of the public comments.
Greg Rowe praised the council for being able to pull this all together in less than two weeks. “It’s just absolutely fantastic work,” he said. “It’s proper that the council ask for the CEQA process to be postponed so that hopefully the project description can be revised by UC Davis to reflect the city’s desires.”
Dave McGlocklin said, “I find it difficult to understand why the university has been so reluctant to build housing.” From his perspective, “they’ve got the land. They certainly have the money and here we’re having to provide the community of Davis to provide housing for quite a long time.”
Eileen Samitz praised council and staff for the work that went into the letter. She stated that “there is no reason why UC Davis cannot do at least as much on-campus housing as other UCs.” She noted, “UC Davis is the largest UC in the (system), yet has historically provided the least amount of on-campus housing.”
She added it is important that UC Davis “provide that housing in pace with how quickly it is trying to bring on all this growth – it’s choosing to do.” She stated, “The UCD 2020 initiative is not mandatory, it is a self-directed program for revenue.”
She said that they have brought in 4500 non-resident students, “yet UCD is not willing to build the housing on campus in time.”
Nancy Price said that she has lived here since 1973, and “this seems to be one of the first times that I’ve been impressed – by one of the few evidences of many members of the city working on this issue collaboratively, listening to each other, that the city council has really taken in a lot of the information that we’ve presented to you and dealt with it seriously and thoughtfully.”
She also said that staff “has also responded to much of what we in the community have brought forward.”
Not everyone was happy here. Jim Gray was the one vocal critic of the letter and the council’s objective. He said, “I find myself in a unique position of coming before the council and asking you to not do what you’re prepared to do this evening.”
He argued that “the findings of your letter need major revisions.” He asked, “What’s the rush to get this out?”
Mr. Gray correctly identified the frame that Eileen Samitz had created over a year ago. In a December 19 op-ed, he wrote, “I believe that we have allowed the policy debate to get framed in a false narrative.”
For him, the new framework for debate made the following assertion: “The University is not doing their fair share and the solution to meeting Davis’ housing needs should focus on campus. We wouldn’t have a housing problem if the campus weren’t growing and if the students would just live on campus.
“That is the current refrain that I don’t believe is supported by the facts,” he wrote. He tried to belatedly re-frame the debate: “While UC Davis doesn’t deserve an ‘A’, it provides the fourth greatest number of housing units on campus within the system.”
But he was too late. The community had already incorporated the framework set up by Eileen Samitz. The council was not going to change their course at this point.
Why did this campaign succeed?
- The message sent by Eileen Samitz was fundamentally correct – the university for years had dragged its heels on on-campus student housing and therefore almost everyone looking at the situation concluded that UC Davis had to do better. Even Jim Gray, whose analysis suggested UC Davis had done far more than the city to provide housing, said, “I think we should acknowledge their efforts and encourage them to do even better.”
- The leadership vacuum at UC Davis, after Chancellor Katehi got embroiled in controversy and then was placed on leave in April and resigned in August, was tremendous. UC Davis may well have been able to push back without the fall of Katehi.
- The defeat of Nishi probably played a role in two ways. First, it eliminated about 1500 units of off-campus housing. Second, it gave the slow growth community momentum and ammunition that likely pushed the council to enter the fray on their side.
At the same time, it was not a complete victory either. As I noted at the time, it seemed that the university may have traded a concession on Russell Fields for digging in on 90/40.
Some have argued that the city should build no new housing until the campus fulfills its obligations. The council did not take up that position. The council committed to infill projects within two miles of campus
In their letter to the acting chancellor, they wrote, “We do not make the above LRDP requests without a sound recognition that the City has responsibilities in this partnership as well. The City has been and remains committed to doing its part to provide for the full and diverse breadth of housing needs in our community.”
The council pushed the university to keep the door open on Nishi. In their letter they noted that “the City Council remains committed to working with the property owner and UC Davis to determine the future possibilities for the Nishi site.”
Still, given where they were in October 2015 and the differences that Eileen Samitz and others had with the direction of council, this was a remarkable victory for citizen activism and the ability of a small group to change the trajectory of public policy.
—David M. Greenwald reporting