Sunday Commentary: The Need for Evidence-Based Approaches


I am a bit taken aback that my call for a more evidence-based approach to housing has seen pushback from both sides.

On the one hand, my call for a student housing study has been met with skepticism, really on both sides.  As one poster put it, “The 0.2% vacancy rate is not conjecture.”  Privately I was saying that we have a 0.2 percent vacancy rate, and no new multifamily housing in over a decade, other than affordable-restricted.

On the other hand, I was told completing a student housing study was a “waste of resources” and that the city lacks the ability to dictate development, and that the bottom line is that we have enough information “to know that we need more and denser housing of all kinds now.”

Then I get accused of trying “to justify Sterling’s single-room-occupancy format” while at the same time, I am accused of presenting “the same old arguments … used by David and other advocates of development day-after-day.”

Yesterday’s column for the first time had a statement from Gerald Hallee of Rancho Yolo that allowed us to know what issues were important to the Rancho Yolo negotiating team.  At the same time, it published two letters from residents (and I know there are others) who are clearly against the agreement.

The conclusion one can draw from all the above is: “What is also clear is that the negotiating team does not speak for everyone.”  This is important because the only time I had remotely supported this project was when there was the belief that an agreement had been reached between the developers and the residents.  At that point, I made the statement to the effect of, that being the case, the council will and probably should approve the project.

The rest of yesterday’s piece calls for an evidence-based approach.  Those who cite the 0.2 percent vacancy are correct in arguing that that is justification for needing additional housing.  We can go further, as we have before, and point out that at 90/40 (that is, UC Davis providing for 90 percent of new students with on-campus housing and 40 percent overall), the city is going to need to provide additional housing in town – otherwise students will have to move to outlying areas and commute.

Even if the university goes to 100/50, as the city and the Vanguard both support, there is still a need for additional housing in town because the current system has a scarcity in housing, and there have not been new apartments or student housing built in the city for over a decade.

HOWEVER, what a 0.2 percent vacancy cannot do is tell us how many units we need to build to get us to a more healthy 5 percent vacancy rate.  To do that, we will need to have some projections about student growth, current scarcity, and likely scenarios for UC Davis housing students.

How many units do we need to build if UC Davis goes to 100/50?  How many units do we need to build if UC Davis goes to 90/40?  How many units if UC Davis falls short of 90/40?  How many units if UC Davis builds no new housing on campus in the next decade?

Isn’t that something that we should know?  It’s true that we cannot demand that developers come forward with projects, but, at least if we have a number, that can structure our discussions and our planning.  Frankly, I think that the city council can do more than just be passive observers who only act at the final stage to approve or oppose housing.

At the same time, I think there are a lot of community-based arguments that evidence can at least shed light on.

I constantly hear this is a mega-dorm, it is unprecedented, it is massive, it is dense, they are renting single-occupancy rooms by the bed, it is far from campus, etc.

At the end of the day – I get it – people are going to oppose or support projects.  I feel that my job is to make sure that we have accurate information and then people can make up their own minds.

I am still assembling data here, but here is what I have found so far.

I’ll briefly take each of these points in turn.

Is the Sterling project far from campus?  Of course that’s a subjective assessment, but we can take some objective measures.

By my measure it is somewhere between 1.5 and 2 miles, depending on your point of entry to campus.  We know from the Campus Travel Survey that just about 52 percent of all students, faculty and staff live within 2 miles of campus, but that number soars to 70 percent of all undergraduates with 45 percent of undergraduates living within 1.5 miles.

So Sterling would be on the outer edge of where the median student lives.  But the most important thing is how students living at that distance get to campus.  The answer is that, from 1 to 2.9 miles, they are not driving to campus for the most part.

Just 12.2 percent drive alone and another 2.8 percent carpool.  How are they getting to campus?  Over half of them bike and 30 percent take the bus.

Sterling may seem far from campus, but it really isn’t.  At that distance, a vast majority are not using cars.

The bottom line here is looking at travel patterns, and these are not just one year findings – I looked at past surveys and found similar results.  They are robust and consistent across time.  Even building within 2 to 3 miles from campus, most students – the vast majority – are not driving to campus and thus are not contributing to the congestion.

As you go out further from campus, the percentage of biking decreases and the percentage taking the bus decreases, while the percentage driving vastly increases, but at 2 miles, that’s not a concern – so, from that standpoint, the travel behavior suggests Sterling really isn’t that far from campus.

Is this some sort of a mega-dorm?

Again, a subjective term that needs to be unpacked.

This week, we made a records request to get the number of units in all of Davis’ apartments.

Here is what we know – Sterling apartments is running at 160 units and 540 beds, which means the average unit has more than three beds.

Is that out of proportion to other apartment complexes?

At least in terms of unit numbers – no.

There are 37 apartment complexes in Davis with more than 100 units. Not all of these are student housing – in fact, there are several senior housing apartment complexes on this list.

There are six that have more than 160 units. There are another seven, including Sterling, that have exactly 160 units. There are 28 that have 120 or more and 16 that have 140 or more.

So, while it would be helpful to see how many of these have three or more bedrooms per unit, on the surface there doesn’t seem to be anything to suggest this is unprecedented.

And, while there are apartments near campus, there are some out by Arlington and Stonegate, others by Covell and Pole Line, and some by Lillard and Cowell that are quite far from campus.

Clearly, we need data on numbers of bedrooms per unit, and also how many bed leases.

But we do know that having bed leases is not unprecedented either.  In fact, it’s a growing phenomenon because it allows for greater efficiency in numbers for the landlords.

The 2016 Apartment Vacancy and Rental Rate Survey had a section that specifically discussed what is known as “bed leases.”

They write, “Of the 9,058 market rate apartment units reported by survey respondents, only 11 percent, around 950 units in total, were reportedly rented under bed lease arrangements.”

They continue, “On average, bed-leased units typically contain one bed per bedroom; although some complexes allow multiple beds per bedroom. Sixty-three percent of the leased beds reported by respondents were located in four-bedroom units, while 24 percent were in three-bedroom units and 12 percent were in two-bedroom units.”

So there are other apartments that utilize bed leases and, in fact, there are nearly 600 bed leases in four-bedroom apartments in the city.  There is nothing unprecedented about this.

Again, with an evidence-based approach, I would like to better understand how many people versus units there are in other facilities, density issues, but at the end of the day, the structure of Sterling is one that is probably going to come down to taste – does it bother you to have a specifically student-designed apartment building in the city?

Evidence-based approaches can’t answer that.  But what they answer is how many similar facilities there are in the city.

—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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23 thoughts on “Sunday Commentary: The Need for Evidence-Based Approaches”

  1. Mark West

    I think you have fallen into the trap of believing that we live in a command/control society where the government decides exactly what housing will be built, where it will be built and who gets to live there. Fortunately, we don’t (though it is clear that many posters here wish we did).

    We have a 0.2% apartment vacancy rate. The City should be looking to encourage new multi-family developments in town in order to address that problem. Who ends up living in those new spaces (students or otherwise) is really no one’s concern, and certainly not the City’s. When the vacancy rate rises to more normal levels, developers will stop proposing new projects. That is when we will know that we have enough.

    1. David Greenwald

      Don’t need a command economy to have planning.  Metrics are a tool to figure out what we need, they don’t mean that we get what we need.  Your argument suggests that we should not have had the Innovation Park Task Force to study our needs just because it didn’t translate to action.

      1. Mark West

        “Your argument suggests that we should not have had the Innovation Park Task Force to study our needs”

        We didn’t ‘need’ it as the shortage of commercial space was obvious and previously recognized by the City (as early as 1995) before the last General Plan Update (read the General Plan and see for yourself). Just another example of using ‘analysis’ to prevent action. Your argument now is much the same. One of our community’s core competencies is to talk projects to death.

        Our housing shortage is obvious now as well. The City should be adjusting zoning to encourage more multifamily housing, but folks like you and the rest of the change adverse in town will continue to argue that we need more information to determine exactly what our need is before we act. That demand is just another example of obstruction.


      2. Howard P

        Here’s a first-order, simple metric… how many rental units exist in Davis?  Multiply that number by 4.8%.  That’s roughly what we’re short… then take your pick as to %-age of that result that are UCD students/staff/faculty needs.

        You’ll get between 10%, +/- accurate, if you do that calc. Allow a bit for growth @ UCD [round up to nearest 100]… not rocket science…

        1. David Greenwald Post author

          That’s the current number that we are short, then you have to project for growth plans at UC Davis and housing plans at UC Davis.

        2. Mark West

          “That’s the current number that we are short, then you have to project for growth plans at UC Davis and housing plans at UC Davis.”

          As long as the starting number (“how many rental units exist in Davis”) includes both the apartments and single family rental homes, then I agree this calculation would provide a reasonable estimate. If the starting number only includes the apartments, then the result would likely be a significant underestimate of the total need.  Either way, it does not account for the for those who would prefer to live in Davis but are unable to find suitable housing here (and therefore live outside of town) and those who are residents but lack permanent housing (‘couch surfers,’ and homeless).

        3. Howard P

          Agreed, Mark… that was my intention… all rentals, be they MF or SF…

          Also why I said +/- 10%… as a “first cut”… we’ll never know the true numbers until we actually provide significantly more units.

  2. Tia Will


    I am strongly in favor of your evidence based approach. I believe that it may have much to do with my years in the medical profession. If we were to use Mark’s recommended approach in medicine, why run any studies or keep current on evidence and treatment plans ?  After all, we will know when the patient is dead when her heart has stopped beating.

    Only partially joking.

    1. Mark West

      Your analogy is inane. We already have all the ‘studies’ we need to address our housing shortage.


      When you have a patient on the operating table, do you treat the issues in front of you, or do you wait for additional studies to be published (while she bleeds out)?


  3. Matt Williams

    David, I know this isn’t you normal approach, but you might want to consider creating a graphic of the evidence “playing field” that shows all the elements of evidence moving left to right across the “playing field” with “no additional housing” evidence to the left, and “additional housing” to the right, and neutral evidence in the center.

    For example, here is a Police Safety graphic (you may have even created it).

    or this example from the Housing Element Steering Committee process

    Eileen and/or Ron might find it useful to their arguments to create such a graphic.

  4. Sam Bivins

    One thing I’d like to see from this evidence-based approach is the extent to which student housing needs are driving demand in Davis. Over the past few years of following the housing conversation on the Vanguard, I’ve gotten the impression that folks see the housing shortage as primarily student driven.  My suspicion is that young professionals who either want to move to Davis as they start families, or who want to stay in Davis post college/grad school play a pretty significant role in the housing shortage–or, alternatively, are priced out of Davis as a result of the inability to build new housing stock.  I would have loved to have made my home in Davis when I moved back to the area to start my professional career, and I’d still be very interested in making the move across the causeway as we prepare to start a family.  As things stand, however, we are effectively priced out of the market (and as a two-lawyer couple, we are by no means low income).

    Student housing is certainly important, and it’s clearly a significant component of Davis’ housing shortage.  It’s also pretty clear that there’s a decent-sized segment of the population that sees additional student housing in Davis as undesirable.  That’s fine–commenters here are entitled to their opinion, and addressing the anti-student attitude in Davis is another conversation.  But I would question the premise that student demand is the beginning and the end of the housing shortage.  Failing to understand all of the drivers of housing demand, and the insistence on attributing demand solely to students, obscures the fact that people like me will either choose to live elsewhere or stretch their resources as far as they can go to outcompete others who might like to live in Davis.  An evidence-based approach should not just consider student needs, but the extent to which Davis’ housing policies exclude other adults from joining and contributing to the community.

    1. Mark West

      We actually already have the information in the form of the demographic shift in the City’s population, over the past 20 years with the significant loss in the population of young families and professionals, and the expansion of seniors.  The population of students also rose, but not as significantly as with the seniors. Those who already have a house or three (seniors) are doing just fine, but everyone else is struggling with both the availability and cost of housing. We need to stop allowing the discussion to be driven by those who already have their homes, and instead, start to listen to those who are still in search of appropriate housing for their families.


      1. Howard P

        Nuance, Mark…

        I believe “housing” should be further looked at as “rental housing” and “ownership housing”… not everyone wants/needs “ownership”… for many, “rental” is a better deal, financially… there are SF rentals, and MF rentals… each have their place, depending on individual/family needs…

        I’ve been a MF renter in Davis, and for a time, was a SF rental landlord… currently an “owner” of SF property…

        I could not have afforded the house I “own” today… it was a serious “stretch” financially for us when we ‘bought’ our first house in Davis for 71k in 1980… that later became a rental property when we “stretched” again in the early 90’s, in the 240k range.

        Dad bought his house in the Bay Area for ~9,000 in 1955… sold for 450k in 2002… his sister rented her entire life, and left a pretty good ‘estate’…

        One size does not fit all…

        But a 0.2% rental vacancy housing rate, and the anemic growth of ‘ownership’ housing opportunities, at current pricing, is not a healthy situation for the Davis community… IMHO…

        1. Howard P

          And, I believe we should also be zoning for, and providing shelter for “the homeless’… they are here, too…

          Might be the faith/charity community to provide it, but the City needs to zone for it…

        2. Mark West

          I don’t disagree with your comments, Howard, my point was that much of the vocal opposition against the proposed MF projects comes from those who already have secure housing, and in some cases who own multiple properties and benefit financially from the continued shortage. The focus of the conversation should be how we can best provide opportunities for all residents to find appropriate housing, both rental and ownership.

        3. Howard P

          Mark, we have no disagreement…

          Yes, there are some who “profit” from the scarcity… and they can be vocal, and deny their ‘motivation’… I remember well opposition to a ‘battered women shelter’, where the objections expressed were ‘traffic related’, without anyone acknowledging they really were opposed to “them” in the neighborhood… yeah, like battered women and their children drive many times/VMT…

          As a landlord, I made sure the rent covered mortgage costs, taxes, utilities… yeah gained ‘equity’… but main reason we held the property was to ensure we could afford to “downsize” (we raised our kids, early years, in that home, but as they grew, sharing rooms became more problematic)… for others, they see their primary home as an “asset”, albeit not ‘liquid’…

          We’ve always seen ownership as a reduction of risk on rental costs, control of our ‘environment’, oh, and there is the side benefit of the “asset” thing…

          We made a small profit from the rental when we had it, but was never a part of our financial ‘calculus’…

          There others who view things differently, and yes, they are some of the most strident voices for the “status quo” that has led to the 0.2% vacancy rate…

    2. Ron

      Sam:  “My suspicion is that young professionals who either want to move to Davis as they start families, or who want to stay in Davis post college/grad school play a pretty significant role in the housing shortage–or, alternatively, are priced out of Davis as a result of the inability to build new housing stock.”

      Are you referring to new for-sale housing, such as The Cannery, Chiles Ranch, Grande, Willow Creek?

      Sam:  “As things stand, however, we are effectively priced out of the market (and as a two-lawyer couple, we are by no means low income.”

      That statement lacks credibility and perspective.

      Sam:  “That’s fine–commenters here are entitled to their opinion, and addressing the anti-student attitude in Davis is another conversation.”

      Statements such as that are unfortunate, especially since some of those who are on the “slow-growth” end of the spectrum are the same ones who are encouraging UCD to build more on-campus housing (including apartments).  Some of those same folks meet with students, to learn more about their concerns.

      The concern is with UCD’s lack of accountability (and the city’s response to that), and is not anti-student. 


      1. Matt Williams

        Sam said . . . “That’s fine–commenters here are entitled to their opinion, and addressing the anti-student attitude in Davis is another conversation.”

        Ron said . . . “The concern is with UCD’s lack of accountability (and the city’s response to that), and is not anti-student.”

        It is very clear that Sam and Ron have different perceptions of how/if an anti-student attitude exists in Davis.

        In a world where more and more, perception is reality, one can argue that they are simultaneously both right.

      2. Howard P

        Ron… the fact of the matter is that young families move into the homes vacated by those who “move up” to the newer/bigger(?)/more expensive housing… when we came to Davis, our first house had been a rental, and had been “abused”… and that was a huge “stretch”… he ownwer had long ago, not only moved up, but moved on (Missouri, as I recall)…

        Young families coming to Davis are generally picking up on “hand-me-downs”… that’s all they can afford… if they can…

        1. Ron

          Howard:  I believe that the cost of housing (in California, and some other states) has outpaced wage growth.  And, this has been going on for some time.  (When I think of what my parents paid for their house in the Bay Area before I was born, it’s almost unbelievable.  My Mom still has the hand-made “for sale” sign, from that time.  If I showed that to anyone now, they’d think it was a fake sign.)

          And yet, it’s always been the case that many (such as yourself) make sacrifices, especially when purchasing their first house. From what I’ve witnessed, it’s best to make that sacrifice as soon as one can (if possible).

          I have a friend in the Bay Area, with a very well-paying job. (Much more than I’ve ever made.) She really regrets not buying a property, years ago. She apparently could have easily afforded to do so, back in the day.

        2. Ron

          And, even though my parents’ house was unbelievably “cheap”, they still had to make sacrifices that most probably wouldn’t, today. (And, they remained frugal beyond that, a practice which I’ve now adopted.)

          My parents had a bunch of kids at home at that time, as well.  Under “normal” circumstances, I’d probably complain about that choice.  (But, I was the last one, so I guess that makes it “o.k.”.)  🙂

      3. Sam Bivins

        Ron, I look forward to you enlightening me on the details of my personal financial situation so that I can gain the proper credibility and perspective needed to determine whether or not I can/should buy a home in Davis.

        To be fair, I probably could “afford” to buy a house in Davis that fits our needs…in the same way I could afford to buy a helicopter.  It’s doable, but it wouldn’t make a lick of sense.

        1. Ron


          Point noted.  I don’t know your personal situation, nor should you feel compelled to explain it here.

          However, the downpayment, mortgage, and tax payment, along with overall income required to purchase an “average” house in Davis (new, or “used”) can probably be calculated fairly easily.  If compared to what two “average” attorneys make in the region, I suspect that a house in Davis (or Folsom, or Rocklin, for example) is readily affordable for someone in your situation (again, on average).

          Of course, even within Davis, some areas are more expensive than other areas.

          Granted, I’m not laying out the calculations, here.  And, I do acknowledge that housing prices have generally outpaced wages statewide, and have for some time.

          Parts of Sacramento aren’t exactly “cheap”, either.

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