Sunday Commentary: Why Is UC Davis Being So Stubborn on Housing?

Cal Poly is committed to putting 65 percent of their students on campus – why can’t UC Davis go to 50 percent?

This week the Yolo County Board of Supervisors became the latest governmental body to push for UC Davis to do what every other UC except for Berkeley has done – push their on-campus housing to 50 percent.

One of the more telling exchanges on Tuesday was when Marj Dickinson was attempting to correct the record or defend the university – she quoted the ninth “whereas” where it states, “UCD has the largest amount of land in the UC in the system with 5,300 acres, yet has historically provided the least amount of on-campus housing.”

She said the chart that was shown earlier in the presentation “shows that’s not true.  Berkeley has less on-campus housing by percentage.  There are four campuses that have less on-campus housing by number.”

The problem of course is that Berkeley is an urban campus that is basically land-locked and unable to expand.  UC Davis is surrounded on two sides with open land and has ample space to develop additional housing.

As we noted in a commentary earlier this week, Matt Dulcich, UC Davis Director of Environmental Planning, seemed to be softening the university’s opposition to go from a 90/40 plan (where they would accommodate 90 percent of new enrollment with on-campus housing and 40 percent overall) to a 100/50 plan (where they would accommodate all new enrollment with on-campus housing and go up to 50 percent of total enrollment housed on campus).

Matt Dulcich told the board, “There are different options that are flexible as we seek to address a bigger number. We are trying to refine that to get beyond 90 to 100 percent.”

All of this sounds good and it certainly demonstrates that UC Davis is probably starting to recognize the reality of the situation.  Their enrollment policies are already impacting Davis with a 0.2 percent vacancy rate, and now threaten to impact neighboring communities as well.

But if UC Davis is serious about going beyond the 90 percent of new student enrollment on campus, they need to explicitly put it into the EIR and the LRDP.  Instead, it was implied that they had some fudge factors on the EIR.

Generally speaking, however, the only way that UC Davis could exceed their housing projection would be to have a new EIR.

The question is why are they being so stubborn?  Why can the university not find a way to house an additional 3900 students?

Everyone in the region realizes now that this is a problem.  It is a problem for the city of Davis because Davis has a 0.2 percent vacancy rate.  It is a problem for the students who came to a council meeting earlier this year talking about the hardships that the lack of available and affordable housing have caused them.

It is clearly a problem for the county, and indeed the region, as it forces students into communities that have not designed housing for a large student population and forces them onto roads that are not designed for the heavy commuter traffic.

It was helpful that Matt Dulcich confirmed the numbers we are talking about  The difference between 40 percent and 50 percent of students housed on campus is 3900.

There is no way you can exceed your EIR by more than 50 percent, going from 6200 beds to 10,000-plus beds, without having a new EIR.

In effect, UC Davis appears to be attempting to alleviate the political pressure without committing to a new course of action.

But the reality is that UC Davis has to solve this problem – because no one else can.  The city recently approved Sterling Apartments.  They will likely in the fall approved Lincoln40.  But those are not projects that are going to provide huge capacity for student enrollment growth.

Instead, those projects are designed to alleviate the city’s immediate housing crunch by providing a little bit more in the way of margin.

The city has no other sizable student apartment projects on the horizon.  It has little in the way of land available for such projects and the community has been reluctant to pass a Measure R vote.

Moreover, looking at the numbers, the current course of action by the university is extremely problematic.

Right now the plan calls for 2775 beds by 2020.  But UC Davis will have added about 3000 new students between 2015 and 2020.

Will the new housing come on line on time?  That seems questionable at best.  We believe that it is more realistic to project an opening of 2021 or even 2022.  What that means is that there will be 3000 additional students with no new university housing projected for four or five years.

Think about that, the students who enter this fall will be graduated by the time the new housing likely will come on line.  With a 0.2 percent vacancy rate in Davis, where are those students projected to live?

Either doubled and tripled up in rooms in Davis or commuting from nearby communities, apparently.

Davis cannot solve the housing crisis.  Everyone involved agrees this is a crisis.

As Jim Provenza put it, “It’s a very desperate housing situation, where students are being pushed further and further from campus.”

“There is a housing crisis in Davis,” Marj Dickinson admitted.

She added, “It did not happen overnight and it didn’t happen because of one single dorm.  There is a challenge – the university is going to grow, we are under very strong encouragement from the legislature – a kind word – to increase our total enrollment of students.”

So the real question that we should all be asking is if the university acknowledges that there is a housing crisis, if they are being forced or are even choosing to grow, shouldn’t they provide housing on campus to accommodate that growth?

I just don’t get it.  What they are doing right now makes no sense.  Explain to me, Marj Dickinson and Matt Dulcich, exactly why it is that the university cannot build one more student housing project on campus in the next ten years to house those 3900 beds?

That is the part that has never been explained publicly.

—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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  1. Don Shor

    I found the answers provided by the UC officials at the board of supervisors meeting very disturbing. The notion that UCD has adhered to the letter and spirit of the long-ago Memorandum of Understanding is simply false. The rhetorical flexibility that was put forth is not sustainable at the action level: you can’t just say to developers ‘see if you can squeeze in some more units’ without modifying the EIR, and the likelihood of any developer doing that and successfully winning the contract is slim. So it was just posturing. About the only thing you can say from that presentation is that some UCD officials recognize that they have a local political problem, which they apparently wish to try to mitigate by sounding flexible. But to then question the factual premise of the supervisors’ resolution undercuts even the pretense of flexibility.

    Here is what I posted on the last thread on this.

    UCD has stated clearly what they intend to do and they are hewing very closely to that. At this point the process will only be modified at the level of the office of the president (UCOP) or by the regents, or perhaps by the new chancellor overriding the current staff recommendations. Although the regents are unlikely to get involved directly in a planning issue of this sort, some diplomatic lobbying might pay off. I suggest that if city officials actually want to make headway on this, a delegation comprised of a couple of council members and a member of the board of supervisors request a meeting with Regents Committee on Grounds and Buildings, apparently a subcommittee of the Finance and Capital Strategies Committee. Committee chair is Hadi Makarechian, vice chair is Bruce D. Varner.

    It would help for city officials to speak first to someone conversant with the university’s budgeting process to understand why UCD is continuing in the direction they’ve gone. I’ve explained the constraints local UC campus planners face to the best of my ability based on what I understand. I don’t think the citizen activists are aware of how these decisions are made and what is tying the hands of the planners they are dealing with. Bob Segar can’t unilaterally make a 100/50 policy, or decide how bids are going to be put out.

    This is the reality. UCD is committed to 90/40. Housing has to basically pay for itself. Enrollment growth will precede provision of housing. It will take something extraordinary to circumvent those basic principles. Either the chancellor will have to seek to use his or her discretion (with regents approval) or the UCOP would have to get involved directly in the campus planning process. Campuses are quite autonomous.

    If there is some aspect of this that I have mis-stated or could explain better, anybody conversant with the UC budgeting and capital outlays processes is welcome to contact me at so I can provide more accurate information.

  2. Greg Rowe

    UCD has heretofore maintained an unflinching minimal student housing commitment in the draft 2027-28 Long Range Development Plan (LRDP).  Campus administrators want to do nothing more than provide housing for 90% of the expected increase in students during the coming decade. Over the course of past decades, the university has demonstrated a consistent but unfathomable unwillingness to match the pace of on-campus housing construction with the rate of enrollment growth.  UCD is justifiably hailed as having the world’s highest ranked school of veterinary medicine and the likewise top ranked school of agriculture, yet seemingly wants to purposely aim for a substandard ranking when it comes to student housing.
    Those responsible for running UCD’s affairs seem completely oblivious to the huge negative burden this state of affairs has placed on the rental market in Davis and surrounding cities.  This was demonstrated by the inane comments by Interim Chancellor Hexter to the Board of Regents last November when he said UCD hopes the city of Davis is happy that UCD is the city’s largest supplier of renters. (Anyone who hasn’t watched the video is encouraged to do so.  It will leave you incredulous.) In contrast, the Chancellor of UC San Diego told the Regents on January 25 that he is pushing to provide a 4-year on-campus housing guarantee to all students by the 2024-25 academic year. (I know this to be the case because I attended the Regents’ meeting.)  Why can’t UCD demonstrate this kind of leadership instead of continuing to stubbornly dig in its heels?   
    As pointed out in the Notice of Preparation (NOP) for the draft EIR, 63% of UCD’s three-quarter average enrollment of 32,663 students lived off-campus in the City of Davis.  That equates to 20,578 students. Another 8% (2,613) were forced to find housing in other cities, which the NOP identified as including Sacramento, Woodland, Vacaville, etc.   Planning to do nothing more than provide on-campus housing to 90% of the expected increase of 6,337 students during the coming decade will do absolutely nothing to relieve the existing shortage and cost of rental housing for which UCD is largely responsible for creating.
    I have had a number of interactions with UCD planners, including Matt Dulich, whom I like and respect. I was nonetheless astounded by his statement to the Board of Supervisors last Tuesday, in which he argued that providing on-campus housing for 50% of the expected enrollment of 39,000 students in 2027-28 would amount to providing housing to “…more like 150% of our growth.”  Well, yes, Matt, that’s exactly what UCD should be aspiring to do in the LRDP to make up for decades of subpar performance in providing for the needs of its students.   That would mean providing beds for 19,500 students (half of 39,000) instead of the meager 15,600 beds noted on page A-8 of the NOP.  Going to the Regents and requesting funding for new, high rise campus apartment buildings, like UC Irving and UC San Diego have been doing in recent months, is the course of action UCD should be emulating.
    I supported the proposed Sterling 5th Street Apartments project because the revised project closely approximated the Environmentally Superior Alternative in the EIR, and because I know from my prior work in urban redevelopment how difficult it is to make productive reuse of vacant property.  In my statement to the City Council, however, I emphasized that Sterling’s approval means it’s now time for UCD to step up to the plate and do its part. Unfortunately, the performance of the university’s representatives at last week’s Board meeting makes it evident that UCD has not yet fully absorbed that message.

  3. Todd Edelman

    The problem of course is that Berkeley is an urban campus that is basically land-locked and unable to expand.  UC Davis is surrounded on two sides with open land and has ample space to develop additional housing.

    A big difference between Davis and at least most other UC campuses is that they don’t have our great urban growth boundary rules. So, in regard to Cal, students and employees can move incrementally further-and-further away, i.e. to Richmond, East Oakland, Daly City and points east, and something similar applies to UCLA. There’s not slightly cheaper housing just north of the city…

    In regards to traffic congestion from other towns, is there any data on the number of UC students, faculty and employees who live in Dixon, Winters, Woodland etc.?

    1. Greg Rowe

      Todd: there is an exhibit in the LRDP (“Campus Tomorrow”) website that uses a range of circle sizes to provide general data on the number of students living in other cities within Yolo, Sacramento, and Solano counties.  That’s not exact data, but is the most precise I’ve seen.

  4. Eileen Samitz

    I appreciate this Vanguard article because it defines the issue very well. It raises the key question of why can’t UCD accomplish what so many other UCs are doing to provide far more on campus housing? UCD has provided no good response so far. This is a critical issue for the sake of the UCD students, as well as Davis and surrounding communities that UCD is impacting due to its negligence in failing to provide the needed on-campus student housing to accommodate its own growth. UCD is establishing a reputation for devoting the fewest resources to meeting its own student housing needs. 
    UCD has well over $1 BILLION dollars in endowment funding, much of which is evidently not ear-marked because I get almost monthly UCD donation requests that do not define the purposes to which my donation would be used. It is clear, however, that UCD is trying to not put any of these funds into student housing and minimizing the amount of on-campus housing it will build. It is astonishing that UCD is complaining about the mounting concerns expressed by its own students and complaints from neighboring communities that are being impacted, while UCD students are desperately seeking housing, Meanwhile, it is UCD’s gross negligence for decades in failing to provide enough on-campus student housing that is causing the problem, yet UCD continues to stall and avoid building the amount of housing needed to sustain its own growing student population.

    UCD claims to be working on addressing the problem of more on-campus housing needed and that it supports sustainable planning. But in contrast to these claims, UCD has only been offering 3- or at most 4-story housing on its land for new or redeveloped project sites. In particular, Emerson Hall and Webster Hall in the Oxford Circle vicinity on UCD land owned within the City are being proposed for redevelopment. UCD is squandering a critical opportunity to maximize utilization of the land on which these facilities are located because it is only proposing a 4-story project, whereas 5-6 story apartment buildings would work well at these Oxford Circle sites adjacent to UCD.

    The obvious question is if UCD needs so much more student housing, then why is UCD only redeveloping Emerson Hall and Webster Hall into 4 stories when they can develop at least 5 (maybe 6 stories)? These particular sites would be ideal for higher density buildings because they are directly adjacent to UCD while also relatively far from single family housing making it a more compatible site for higher density projects. It certainly looks like UCD wants to continue pushing off as much of its student housing responsibilities as possible.

    UCD continues to resist providing the far more on-campus student housing needed to accommodate the enormous student population growth it desires. UCD’s over-ambitious enrollment growth plans go beyond its inability to provide the student housing but also its inability to provide the infrastructure needed of classrooms, faculty, and staff. Yet, UCD is clearly trying hard to justify provide the minimal amount of student housing, or even less if campus administrators can push through the seriously inadequate UCD LRDP EIR.

    UCD is not willing to use its own enormous funding sources to provide the needed on-campus housing like all the other UC campuses, but wants, instead, to use these funds to build additional art museums and music recital centers and other pet projects, rather than critically needed student housing.

    UCD has not even shown any support to sponsor a fund for student housing, which was recently advocated by the Davis community. Well, why not? This strongly suggests that UCD simply does not want to provide the needed student housing for its own growth, unlike other UC campuses.

    What is becoming more and more apparent is that UCD, the largest UC with over 5,300 acres and a terrible track record on providing on-campus housing, is going to persist in trying to continue getting away with deflecting its housing needs off campus to Davis and surrounding communities. Plus, UCD is also trying to get away with building the least number of student beds with the low-density projects that they are planning simply because UCD does not want to put any funding towards the critical need for student housing.  UCD can afford to facilitate building the needed on-campus housing but is resisting doing so. The students do not deserve to be treated like this by UCD, particularly when the students are paying such high tuition for their education at UCD.

    UCD is essentially continuing a “race to the bottom” by being the campus with the worst planning and providing the least amount of on-campus housing for its own students, while it tries to claim it does “sustainable planning.”  Winning that race would be a dubious distinction for what could otherwise be a progressive academic institution that proactively provides for the totality of student needs.

    1. Jim Hoch

      “The obvious question is if UCD needs so much more student housing, then why is UCD only redeveloping Emerson Hall and Webster Hall into 4 stories when they can develop at least 5 (maybe 6 stories)?”


      The obvious answer is that four stories are significantly cheaper than six stories on a per-unit basis to both build and maintain. The more obvious question would be, why would they want to divert resources from their mission of educating students to satisfy a certain political element in the City of Davis?

      1. David Greenwald

        “The obvious answer is that four stories are significantly cheaper than six stories on a per-unit basis to both build and maintain.”

        I don’t buy that.  There is no added land cost going from four sotires to six stories.

    1. Colin Walsh

      The actual distances are different

      Webster hall is 620 feet from the closest house on Stanford Drive and there are 2 two story buildings, and, one three story building, and the very large 3 story Emerson Complex between.

      Emerson Hall is 280 feet from the closest house on Stanford Drive and there are 2 two story buildings, and one three story building between.

      Sterling apartments will be 150 feet from  Rancho Yolo and there is only a road between.

      1. Sharla C.

        How about as the car drives and the increased traffic on the nearest intersection – Poleline/5th & Sycamore & Russell?  If it is not an issue for one, then it is not an issue for the other.  Poleline/5th is by far less impacted than Russell/Sycamore.  This makes no sense.  The overriding and continuous message is that University employees are dirtbags who don’t care about anybody, especially students.

        1. Ron

          Sharla:  “The overriding and continuous message is that University employees are dirtbags who don’t care about anybody, especially students.”


        2. Sharla C.

          “…UCD wants to continue pushing off as much of its student housing responsibilities as possible.”

          “UCD is not willing…but wants, instead, to use these funds to build additional art museums and music recital centers and other pet projects.”

          “UCD has not even shown any support to sponsor a fund for student housing.”

          “UCD does not want to put any funding towards the critical need for student housing.”

          “UCD is essentially continuing a “race to the bottom” by being the campus with the worst planning.”

          This is an example of the relentless message that is given every time this issue comes up on this blog.  Sadly, this works politically right now.

        3. Howard P

          Sharla… will take issue with the suggestion others have made to designate UC contributions for housing (and yes, I know you aren’t a promoter of that)…

          After I thought about it a bit, if UCD got more contributions for student housing construction, they’d most likely figure that that frees up other funds that are or should be going for that… might be cynical, but have seen that before in both the private and public sector…

  5. Susan Ranier

    Why is a very good question.

    Visit the UC Irvine site to see how happy they are at having wonderful affordable housing that also has a student academic program to optimize the student’s experience.  They even provide jobs for students to help around the housing complex.  It is a new model of P3 – Public Private Partnership that has now become P3 People – Prosperity- Planet with beautiful buildings that are 6 stories and higher, sustainable with nice open spaces and very happy students and UC Administrators.   UC Berkeley recently had a P3 retrofit an existing building, transforming it to chic housing below market rate rentals.

    It seems that the current UCDavis leadership team does not work in a similar interdisciplinary, open, transparent and consensus based relationship like other universities do to make highest and best business decisions.  They seem to be stuck in doing things the same old way.  This old way has not worked well so perhaps that is why there is reticence to step into this new relationship world and still feel like they “have control”.  UCDavis:  Why not call the other universities to understand their process and financials etc.  Almost all of them are in much more expensive markets than Davis!  Learn from others and reap the success!

    In closing, would it be possible to know what the rental rates are going to be at Sterling and Lincoln 40?  Could that be transparent?  I think students would like to know.    Would it be possible to know the sustainability goals of these two projects?


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