Last night at the Social Services Commission meeting – as I listened to the students get up and talk about their hardships finding housing, the cost of that housing, the choices that students were making between their studies, food and shelter, and how many students were ending up either couch surfing or living in their cars – it was a reminder of a college failure of our community to address fundamental housing issues.
The reality is that when Sterling Apartments were approved last spring, it marked the first time in 12 years that a market rate multi-family housing project was approved in the city.
As much as it is easy to point our fingers at the university and argue that university growth and lack of on-campus housing is to blame, our analysis from earlier this year showed that actually student enrollment has grown fairly steadily over the last 40 to 50 years and the major factor that changed in the last ten years was that the city stopped accommodating that growth with new housing.
Critics are correct, UC Davis has not provided enough housing on campus. Right now that figure is 29 percent – lower than the university promised at one point. The university has committed to providing 6200 new beds over the next decade, but that still leaves us about 4000 beds short – which necessitates the city stepping up to provide for the 4000 or so additional students who would be left without housing.
The city in early October had an affordable housing workshop where the council has asked a consultant to look into whether the city should assess affordable housing by the unit, the bedroom or the
Mayor Robb Davis pointed out last night that the council is looking for units rather than in-lieu fees for projects like Lincoln40.
But, while the city council has examined affordable housing and approved recent student housing projects, there is a need, as the Social Services Commission pointed out last night, to look into other types of housing.
Critics of so-called “mega-dorms” have argued that what the city really needs is to have one- to three-bedroom apartments that can accommodate families and workers. This sentiment was echoed by a few commissioners last night.
Several of the commissioners had overall issues with the Lincoln40 project, with Claire Goldstene stating that “I am not a huge fan of this type of project.” Instead, she argued there was a need for a variety of different kinds of housing, for both market and below market rate.
Tracey Tomasky, the Commission Chair, said, “This is clearly an innovative project, but innovation in and of itself is not enough to go on.” She said there is a need in Davis to go beyond student projects and once again this project is not flexible.
While I agree that the city needs to look into a range of housing, I don’t view it as an either/or situation.
When we looked at the 2010 Census data, we found that around 85 percent of all rental housing was occupied by non-families. While the census at that time excluded both Same-Sex and Domestic Partners from familial definitions, the 85 percent figure probably represents a low number because of the growth of student populations versus the lack of growth for families.
The advantage of Lincoln40 is that it generates the ability to house a fairly large number of students – 708 – in what is only a 130-unit apartment complex. Small footprints and high densities allow us to meet a huge and growing need in a small space.
Where I think the critics and the commissioners get it wrong is that you are just not going to provide meaningful housing for non-students at Lincoln40 or other projects of that sort.
In fact, I would argue that providing one- to three-bedroom market rate apartments is not likely to solve the family housing crisis.
The reason is that the 0.2 percent vacancy rate, the heavy concentration of the student demographic, and the market advantage they have means that a three-bedroom apartment at Lincoln40 with per unit rental and normal ratios of bathrooms is still most likely rented by students, just as a four- and five-bedroom apartment rented by the bed would be.
Not only are there simply more of them in the market, but there is a huge cost factor.
The problem that we face is one of affordability. A one-bedroom in Davis averages $1600, a two-bedroom is around $1900 to $2000 and a three-bedroom is around $2300. If you have three to six students moving into a three-bedroom apartment, they share that $2300 three to six ways, reducing the cost from expensive to affordable.
A family doesn’t have that option. They have to pay the whole rent. So you have a family with kids, you are looking at $2000 a month or more in rent – that’s just not affordable for most people in that situation.
And those who can afford it are better off simply trying to purchase a house.
I think it is best to deal in accurate data. And for that reason I think it would be helpful for the city, just as it did with affordable housing, to have a family housing workshop.
We need to figure out what the current supply is. Who lives in rental housing? If we can do it, figure out who lives in what kind of rental housing and what the rent is.
Then we need to identify ways to making housing for families both available and affordable.
For me, simply building one- to three-bedroom apartments is not the way to provide housing for families. For the most part we should be looking at a combination of small townhouses that families can move into, single-family homes integrated into existing neighborhoods and a combination of affordable by design market rate units with subsidized rental housing for families that is big “A” affordable.
—David M. Greenwald reporting