Commentary: The University and City Must Do More to Address the Crisis of Student Housing


On Tuesday night, a city council that we have criticized for lacking leadership stepped up and did what they could not turn away from – took a modest but meaningful step to try to alleviate a student housing crisis of frightening proportions.

There are those who do not like the use of the term “crisis,” however I see no other term to describe a situation where one student told the council, “I struggle from April to August to find a place to live in Davis and I had to prepare myself to be homeless if I could not find a place.”  And she was far from the only student who mentioned homelessness as a possibility.

For 18 months the debate that has taken place perhaps most prominently on these pages has been over UC Davis versus the city of Davis having the obligation for housing.  For their part, ASUCD in a resolution “believes both the City of Davis and UC Davis should plan and/or prioritize projects that provide affordable housing options to students, staff, and community members in order to combat this housing crisis and its current and future repercussions.”

But even more, what we saw on Tuesday night was a glimpse into the lives of students and into a situation that, quite frankly, is far worse than many of us have imagined.

This is not a zero sum game where the university needs to build housing so that we do not – we have been fighting the wrong fight and arguing over the wrong issue.  Councilmember Rochelle Swanson was absolutely correct that this has gone from a land use issue to a social justice issue – how can we turn our backs on the students that are the life blood of this community and the future of our society?

We have talked about 0.2 percent vacancy until it has become clichéd, but the number itself does no justice to the human costs that underline it.  Sara Williams was one of at least two students who talked about taking on multiple jobs in order to pay rent.

In addition to the student who talked about preparing herself for homelessness, Georgia Savage warned, “from a student perspective, not passing this project is risking homelessness for students, which I would argue is a significantly more present issue.”

It was too common, too stark, too desperate to dismiss this talk as simply rhetoric.

As ASUCD Senator Daniel Nagey put it, part of making education affordable is making housing affordable because “without affordable housing, students will spend all of their hours working and not studying to afford their house.  Then the whole point of attending college is moot.”

Samantha Chiang, ASUCD Senate President Pro Tem, said that many students are “forced to start their housing search in November of their first year, only to not find a house and be forced to couch surf in the following year.  We cannot be pawns in the game between the city and the university – we are consistently advocating on both ends to increase housing.”

Students should be focused on their studies, not worried about where they are going to live or how they are going to pay rent.  This is unacceptable and, while the university is a huge part of the problem here, this community can no longer look the other way and say that this is not our problem.

What I saw on Tuesday night is that too many people – many of whom have stable housing – are nitpicking this project because, like most projects, it has flaws.  We can argue over whether having one bathroom per room is the right set up, whether this is too dense, whether it creates too much of an impact on the neighbors and traffic.

But, as Rochelle Swanson put it, “How many students are going to stay homeless on our watch while we struggle for perfection?  It is true that the perfection is the death of the good.”

I recall the lady who listened to the students’ situation and was clearly moved by it, but then she said that she worried whether this is going to be affordable for them.  And yet the students in this situation were not nitpicking the project, they were looking for a life raft to save them.

The current situation is what is not workable for them.  Don Gibson noted that “13 percent was the approximate increase in rent from this time last year because landlords have all of the power in the city of Davis.”

Daniel Nagey noted, “Renters (landlords he meant) can capitalize on the fact that there aren’t a lot of housing spaces – so they can charge double or triple the amount that they should be charging.”

This is the lack of affordability that the students had to deal with.

At the same time, council is to be commended on two fronts.  First, they did not turn their backs on Rancho Yolo, whose senior residents are themselves in a vulnerable population group here.  The council, led by Will Arnold and Brett Lee, vowed to protect the Rancho Yolo residents.

Will Arnold, speaking first, said, “There is a legitimate fear of potential displacement in the Rancho Yolo residents, that must not be ignored.”  He added, “As long as I am on the city council, I will fight to support Rancho Yolo, period.”

Councilmember Arnold said he is committed to Rancho Yolo remaining an affordable senior mobile home community “in perpetuity.”

Brett Lee backed that up by making the protection of Rancho Yolo a condition of his support for the project, while Lucas Frerichs and Robb Davis are working on a county ordinance to protect all mobile home residents.

Past councils would have simply rammed this project through when they had the votes, but this council took the extra steps to make sure that the needs of Rancho Yolo residents were protected, even if the residents were still not happy with this project.

But the council went further than just this.  Many have argued that the university can simply wait for the council to act to resolve the housing problem, and that approving projects like Sterling lets the university off the hook.

The reality is that this is not true.  If anything, this action by the council strengthens their position to push UC Davis, because now they can claim that they have stepped up to the plate to do their part.

And, as Will Arnold put it, “UC Davis is not doing enough to house its students on campus, that’s not just my opinion it’s a fact based on their own previous commitments to the city.”

At the same time, we have to recognize that UC Davis will not solve this problem alone.

Will Arnold made this point as well: “But even in the best case scenario in which UCD tomorrow agrees to our request which they’ve given no indication that they plan to do, and then they keep their word on that promise which they’ve never done before, the best case scenario is that the current dismal state of housing stays exactly the same for the next ten years and beyond.  That is unacceptable.”

Sending the message to UC Davis, he said that “should we approve this proposal tonight, we are stepping up to the challenge you have created.  It’s time for you to do the same.”

And Will Arnold was backed here by all of his colleagues.

The students did not let the university off the hook either.

Josh Delavai, President of ASUCD, said, “I wanted to assure everyone that student pressure is not focused solely on the council and the city level, but with campus housing and their obligation to provide housing as well.  It’s a multifaceted approach.”

Georgia Savage, with the ASUCD Office of Advocacy, said housing was voted the most pressing issue in the UC System.  “We are in the process of urging the university as well as you all to build more housing.  We are still in the process of negotiating our LRDP with the university.”

Samantha Chiang said, “I want to assure (you) that ASUCD has done its best, we authored Senate Resolution 7 earlier this year to encourage the university.”

At the same time, “The university alone cannot bear the burden of housing.  Students are not issues, we are a vibrant part of this community.  I’ve heard so much rhetoric that this would profit the university, but in the meantime, students are being used as pawns.  Each day that we wait for the perfect project and the perfect time is another day that our students suffer from housing and security.  We are the ones (who) truly feel the brunt of the 0.2 percent vacancy rate.”

So I say to the council, do not wait for the university to act in order to alleviate the suffering that our students are experiencing.

At the same time, I say to the university, go to 100/50, and do not wait for the LRDP process to be complete – you can start acting now.  Housing does not get built overnight.  This situation is urgent, please, for the sake of our next generation, we need leadership now and no more excuses.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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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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20 thoughts on “Commentary: The University and City Must Do More to Address the Crisis of Student Housing”

    1. Todd Edelman

      We need to decrease demand in any way legally-possible while supply catches up. The huge demand largely from new “tech” jobs in the Bay Area (Western Northern Megaregion) was not matched – as a concrete plan – in any way with supply. The situation is similar with UC Davis. “100/50” is great but I still say the City might need to sue so the demand decreases a bit, so we can all catch up. It’s okay to wish for unlikely things, as long as that’s not your only wish… it should start at least a year after the decision in the City’s favor, i.e. if there’s a decision in late fall 2017 there should be no admissions reductions until spring 2019 so that anyone in the admissions pipeline doesn’t get affected.
      It would also help if Gov. Brown joined hands around the University with us and got arrested as a way to focus international media attention on the issue.

    2. David Greenwald Post author

      I think what you saw happen is council attacking the problem at the easiest available level – low hanging fruit if you will.

    3. Tia Will

      I am in agreement with Mark’s statement and with David’s statement of 9:18. However, I see the approach of addressing the low hanging fruit as a positive as the most logical place to start.

  1. Ron

    From article, above:

    “As ASUCD Senator Daniel Nagey put it, part of making education affordable is making housing affordable because “without affordable housing, students will spend all of their hours working and not studying to afford their house.  Then the whole point of attending college is moot.”

    Again, rising rents are not a “Davis-only” issue.  Took me about 2 seconds to find this article:

    (Year-over-year rent increases of 11%, in Sacramento.)

    With the rising cost of tuition, housing and cost of living, student loans, and lagging wages, it does seem challenging (overall) these days.

    Not suggesting this as a “solution” for everyone, but I personally never left home (with family, in various situations) until I completed my bachelor degree.  I also attended a community college for the first couple of years (since it was considerably less expensive), while ensuring that units earned would be transferable. Later, I was able to support myself (worked full-time) while earning two master degrees.

    To some degree, it is a “hallmark” of our culture (and an incorrect assumption) that one must “leave the nest” prematurely, before being able to support oneself.  In some Asian cultures, I understand that adult children remain at home for much longer periods allowing them to save money (and contribute to the household, as well).

    1. David Greenwald

      It doesn’t matter if rising rents are a Davis issue only or not.  WHile you are correct that all of those factors are a problem, we are adding to it by artificially condensing the housing market in davis.

      1. Ron

        David:  There is some interconnectedness between rental markets in adjacent communities.  One impacts the other.

        Again, I do question the wisdom of the (automatic/societal) choice to leave home “go away for college”, if there is no compelling reason to do so.  I realize that not all local colleges and universities provide education in specific fields of study.  However, even then, community colleges can provide many of the same units/courses, for the first couple of years of study.

        I realized this 30 years ago.  It’s even more true, today.

        In addition, it seems that the value of a college education is not keeping pace with costs, overall. I wonder what the long-term implications for a city like Davis are, regarding that.


  2. Ron


    Suggest you review what I posted more carefully.  However, I suspect that at some point (e.g., as costs continue to rise, without a corresponding increase in benefit), more will question the wisdom of spending a great deal of money on a very challenging pursuit, which ultimately may not provide sufficient reward.  (Cost/benefit.)

    This is especially true if there’s alternatives for some (as discussed above), which often makes a great deal more financial sense.  (Actually, I wonder if this is already occurring.  Remember that most of the projected increase is from International students, who cannot “live at home” to earn a degree from a U.S. university.)

    P.S. – for some reason, I had to “log out” again, to see your latest comment.  (I did not hit “ignore commenter”.)

    1. Ron

      Forgot to add:  Changes in the makeup of California’s population (becoming older, fewer children) may ultimately impact the demand for in-state enrollment, as well.  I’ve previously posted articles which showed that enrollment among California residents in the UC system was DECREASING, before the state agreed to provide more money to the UC system to purposefully increase enrollment for California residents.

      Again, the drastic changes in enrollment are a direct result of UC’s decision to pursue International students, due to the outsized tuition that they pay. (I wonder how long that “gravy train” will last, or if anything will ultimately affect demand from that “customer base”.)

  3. Todd Edelman

    There are a great variety of policy decisions which will help a lot, but I think one is key, and it’s based on the idea that we must fully prioritize housing over parking. I think it’s reasonable to conclude, David, that you think I was “nitpicking” — but I’m the one who’s repeatedly argued for more housing than planned for the Families First location/original or modified Sterling proposal, as carfree-beds in larger numbers would have less impact than carfree-beds in smaller numbers, and also that even with the same size building there could be perhaps 15-20% more beds if there was no private vehicle storage on site.  Yes, on Tuesday I did argue that Sterling 5th should not be approved in its current iteration – now slightly improved with pool passes and cool passes – the latter meaning “It’s cool to use your car a bit, but not too much. Please?” – because I think it was possible for the City Council to direct the developer to modify Sterling so that it would have the 15-20% addition. That’s around 75-100 fewer (likely-)students looking for housing, around the same number of people in attendance at Chambers on Tuesday.

    We need to fully prioritize housing over parking. We need to eliminate the parking minimum and reduce the parking maximum to zero – at least in multi-family housing – until supply has been increased to a considerable extent, until we’ve decreased the distance traveled to and from Davis for jobs or education and until we’re close to meeting goals for things like cycling modal share (the town symbol is not an SUV and not even a tomato… and we can’t expect people up to age 25 to be most of the people riding bikes.).

    “Perfection is the enemy of the good” said Councilmember Swanson. Perfection is always elusive: What we think is perfect now we later re-evaluate and then push things even further forward. Can we do this in relation to the helpful-but-imperfect Sterling? Can we make Lincoln 40 much closer to perfection? A perfect housing situation would be one where everyone could housed, yes?

    The EIR alternatives for Lincoln40 are heading for a procedural approval on Tuesday. But there’s no “Zero private vehicle storage” alternative, which I suppose could be called the “More Aggressive…” alternative. Although there’s modern carfree housing all over the world – from Amsterdam to San Francisco to UC Davis residence halls – it’s not part of the EIR for Lincoln 40. There’s no attempt at “perfect” here for housing, as an expression of “fully prioritize…” and an evaluation of “carfree” –  in the EIR alternatives, which were for the most part set well before Sterling was approved. If the ultimate expression of anti-perfection is making mistakes, it seems that we’re hindered from fully understanding and correcting them due to the still limited scope of the Lincoln 40 EIR alternatives.

    But let’s look at the current existing “Less Aggressive” EIR alternative – briefly, on page eight – for Lincoln40, which allows only 50 parking spaces on-site and a lot of other good and complementary measures. I’m reluctant to conclude that it was designed to fail… but it seems that perfection was not a goal:

    It helps to first look at Sterling, which had a similar Aggressive alternative. In the Transportation and Circulation analysis it was determined there this alternative  would produce no benefits over the proposed project. (The following from page 29):

    “… the proposed project is estimated to generate approximately 1,454 new external vehicle trips on a daily basis. Under this alternative, the residential uses developed on the project site would generate approximately 463 daily vehicle trips. Therefore, under this alternative, the total daily and peak hour vehicle trips would be reduced. This reduction in trips would reduce impacts to area roadways and intersections when compared to the proposed project. It is noted that while this alternative would decrease daily vehicle trips, the alternative would result in increased impacts on local transit and bicycle facilities […]. Therefore, overall, this alternative would result in similar impacts to transportation and circulation as the proposed project.”

    I think that it’s fair to interpret this analysis as follows:
    * A bike or bus journey is as bad as one by car in regards to transportation and circulation;
    * A single person on a bike can impact congestion as much as a single person in a car, (even if partly separate infrastructure is used);
    * Ten people crossing the street to take a bus to e.g. campus somehow make that fuller bus bigger and thus have increased negative impacts;
    * If more bus service is needed it’s just like adding cars, even though a bus is many times more space-efficient than a car.

    Additionally, the analyses predicts that increase of “neighborhood parking impacts”, even though the City of Davis has a parking permit system which could be a strong countermeasure. How did any of that get by the Council, the Planning Commission, the BTSSC, our citizens?(I would also like to see the formal possibility explored where parking permits for campus are restricted for people in housing which has a full range of alternatives to replace a car – so for example someone living in Dixon could get a permit, but a resident of a place with bike parking, carshare, on a bus line, not far from campus could not.) Moreover, there are some further troubling details related to transport  in the analysis of the Sterling Aggressive EIR alternative (at the previous link, starting on page 26):  A smaller parking structure would require less energy for lighting and energy for maintenance and security systems, but this is not reflected in the Greenhouse Gases and Climate Change analysis. (The approved project will power all common areas with rooftop-solar, but it’s not clear if this covers the parking structure, including whatever it needs to run the exit-system.) A smaller number of cars parked on-site – despite measures to address any level of stormwater runoff – would still create less risk of toxic runoff from parking areas, but this is also not reflected in the Hydrology and Water Quality analysis. A smaller parking structure would require less water for maintenance, but this is not reflected in the Utilities analysis.
    Back to Lincoln40: In the “Aggressive” alternative described in the Lincoln40 Student Apartments EIR Project Alternative documentation there is no mention of possibly increased housing capacity, even though there is less space used for parking. Part of the no-car mobility “carrot” is carshare, bikes, the car rental down the street, the new Unitrans service, etc. but a more holistic carrot – more beds – is a counter to the decrease in parking, which some may consider a “stick”. In other words, another obvious benefit of even the existing “Aggressive” alternative is ignored. No mechanism at this juncture to increase housing density, de-coupled from parking supply and in reaction to the reduction of the latter.

    In conclusion I am writing to the City Council and relevant staff that a “Zero private car” and better yet “Zero private car plus additional housing” alternative should be included in the Lincoln40 EIR. Both would be otherwise the same or similar to the current “Aggressive” alternative.  In both there would be exceptions for mobility-challenged persons – and – though it’s unlikely to be used at Sterling – for certain jobs such as emergency personnel and single-person business contractors. The increase in housing capacity would be a reasonable percentage based on how available space – the alternative could have an analysis based on variants such as 10%, 20% etc. more supply of beds/units.

      1. Todd Edelman

        Thanks. I do my best to not hide my agenda.

        It’s not mentioned here but very relevant – I think the City, Yolo County, SACOG and other regional actors need to focus more attention on how they can help reduce the noise, gas and particle emissions of I-80 beyond their facilitation and promotion of alternatives to using it for regional journeys by private car.

    1. Mark West

      I agree with some of the goals that Todd has brought up in his many posts, but I don’t think it is reasonable to try to jump from our current situation to a car-free one, without expecting many years worth of iterations between. I fully agree with the idea of removing parking minimums from our zoning now, but I disagree with the notion of having zero parking as our main goal on major housing projects like Sterling and Lincoln. We don’t have the public transportation infrastructure in place that is needed for a car free region, nor do we have the population density that is needed to support said infrastructure. Moving towards that goal over the next 50 years or so does make sense, including working to expand public transit options, and raising the population density by increasing our land-use efficiency. Reducing parking to better match current need makes sense, getting rid of it entirely does not.

      1. Todd Edelman

        Thanks, Mark! There will be never be a possibility of a car free region, even if we give everyone involved with agriculture an electric bicycle that carries children with a sun shade and strong measures against theft, because this is a “car”, even though it’s not an automobile, albeit one with some limitations compared to the latter, but also some bonuses. In other words we want a take-us-around-easily-social-fun machine, but it doesn’t have to be an automobile. You can call it a “carfree car”.

        More concretely, I pushed for Sterling and am pushing for Lincoln40 to be fully-equipped with take-us-around-easily-social-fun machines. Due to the housing crises and for these locations which are student-focused or exclusive and very, very close to campus it makes sense to not permit storage there of take-us-around-easily-social-fun machines in the form of a privately-owned automobile.  There are buses on 5th and clever Unitrans had pledged to add a bus service on Olive.

        I’m thinking in the long-term too: How amazing it would be for thousands of people living in the former PG&E site to walk 5 or 7 minutes to the Depot and be in Oakland a bit less than an hour later. This is a “Davis2047” vision combined with Capitol Corridor’s own vision (30 years, rather than 50… don’t sue me!)

        But in the interim I am not proposing that outlying residential places have no private automobile storage possibilities – though actually remote parking in places not suitable for housing like the armpit of Mace and 80 would be fine for Sterling and Lincoln40 residents: A ride by electric-assist bike from Lincoln40 to a car parked there would take also take about 5 to 7 minutes once the new connections are in place.

        1. Keith O

          I love my take-us-around-easily-social-fun machine, and I think many college students do too.  To try and put an over clamp down on how many they can own, where they can park and store them and force them into public transportation or bike riding when others in town have no such restraints I think is totally unfair.


        2. David Greenwald

          And my point would be you really don’t need to go to all these measures because increasingly college students are not owning and driving cars

        3. Ron

           Keith:  “To try and put an over clamp down on how many they can own, where they can park and store them and force them into public transportation or bike riding when others in town have no such restraints I think is totally unfair.”

          Putting aside the issue of fairness, it won’t even work! (Never has, never will.) Despite efforts for years, to make that happen.

  4. Richard McCann

    My question is: when is a project “perfect”? Who decides that it is “perfect”? Given that we don’t have a clear set of objectives, and right now I doubt anyone will agree fully to any set of such objectives, decision makers have to move forward with what they view as their best attempt at balancing various tradeoffs. In this case, it’s not the case of the “perfect being the enemy of the better”; its a case of one set of personal preferences vs. another’s set.

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