Commentary: City-UCD Relationship as an Eco-System out of Equilibrium


In the discussion of student housing there has been a narrative which has argued that runaway growth at the university has put unmitigated growth pressures on the city of Davis to build housing or face a growing student housing and rental vacancy shortage.

But to quote ASUCD President Josh Dalavai on Wednesday night, where there is some truth to that narrative, it is not the entire picture.

What was interesting was this chart posted by Matt Williams.

What I find most interesting is that it ends at 2010 and shows that, for the most part, Davis population growth and university growth had increased at about the same rate.  And, contrary perhaps to popular belief, UC Davis growth had been relatively steady over time.

However, what we have seen in the last decade is that the university is now somewhere between 35,000 and 36,000 while the city has barely increased at all over its 2010 population.

This suggests that we have been in our community discussions largely mis-characterizing the nature of the relationship between the city and university.  Some have cast this as predatory, with UC Davis decisions forcing the city to absorb increasingly large portions of the student enrollment growth over the past few years.

There is some truth to that view but it is not the whole story.

What I see with this data is actually that UC Davis and the city of Davis exist in a sort of ecosystem.  For 40 years they have lived in relative equilibrium, with the city of Davis growing alongside the university, thus maintaining the ability to absorb new student growth while not exploding out of balance.

We can see over time that the university has, both in fact and contrary to some narratives, taken on a greater percentage of the student population.  Data published by the UC Housing Task Force in the 2002 report “UC Housing for the 21st Century” shows that on-campus housing was about 18.6 percent in 1996-97 and 22.9 percent in 2001-02.  Recent data published by the UC Office of the President shows it is up to 27.2% in 2015-16 with UC Davis committing to go up to 40 percent by 2027.  That means over a 30-year period UC Davis is committing to having more than doubled their percentage of the on-campus student housing.

The narrative that compares UC Davis’ on-campus housing share to that of other UCs like Irvine or San Diego is accurate, but again not the full picture.  The full picture is that UC Davis has a lower
percentage of on-campus housing because, for the most part of its history, being in a smaller college town, housing has been cheaper and  more affordable off-campus than on-campus and Davis has been able to over time absorb the student population within the confines of the city.

I think it is important to recognize in this depiction that UC Davis is not a predator, preying on the city of Davis.  But it is rather a separate organism that has a symbiotic relationship with its host community – a relationship that is now starting to change, and the problem that UC Davis faces is that it is not adapting fast enough to the changing environment.

What changed here is not UC Davis’ behavior.  It appears from the data above that, while UC Davis has grown faster in absolute numbers than it has in previous decades, as a percentage of growth the rate has been more even.

What has thrown off the equilibrium have been changes in how the city of Davis has done land use, not how UC Davis has added students.

All of that being said, UC Davis does deserve a good amount of criticism here.  Jason Taormino made the point, “Our failure to plan over the last twenty years, I personally believe, is not the university’s emergency.”  The reality is that UC Davis has been slow to recognize and adapt to a changing ecosystem.

Part of the problem is in fact structural.  UC Davis unveiled the 20/20 Initiative several years ago but only now during their Long Range Development Plan discussions have they had an accompanying discussion of housing.  So it seems like enrollment plan changes occurred separate from planning changes and planning changes are largely confined to the 10-year process of the LRDP.

In fairness, even the city leadership, when the 20/20 Initiative was launched, failed to recognize the impact that university growth would eventually have on a community that was maxed out in terms of student renter occupancy.

But, contrary to Jason Taormino’s point, that wasn’t just the city of Davis’ failure to plan, it was also UC Davis’ failure to consider housing with enrollment growth.

Even now, when the university is fully aware of the magnitude of the problem, they have been slow to increase their housing totals.

Matt Dulcich made it very clear on Wednesday that they will not commit to a higher number.  His response to more density and heights was “we’ll try.”  So they will allow builders to go to higher densities and build more units.  They won’t constrain planning.  But they will not add to the locations of growth and they will not commit to increase the number of units in the planning document.

Don Shor is right, “If they haven’t penciled out higher numbers now, they aren’t going to.”

The weird thing about that viewpoint is that the numbers they need to reach to “fix” this problem are not unreachable if they simply add one more student housing project.

Currently they have committed to adding 6200 beds, which is 90 percent of new projected enrollment by 2027.  That once again gets them to 40 percent of all students housed on campus – which again means they will not accommodate all freshmen and sophomores with on-campus housing.

We have calculated the difference between 40 percent and the preferred 100/50 plan to be about 3800 beds.

When you consider that the city of Davis has already passed Sterling Apartments and likely will do so with Lincoln40, that is around 1500 beds that they are accommodating – which drops the total needed by UC Davis to be 2300.

That is not an unreachable number if UC Davis commits to building one more relatively large student housing project in the next decade.

Without that commitment, it is hard to see how the city itself accommodates that number and it is even hard to see how Woodland and Sacramento can absorb that number either.  And so we have a problem if UC Davis will not figure out how to get that last piece of the puzzle.

The bottom line is that I think the narrative has misinterpreted the situation, but even understanding the situation does not give the university a free pass.  Clearly by now they have to understand the planning environment has changed and they have to adapt or perish.

—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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18 thoughts on “Commentary: City-UCD Relationship as an Eco-System out of Equilibrium”

    1. Richard McCann

      This is an enlightening summary of the situation. The discussion should include staff increases, and should include changes in UCD staff commuting as well.

  1. Roberta Millstein

    Seems as though the conclusions that one can draw for our situation now are pretty limited given that the data only go to 2010.

    I’d also request that you quote and discuss Matt Dulcich’s answer to my question at the forum.  It’s one thing to say that the University simply won’t commit to more housing, but I found the reasons provided for their lack of commitment to be pretty thin.

  2. Alan Miller

    I think it is important to recognize in this depiction that UC Davis is not a predator, preying on the city of Davis.  But it is rather a separate organism that has a symbiotic relationship with its host community – a relationship that is now starting to change, and the problem that UC Davis faces is that it is not adapting fast enough to the changing environment.

    Sounds like someone finally passed Biology 1C

  3. Don Shor

    City of Davis population as of July 2016, per census bureau: 68,111.

    Enrollment UC Davis 2016, per Wikipedia: 35,186.

     I really don’t understand why the university won’t got up to at least the 8500 beds.

    But they won’t.

      1. Howard P

        No, they haven’t miscalculated… think Rhett Butler, as in “Frankly, Davis, we…. ”  and ‘there is not thing one we can do’ about their position…

          1. David Greenwald Post author

            The problem is who are you going to call out? For instance, Matt Dulcich isn’t the decision maker.

        1. Howard P

          David… bureaucracy generally (pun intended) starts at the top… if the UC “generals” really cared, they have the power to act… but ‘generals’ rarely heed subordinates’ advice, and much less “civilians”… that’s not cynical, that is reality… it is not a bureaucratic problem… it is a leadership focus and mentality problem…

          I still think my Rhett Butler analogy is correct… the UC ‘generals’ “frankly don’t give a damn”, as to housing (students or staff), unless it is perceived to affect their ‘core mission’ (rare), and even then…

          The shark/remora thing is really ‘silly’ (not yours, David, I realize)…

        2. Roberta Millstein

          Why does a specific person need to be called out?  The suggestion is to call out the university on the fact that it lacks justification for its inaction.  If you really want to address a particular person, you can call on Chancellor May to do something about it, although obviously this is not a situation of his making (but it could be depending on how the next months unfold).

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