Commentary: The City Needs a Family Housing Workshop

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

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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. Richard McCann

    “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.”

    You don’t need to directly build family-oriented housing–you need to build housing that moves students out of existing family housing units. That what projects like Lincoln40, Sterling and Nishi 2.0 aim to do. That’s the way that housing markets work–it’s called “fungibility.”

    Also, the City has a pretty good count of owned vs tenant housing units in its GIS database. However, until recently it hasn’t had the personnel to update the database and run queries. That appears to now be resolved, so let’s get the info.

  2. Howard P

    Interesting article in the Be today… building SF homes intended to be rentals…

    Also, the McKuen condos (Green Meadows) were originally intended as for sale, but over the years became investment/rental units, where both students and young families thrived.

    More tools for the toolbox?

  3. Howard P

    BTW… important premise… yes, a workshop on both family and students (some of whom have, or are starting families… Solano Park and perhaps Orchard Park were married student with or without children, as I recall) would be appropriate…

    Both for the City, and for UCD… based on history, seems like UCD wants to ignore married students, particularly those with children.

    Wrong.  But if UCD doesn’t, someone needs to fill in.

    We waited until graduation and getting jobs, to get married and having children.  But, could see given passion and consequences, we would have needed to have that housing available… UCD should address that need, particularly re-entry students, as well as general under-grads and post graduates…

  4. Eileen Samitz

    The problem is mega-dorms will not “free-up” any rental housing since UCD will keep adding more students to their campus population and filling in the student-only mega-dorm beds while UCD drags its heels on providing the far more on-campus housing needed than they are proposing.

    Meanwhile, mega-dorms in the City de-motivate UCD from building on-campus housing will just increase the competition for rental housing particularly for families and workers in the City. Mega-dorms exclude non-students from new rental housing built. There will be no “trickle down” to families and workers of more rental housing with mega-dorms.

    1. Don Shor

      The university has told us how much housing they are going to provide. Do you have any evidence, any written communication, any comment in public, or any other suggestion that they will provide anything more than what they have said they will provide? If not, why do you continue to suggest they will go much beyond the 90/40 that has been the consistent amount in the LRDP?
      We know what their projections for enrollment are. We know what their target housing increase is. We know how many beds are needed. Increased housing in town doesn’t “demotivate” them. Their planning process is clear and the housing need is clear. We all may wish they would build “far more on-campus housing” but wishes don’t make it so.

    1. Don Shor

      Why would I be disappointed, Eileen? That’s a very weird thing to say.
      I would be very happy if they would add a thousand more beds. But that wouldn’t obviate the need for more private rental housing in town. I also have no reason to believe they will add a thousand more beds. Maybe a few hundred. To add any more than that, they would have to go to more than five stories, which costs more per square foot, or they would have to add buildings — which would require a whole new planning process. So they might (“we’ll try”) squeeze some more units into the existing planned buildings.
      That’s all we can hope for. They won’t get to 100/50 that way. There is no reason to believe they will get to 100/50 in the current LRDP planning process. And even if they miraculously got to 100/50, we’d still need more housing in town because of the prior growth and because of the added faculty and staff.

      The point is, if they do everything they say they’re going to do, and if private builders are allowed to build the current proposals we are discussing — the vacancy rate will simply not get worse. My goal is to implement policies that will make it better. At the moment, I’d settle for policies that will just keep the current situation from getting worse.

  5. Eileen Samitz


    There is no policy that says that we should build a glut of housing that is exclusionary by design for students only that does not work for families and local workers, and that will not help improve the vacancy rate. Nor should there ever be such a policy. Mega-dorms are not a solution.

    1. Don Shor

      1. It would not be a glut of housing. We have a desperately serious shortage of housing.
      2. Of course it will help the vacancy rate. Basic Econ. We’ve presented the numbers. We need more housing supply for renters. Anything that adds to the housing supply will, ipso facto, help the vacancy rate.
      Glut. Mega-dorms. Luxury apartments. Your rhetoric is seriously detached from the reality on the ground: people need rental housing in Davis, and there hasn’t been any built in significant amounts for years. We’ve got some catching up to do.
      Apartments are a solution to a shortage of apartments. There is no need to keep calling apartments “mega-dorms.” I lived in a dormitory. It had 60 units on each floor, with two large shared bathroom units total for all the residents. There was a meal plan. We had resident advisers. That is a dorm.
      Students, like it or not, are the dominant part of the rental market in Davis. Now that we know how many units UCD is going to provide, it is going to be necessary for the private developers to provide the rest — unless you just want them to live in Dixon or Woodland or keep crowding people out of single-family homes.

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