Letter: Imperative and Urgent Need for More On-Campus Housing at UC Davis

Student-Housing-5by Alan Pryor

The Yolano Group of the Sierra Club has reviewed the latest draft update to UCD’s Long Range Development Plan (LRDP). Our analysis has determined that elements of the draft plan could significantly and adversely impact the environment and unnecessarily increase the university’s carbon footprint. We further believe that the sustainability of the LRDP will be vastly improved by substantially increasing the number of on-campus student housing units identified in the plan, which can be attained in a timely fashion through construction of well-designed and strategically located high-rise student apartment buildings on readily available campus land. Details regarding our concerns and recommendations follow.


The draft LRDP assumes that UCD enrollment will grow from 32,000 students in 2015 to 39,000 by 2027 (over 21% in just 12 years), yet the plan anticipates that only 40% of the students expected in 2027 will live on campus. Further, the draft LRDP does not identify how soon the university will build the housing necessary to reach the 40% goal. Because of the aggressive expansion contemplated by the LRDP, the actual number of students living off campus in 2027, about 23,400, will unfortunately exceed the number residing off campus now. This plan would thus continue making it necessary for most UCD students to commute from throughout Davis and other cities in the greater Sacramento region which will vastly expand the university’s carbon footprint and unnecessarily degrade the environment.

The model of widely dispersed, low rise buildings that has until now typified on-campus residential development at UCD represents an inefficient land use pattern, one that induces excessive land
consumption, higher energy usage, greater public infrastructure requirements, and a larger carbon footprint. UCD’s growth in the absence of adequate on-campus housing puts unnecessary external growth pressures on the City of Davis. The magnitude of UCD’s contemplated growth coupled with insufficient on-campus housing will also burden the city’s water supply and sewage treatment capacity and further crowd City roadways.


The Sierra Club Yolano Group urges UCD to take a completely different approach to accommodating its expansion goals. We advocate that UCD should immediately implement a robust and accelerated program of building efficient high-density housing on-campus. If this cannot be done, then UCD should greatly slow down enrollment growth until the housing backlog is eliminated. Given the amount of land available to UCD compared to other UC campuses, we also recommend that the LRDP should include a goal of accommodating no less than 50% of total enrollment in campus housing at any given time, and that the university adjust the enrollment of new students downward whenever it becomes apparent that adherence to this target cannot be maintained.


In 1989 UCD executed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the City of Davis that obligated the university to provide new on-campus housing at a pace commensurate with enrollment growth. In spite of this obligation, UCD has been among the UC campuses that have historically provided the least amount of on-campus housing. In addition, in November 2002 the UC Regents published a report titled “UC Housing for the 21st Century,” which stated UCD was to provide on-campus housing to 38-40% of enrollment by 2020, but this target will not be met. It is disappointing that UCD, with 5,300 acres—the largest land asset of any UC campus–has had a long history of being among the UCs that provides the least amount of on-campus student housing. Berkeley is the only other UC campus that provides less on-campus housing.

UCD’s inaction in providing on-campus housing is primarily responsible for the fact that at least 70% of UCD students currently reside off campus. After living in dorms during freshman year, the vast majority of UCD students are required to find housing off-campus rather than having the option to continue living oncampus near lecture halls, classrooms, recreation fields and other campus facilities. As a result, UCD students occupy a disproportionate amount of Davis rental housing relative to the small size of the city and its constrained boundaries.

Impact of UCD’s Failure to Address Student Housing Needs

UCD’s historically poor performance in providing sufficient on-campus housing has caused at least 70% of current UCD students to commute daily to and from the campus. The result has been growing traffic congestion and higher carbon emissions, combined with the displacement of workers and families from Davis rental housing. Providing on-campus housing to at least 50% of UCD students would significantly lower carbon emissions well beyond Davis because students are now forced to commute from rental housing in Woodland, Winters, Dixon, West Sacramento, Sacramento and beyond due to the lack of on-campus housing. Residents in at least several of these neighboring cities have complained about the significant volume of rental housing occupied by UCD students.

The LRDP and Other Recent Growth Programs

UCD has been accelerating student population growth through its “2020 Initiative,” an endeavor not compelled by the State, and which can therefore be halted at any time. The initiative aims to enroll an additional 5,000 students by 2020 (including 4,500 nonresident students for the enhanced revenue they bring). This growth surge is in addition to 1,100 new students recently mandated by the State as UCD’s proportional share of 10,000 new students to be admitted throughout the UC system in exchange for increased State funding. UCD has not, however, brought new housing on line to accommodate this accelerated growth.

The draft LRDP currently states merely that UCD will merely “attempt” to provide on-campus housing for just 40% of its total student population during the 2027-28 academic year and for only 90% of the enormous number of new incoming students. Meanwhile, UC Irvine, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, San Diego, Riverside, and Merced–all of which have significantly less land than UCD–are aiming to provide on-campus housing for at least 50% of their total student population. UC Santa Barbara and CSU Cal Poly San Luis Obispo (SLO) are planning on providing on-campus housing to 100% of new incoming students.  In fact, SLO will be providing on-campus housing for 65% of its total student population.

What UCD Must Do to Improve the LRDP

At a minimum, UCD needs to match the goal set by other UCs: housing 50% of total enrollment on campus and 100% of new students. In addition, because the majority of UCD’s current on-campus housing is comprised of freshman dorms that students must vacate after one year, UCD needs to build far more high density apartments and other housing configurations that would allow students to live on campus for the entire four or more years they attend the university.


Combined with the projected growth in student enrollment by 2027-28, the LRDP’s modest proposal to accommodate no more than 40% of total enrollment will in actuality perpetrate the negative environmental and sustainability impacts embodied in UCD’s current limited housing program. To truly be sustainable, UCD needs to quickly construct significantly more on-campus, higher-density student housing like other campuses in California and throughout the nation. The many impacts of dispersed off-campus housing (including but not limited to commuting) are negatively effecting UCD students, our community, and the environment.

This was originally a letter from Alan Pryor, Chair of the Sierra Club Yolano Group, written to Acting UC Davis Chancellor Ralph Hexter.  Published by Permission.

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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  1. Matthew

    “The result has been growing traffic congestion and higher carbon emissions, combined with the displacement of workers and families from Davis rental housing.”

    Back that up. In 2008-9, average daily emissions were estimated to be at: 357,438 pounds equivalent CO2 (page 38 of the 2008-09 Campus Travel Survey: http://ntl.bts.gov/lib/44000/44100/44116/44116.pdf). Versus 2016-16 Campus Travel Survey estimated Daily emissions only 316,592 (page 48 https://its.ucdavis.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015-16-Campus-Travel-Survey-Report.pdf).

    This is pounds equivalent per day:

    316,592 – 357,592 = -41,000/day

    So Alan Pryor, please point me to the study or analysis that backs up your claim? Do you disagree with the ITS methodology? I’m always curious to hear practitioner feedback. Also, I would be interested to know which data sets you are basing your claim on vis a vis on displacement. As you may know, the Census ACS estimates are highly unreliable and the Panel Study of Income Dynamics generally has too small a sample. Did you use the Census LEHD sets?

    If there is a connection to displacement of low income families in Davis, that is a very real problem warranting attention and funds. It would be a dis-service to the cause to speak for those families without doing your homework first.



    1. Matthew

      I support the goal of this letter. But I think it’s imperative to ground arguments in comprehensive evidence.  Do you at least have some qualitative information on displacement that is more than just “my children’s friends?”

      1. Grok

        Mathew, I appreciate your position and would welcome the evidence you seek. I have not seen a more inclusive travel survey that would be needed to show the full picture. I can offer the incidental evidence that I frequently ask service workers where they live and they largely answer with places other than Davis. I believe that has become more prevalent overtime. I do recognize that is not empirical evidence.

    2. Grok

      Mathew, the Campus travel Survey is limited in its scope because it only includes people traveling to the campus. The reality is the impacts on the Davis housing market caused by UCD’s failure to provide sufficient housing on campus has caused many that work in Davis (not at the University) to commute to Davis from out of town. Your numbers make no accounting for all of these displaced Davis workers.

      1. Matthew

        “the reality is the impacts on the Davis housing market caused by UCD’s failure to provide sufficient housing on campus has caused many that work in Davis (not at the University) to commute to Davis from out of town.”

        That’s fascinating. But where are the numbers?

    3. Edison

      As an interested reader I decided to briefly look at the 2015-16 Campus Travel Survey referenced by Mathew (before actually leaving on a bike ride myself). I’m not disputing his comparisons between the 2008-09 and recent survey, but made some interesting observations about the 2015-16 survey.  First, it may not be a truly representative survey because only 14% of those who received the survey responded, and only 11.5% completed it.

      The other interesting observation is that 8.7% of the respondent students live outside Davis. Breaking it down further, 7.4% of the responding undergrads live outside Davis and 14.5% of the grad students.  However, according to the draft LRDP website and campus planning officials, about 10 percent of students live outside Davis and commute from cities such as Woodland, Vacaville, Dixon, Sacramento area, and even Folsom, Rancho Cordova and the Roseville/Citrus Heights area. Woodland has by far the single largest segment of commuting students, representing about 1,000 regional commuters based on the LRDP exhibit.  So, based on UCD’s own LRDP data, it would appear that the percentage of survey respondents who commute from outside Davis is not equal to the number actually commuting from residences in the outlying areas.

      I did not have time to compare the percent of respondent students living outside Davis in the most recent transportation survey to the 2008-09 measures for the same criteria, but would hazard to guess the number has gone up during the past 7 years as campus enrollment has risen, especially in the most recent years since UCD launched its “2020 Initiative” aimed at boosting enrollment by another 5,000 students during a short time span without a corollary program to expand its on-campus housing stock.

      Even Interim Chancellor Hexter admitted to the Board of Regents in November that the large percentage of students commuting from other towns is working against achievement of the university’s climate impact reduction goals.

      Anyway, thanks to Mathew for contributing to the discussion. Hopefully there will be time for me to delve more completely into these two massive reports on a rainy day sometime. Meanwhile, glad that he supports UCD building more on-campus housing.

      1. hpierce

        Good points about surveys, responses and completeness of responses… the data should be judged in light of that… suggestive, somewhat enlightening, but by no means a cite to “authority”.

  2. South of Davis

    I’m wondering if the The Sierra Club Yolano Group that says “UCD should greatly slow down enrollment growth until the housing backlog is eliminated” is also telling Davis business to “greatly slow down employment growth until the housing backlog is eliminated” or asking that the city stop allowing any illegal aliens to take “sanctuary” in the city “until the housing backlog is eliminated”?

  3. Misanthrop

    “If this cannot be done, then UCD should greatly slow down enrollment growth until the housing backlog is eliminated.”

    A non-starter for UC. 

    Its amazing that Sierra Club members in Davis want UC to solve a housing shortage but ask nothing of the city they live in to help solve the same housing shortage.

      1. Misanthrop

        Of course its written to address the current issue at hand but the local Sierra Club has a long history and I can’t ever remember them asking the city in which most of the members live to help the city address its own housing shortage. But in typical Davis fashion they want to have others deal with their own problem like the time they wanted the CC to pass a resolution saving burrowing owls in Baja but did little or nothing about the loss of the same species in Davis.

        The ultimate irony is that the author opposed Nishi.

  4. hpierce

    It is implied, but not clear, if the document was approved by at least a majority vote of the local Sierra Club chapter… can someone elaborate?

    I joined the Sierra Club in 1971…. ceased membership ~ 10 years later, due to the “official” views and tactics at that time… talk about “orthodoxies”…

    Am an environmentalist, backpacker, etc.   But have a strong science background, and abhor those who cite faux science.

  5. Edison

    I certainly won’t presume to speak for the Sierra Club’s Yolano Group, but do have some thoughts on why some Davis residents strongly support UCD building more housing while at the same time opposing proposed housing developments oriented toward students (such as Lincoln40 and Sterling).  I believe part of the reason is a concern that if the City authorizes such projects, it will just further enable UCD’s continued poor performance in housing production.

    There is also a probably well-placed concern that UCD should not “be let off the hook” by permitting the same kind of tall residential structures (5-6 stories) in town that UCD continues to resist building on campus.  Given UCD’s past failure to even come close to meeting the housing targets set in the 1989 MOU with the City and in the Board of Regents 2002 student housing report, I believe there is an understandable reluctance to place trust in UCD planning documents or the pronouncements of university administrators.

    Plus, there is the issue of what some people perceive as misplaced UCD priorities. Instead of providing conveniently located housing for students, UCD has instead invested vast sums of money on non-essential facilities like the Mondavi and the Shrem art museum, and more recently offering over $60 million for the University Research Park.

    I’m making these comments from the perspective of someone who agrees with many other Vanguard posters about the need for additional rental and ownership housing development in Davis in addition to more on-campus housing, but am trying to explain what I perceive as deeply held positions and concerns on the part of others.


  6. Misanthrop

    “UCD has instead invested vast sums of money on non-essential facilities like the Mondavi and the Shrem art museum,…”

    I believe those facilities were largely paid for by donors like Mondavi and Shrem. You might feel that facilities dedicated to the arts are non-essential but  I’m sure others, myself included, would disagree.

    1. Grok

      No matter where the money came from to build the facilities, there can be no doubt about the value of the land so close to the core of the campus. The University made a specific choice by using that land for outward community facing art and culture institutions rather than student oriented teaching and research facilities or student housing.

      I have rely enjoyed both the Mondovi and the Shrem, but I will say I have not seen very many students at either, and the ones I saw where mostly working.

  7. Edison

    Regarding funding of the Shrem art museum, I asked Steve Magagnini, author of the Sac Bee article on the Shrem’s grand opening, if he had any info on the source of funds. He replied that the funding was a combination of university bonds for education buildings and several million dollars of donations, and that no student fees were used.  I don’t know what restrictions apply to “university bonds for education buildings,” so possibly those funds could have been applied toward construction of on-campus student apartments. It would be interesting to know the precise dollar amount for “several million dollars of donations.”  The total cost was reportedly $30 million, so even if private donations amounted to $10 million, the balance would have required a lot of proceeds from bond sales.

    In terms of the purchase offer made by UCD for the University Research Park (URP, also known as “Interland”), here’s the information I received from the assistant vice chancellor for government affairs in response to an inquiry I submitted.  UDC initially offered $66 million for the URP in early June, including land and buildings, then submitted a revised offer in late June for $64 million. I then asked what the source of purchase funds would be. The reply was that the campus was in the early stages of developing the financial model that would have supported the Interland purchase. She said the campus did not further refine that model or identify a specific funding source.

    I also asked whether UCD pays property taxes on off-campus property it owns or leases. The reply: “UC Davis does not pay property taxes on property that it owns or leases. To the extent that any of this property is used for non-university purposes, that share of the property would be subject to property taxes.” I hope this information clarifies things on this subject.

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