Commentary: Why No City Plan for Student Housing?

The city’s apparent decision to focus a General Plan Update process first on a Core Area Specific Plan makes sense at one level, but it seems to ignore the most pressing and contentious issue of the day – student/rental housing.

We have spent a considerable amount of time in the last week discussing the reduced project proposal at Sterling.  There is the proposed Lincoln40 development off of Olive Drive.  There is another application that was recently submitted by Blue Bus LP, for 179 units in the vacant 6.4 acre parcel across the street from the parking lot of Playfields Park at the corner of Research Park Drive and Cowell Boulevard.

What we are seeing then is a patchwork of student and rental housing proposals popping up around town.  What we do not see is anything representing a plan.

Basic planning could address key issues – how many units do we need in the city?  Where should they be built?  When should they be constructed?

When the Vanguard reached out to three of the members of council yesterday, the questions were met with lukewarm response.  One said they agreed with the premise.  Another seemed to imply its futility.  And a third did not respond at all.

In their December letter, the council wrote that “the 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 city further requested that UC Davis “develop an accompanying construction and financing implementation strategy to ensure the delivery of these units and facilities in a timely manner.”

At the same time, the council clearly committed “to provide for the full and diverse breadth of housing needs in our community” including “working with the property owner and UC Davis to determine the future possibilities for the Nishi site.”

They wrote, “City to continue to pursue consideration of all infill and apartment housing proposals within the City (with emphasis on student oriented housing proposals within 2 miles of campus in order to facilitate ease of access).”

It is ironic that the city asked the campus to commit to a implementation strategy for delivery of the promised units (a wise request that UC Davis did not heed), but has also failed to produce any sort of strategy themselves.

The Vanguard continues to support the city position asking for the university to commit to provide 100 percent of new students with housing on campus and increasing their overall on-campus housing provision to half the student population.

As we pointed out last week, whether or not UC Davis ultimately sticks with 90/40 or goes to 100/50, the city is in need of more apartment and rental housing for students as well as others who wish to live in Davis but are unable to purchase homes.

The math is rather simple.  UC Davis is likely to continue to grow, there is only a 0.2 percent apartment vacancy in the city – and, therefore, those students are going to need to find a place to live.

The university has committed to housing 90 percent of those new students on campus, and increasing the total on-campus population to 40 percent of all students.  Both activists and the city council recognize that this will not accommodate current and future need.

The bottom line here is that, regardless of the policy and the mix of on-campus housing, the city is in need of more rental housing.

The amazing thing is that no one at the city level has set a number.  It could be a range of numbers, depending on how much the university adds to enrollment and how much housing the university builds on campus.

We have no plan as to how many students we need to house, or where we should built housing for them. And over what period of time we should develop that housing.

In a lot of ways that is mind boggling.  Here the city council voted 5-0 to ask the university to build more housing and commit to a timeline, and yet the city has not done that.

I do not believe we need a full General Plan Update to do this.  A simple task force could do it – city staff itself could develop such a model with a range to take into account unknown or semi-known variables.

Right now there is no overall plan or vision for the city.  This is one reason people said we needed a General Plan.  That is certainly one approach to solving this problem.  That is not the only approach.

There are those who argue that the new student population is not our responsibility – they are the sole responsibility of the university.  That is certainly a discussion that we should have as a community.

We have not had any sort of formal discussion as a community to even broach that subject.

But there are other aspects to the issue.  One is what our responsibility is, as the host city of the university, to provide housing.  Another is what happens when neither the city nor the university has adequate housing for the student population.

We can debate over who should have that responsibility – the reality is that there are consequences.  Families are being pushed out of Davis.  Single-family homes are being converted to mini-dorms.  Renters have become vulnerable to a small number of less-than-honorable landlords who have exploited them with high rents and substandard building conditions.

Students are being forced out of the city, and forced to commute to town.  That increases our carbon footprint.

We need to weigh all of these issues in order to determine what we should do with regard to student and rental housing.

We can make guesses about what the number ought to look like.  But without some form of study, we are flying blind.  In the meantime, we are having housing and developers come forward with applications for new apartments – and we are once again not only planning by exemption, but we are planning project by project without any sense of what the bigger picture ought to look like.

It seems to me that while a Core Area Specific Plan is important, the most immediate and pressing issue has to do with the 0.2 percent vacancy rate and where to put new student growth.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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    1. Matt Palm

      Howard, your argument is a non-sequitir. And a bad one at that. David is suggesting the city incorporate student housing into its planning. Cities incorporate needs into their plans all the time. This is what planning is. It creates the possibility of those needs being met through a coherent and presumably thought through plan. It’s a great idea.

      1. Howard P

        We have no plan as to how many students we need to house, or where we should built (sic) housing for them. And over what period of time we should develop that housing.

        I made no argument. I pointed out a fact. Am assuming when David used the word “we”, in the context of his quoted statement, he meant “the City of Davis”.  If he meant “we” as property owners, many living out of town, developers, many of which are not based in Davis, OK, I stand corrected… but the fact is, the City cannot compel a property owner to seek a re-zone… the fact is, the City cannot compel a developer to get entitlements or actually construct units.  Those are facts, not opinion, not arguments. Facts.

      2. Howard P

        Matt P…show me even ONCE where I said I opposed incorporating MF housing, whether student or other, into a GP amendment (which, technically could be argued to be a GP amendment by exception, if it changes any existing GP designation)… just bloody once!

        I support additional MF rental units both in Davis and at UCD… so much so, that I was frustrated with Sterling’s “roll-back” in units sought.

        I merely pointed out limitations of what the City can unilaterally do. Nothing more, nothing less.

  1. Matt Palm

    Sterling and Lincoln 40 are indications that there is a market ready for housing here, but there aren’t appropriately zoned sites. Instead of pitched battles over zoning changes, the city can maintain control of its growth by zoning to meet this demand in a way the community sees fit. Otherwise you will always Plan by exception. At a certain point is planning by exception is all that is going on, the plan needs revision. And probably not one that involves down zoning.

    The question is: did the full community’s needs get included last time, or did just those angry enough to show up to every meeting get heard? All the zoning by exception points to the latter I think.

    1. Howard P

      Matt P… unless there is an interested/willing property owner, if the City designates a certain parcel of land for a specific type of use (ex., changing an ‘I-R’ GP designation to MF), it may run afoul of the constitutional “takings clause”.  Perhaps an “inconvenient truth”.

      UCD is not so constrained.

  2. Sharla C.

    The conversation seems to be between angry people who oppose all development of student housing in town, or at least not want it near them, and a few business people or landowners who are brave enough to engage.  It is too uncomfortable to discuss this.  It is estimated that 6000 cars are commuting to Davis each day and growing.  I have multiple student rental houses in my neighborhood, but now students are starting to drive in and park cars in my neighborhood more than 2 miles from campus and either biking or taking the bus into campus from there, further changing the feel of our quiet residential neighborhood.  Once housing and driving habits are established, it will take years to change, regardless of future plans for housing on campus.

    1. Don Shor

      This is one of the main side effects of the lack of student rental housing in Davis. We’re still at a 0.2% apartment vacancy rate. The spillover is affecting residential neighborhoods throughout the city. The amount of housing proposed by UCD won’t reduce this problem, and it wouldn’t be sufficient to do so even if they met the 100%/50% levels that have been urged by the city council. And there is no indication the university will budge beyond the 90%/40% they’ve committed to. So in any event, the problem of student renters spilling over as residents and parking their cars into your neighborhood is just going to increase.
      UCD needs to build housing. We also need more rental housing in town.

      1. David Greenwald

        Exactly Don, the question that I think would be helpful is to get to a number or probably a range of numbers that we need.

        What is an acceptable vacancy rate?  1%. 5%?  How many units would it take to get to those levels?  That should be something we can calculate.

        1. Howard P

          David… 4-5 % vacancy is generally accepted as the ‘tipping point’ where tenants and landlords re on a fairly even economic playing field… also allows for the periodic rehab/upgrades to the rental units… also is helpful for folk whose careers/education prompts/requires them to transfer to Davis mid-year.

          0.2% is not good for anyone.

        2. Mark West

          We don’t live in a command and control society so the City is in no place to predetermine or dictate the number and location of new apartment projects. The City’s role is to adjust zoning regulations to incentivize property owners to build apartments. The rewrite of the core specific plan is a good place to start by allowing taller buildings and changing the current minimum required parking standard to a maximum parking allowed approach. Emphasizing mixed-use projects (residential over commercial), especially in conjunction with redeveloping our existing retail centers, is another potential approach.

          Trying to calculate a total number needed is really a fool’s approach, as the number will best be determined by the marketplace, not by some political calculation.


    2. Matt Palm

      Great point Sharla! Future residents cannot advocate for themselves. And when their employers do they get slammed, whether they are universities or tech companies. Future residents are also vilified for merely existing. I am always told to think globally and act locally with respect to population growth. But “the no project alternative” is not that those people cease to exist. It is that they go elsewhere.  Stopping an apartment project feels like an environmentally sound move because those people aren’t there. But if they are still clogging the 80, then what is the environmentally sound move?

      UCD must do a lot more, of course. But that won’t be enough.

      Maybe we find a developer to build TOD in Winters and have the campus run a shuttle.

      1. Sharla C.

        I believe that there is discussion to expand Unitrans to Woodland, if the numbers of students, staff and faculty would make it worthwhile.  One impediment to getting staff or faculty out of their cars  from Woodland is that some are also transporting children to Davis schools, so the bus won’t work with drop off and pick up.

        1. Ron


          Expanding public transit is a worthwhile idea.  However, it should also be noted that Yolobus already provides transit between other communities and Davis/UCD.  (Including, but not limited to commuter lines.)  Seems likely that service might be expanded at some point in the future.

        2. Sharla C.

          Yes, but it meanders through Woodland and Davis and takes too long to get to UCD for most commuters. I think they are looking at more of a Google bus model that will pick up at locations where students reside and go directly to campus and back.  YoloBus tends to run late or behind schedule.  There has to be a clear benefit or driving the car is just easier.

        3. James R

          That discussion is happening. I’m not privy to all of the inside details like the timetable, the cost, etc, so I can’t provide a concrete source for this. However, I have been involved with several interest groups over the past couple years that are helping craft Woodland’s general plan update and that is an anticipated future project.

          At present, I believe that Unitrans service to the Spring Lake neighborhoods is the only route that has been discussed, primarily because YoloBus already serves other parts of Woodland. This falls on a few conditions, the first is that Woodland actually expands east into the “Springlake Plan” (there are other growth options on the table). The City identifies that if Davis/UCD don’t provide more housing, students will spillover into that community but will still need to reach Davis (in fact, Woodland already recognizes this is a growing problem that will need to be addressed in the next ten years).

          If Woodland develops east, there are concerns that Co Rd 102 would become a student bike highway of sorts, and that a direct Unitrans route to campus would allow students to commute in an environmentally friendly and convenient manner as well as reduce auto traffic.

  3. Ron

    The LRDP has not been finalized, and some of us are still encouraging UCD to assume responsibility for its unilaterally-initiated plans to increase enrollment.  (Including UCD’s efforts to recruit more international students – which might ultimately be undermined by Trump, regardless.)

    [moderator] comment edited. Do not discuss moderation practices on the Vanguard.

    1. David Greenwald

      You are correct that the LRDP has not been finalized.  However, that doesn’t address the issues raised here of trying to figure out how many units we need.  One answer could be zero, but that would have need to be modeled for.

  4. Todd Edelman

    There seems to be a widespread feeling – or popular analysis – that this can’t be solved at all until there’s some kind of economic crisis or calamity, the resurrection of Planning Jesus, and so on.  People are understandably overwhelmed, but this is a built – in large part, I think – on two inter-related false premises – or I’ll be less patronizing and just call them poisoned thoughts! – which is that:

    * Housing IS NOT a right; and,

    * Having your own car IS a right.

    It’s seems clear when both the kneejerk and professionally-trained response to “new development” is: “worse traffic” or the more honest “worse car traffic”. The “IS” entitlement I mention forms a self-reinforcing circle with official car parking minimums and forms an axis with death and taxes. Further, any parked car needs other places to move to and infrastructure in between. But the costs of private driving are far from fully-internalized, and so – because infrastructure is paid for by everyone – people that don’t drive their own cars pay for people who do.

    Housing is treated like a commodity like anything else — sure it has regulations for its use and care, some of which help mitigate this sleep-profiteering to a considerable extent, for example with rent control, but also puts the “dunce cap” on those who need additional subsidies by putting them in segregated affordable housing units either off site in a market-rate housing development deal or on the edge of properties, closer to pollution sources (Cannery and now the Sterling proposal as recent examples), and then also reinforces the car-entitlement & parking minimum construct by supporting the addition of parking before adding more units of housing (based on typical prices, the parking structure at Sterling will cost $7,000,000 – how could that be used on-site to build more housing and/or support replacement mobility for people who move in there who aren’t allowed to own their own car and park it on-site or anywhere nearby?).

    There are certainly more – I suppose classically-Left arguments against for-profit housing, but there’s also another factor in Davis, which is, in a sense, an advantage: Demand is so great here that people who might expect to be able to own a car elsewhere would accept not having their own car here if they are lucky enough to find something AND have that replacement mobility I mentioned: everything from a wide variety of bikes suited for one or more specific-tasks normally done by cars within the city and beyond, buses with short headways during peaks, a sort of endless cup of carshare, convenient and close connections to core transport (like Capitol Corridor having parking for the bike types and buses synchonized with every train) and other solutions.

    The IS and IS NOT will inform the Downtown Plan and any student housing strategies developed in the short-term. This is very dangerous, and – true! – we can’t change a deep philosophy overnight, but we can eliminate its enablers, such as the required parking minimum.

    Last Sunday evening at the packed Davis Futures Forum held at City Council Chambers, we learned that Portland has far less parking required in apartment buildings then Davis, and even none required in developments of 30 units or less. People in attendance were impressed, but it wasn’t based on apples-to-apples as Portland uses “units” and e.g. Sterling uses “beds” in relation to parking supply. I did some calculations which provided the answer that a development in Portland that houses the same number of people as Sterling would require 1/5 as much parking (I can share the math in further comments…)

    Staying with the Sterling: Residents of Rancho Yolo and really all interested parties heard a lie and fell for it, and assumed a dense (and thus potentially very transit-friendly) development with excellent cycling connections to the Depot and campus (perhaps via 5th and 3rd when there are improvements to these streets, but also via Olive Dr. and its planned direct connection to Pole Line) HAS to be a big car-producing monster. It does not, and we’re not ignoring Commandments or physics if we eliminate parking minimums and establish parking minimums in Davis so that Sterling and all our future housing developments can be accessible, affordable and sustainable. We have a golden opportunity to transform Sterling and other new housing developments into something Beyond Platinum (referring to the bicycle modal share goals of Davis, which are essentially requirements for the health of our city’s transportation system and thus its overall well-being.)

    1. Howard P

      the resurrection of Planning Jesus

      Interesting choice of words… will not judge if your referent was meant in irony, as ‘amusing’, or with animus.

      Went to coffee with  friend this AM… a homeless guy was sleeping in the front door alcove of the old wine shop on G St, between Fourth and Fifth, trying to stay out of the rain.

      Perhaps we should put as much effort/resources into finding secure housing/food/MH resources for the folk who do not own a car, nor a bicycle, as we do for student housing/’growth’.  Perhaps we should zone for the homeless as well.

      But no… pretty much everyone here would prefer to go on and on about other ‘housing needs’… # of min/max parking spaces, vacancy rates… whatever…

      And, Matt P, that is indeed a non sequitur …

        1. Howard P

          Acknowledged… I refer it to needing a second cup of coffee… no harm, no foul…

          Yet, was dead serious about seeking to provide zoning for non-profits, etc. to provide housing… to those who have none… should be a part of our ‘Housing Element’

        2. Todd Edelman

          No argument from me on that, Howard P.

          OK! Here’s my Davis-y idea: After everyone moves into Sterling, the people in the subsidized units dispersed all over the building decide how to spend the $7,000,000 not used for private car storage.

          That would generate so much positive attention to the city, as well as likely helping solve some medium-sized problem.

        3. Howard P

          Todd… you don’t go anywhere near far enough with,

           the $7,000,000 not used for private car storage.
          That would generate so much positive attention to the city,

          To that end, we should change City codes to ban SF homes having garages/parking spaces or driveways, and ban all on-street parking… those are all “private car storage”… unless, based on on demonstrable, documented physical limitations that require the use of a MV, privately owned.

          Don’t go half-stepping… should be all or nothing, based on your analysis/beliefs/agenda, as you cite your views…

          Then we could re-direct much more than $7 million for other purposes… or, do you really think the $7 million would not either reduce the cost of housing, or increase developer’s profit margins?

        4. Todd Edelman

          Howard: I am not a dictator. I’m not going to try to take away what people already have, even if its poorly thought-out. The “7 million” is simply about perspective… for example the developer at Sterling is giving only around 2 million to support Mutual Housing.
          I’m a big supporter of ADA and its broader philosophy, and 100% support reasonable exceptions to private car storage for disabled persons.

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