Commentary: Are Any of These Really Mega-Dorms?

At the Social Services Commission meeting, Nishi developer Tim Ruff said, “We have a mega-housing crisis.  What you look at what we are doing here in Davis – we can do it with mini-dorms or we can do it with other larger dorms.  I think the best location for a larger dorm-like project would be adjacent to campus.”

But, while some have railed against these projects, it is not clear how well they fit into the term “mega-dorm” as used by some during this debate.

On Tuesday, Mr. Ruff pointed out that they were planning a mix of configurations – half of which are two-bedroom apartments with either one or two bathrooms per unit.  The other half will be four-bedroom apartments with either two or four bathrooms per unit.

“We’re not having a bathroom for every bedroom,” he explained.  “We’re not having five bedrooms behind every door.  These are pretty much average size units.”

Critics like Eileen Samitz have argued that these projects “are exclusionary by design because they are a rent-by-the-bed format.”  She writes, “Instead of mega-dorms, the City needs to build more traditional 1-, 2-and 3-bedroom apartments which are inclusionary by design since (they) can be occupied by local workers, families or students.”

But as we have looked more closely at the known proposals – Sterling, Lincoln40, Plaza 2555, and Nishi – several things have come into focus.

First of all, these projects are not monolithic.  In fact, the one real defining characteristic is that they will have a large capacity ranging from 540 student-oriented beds at Sterling to 2000 or so student-oriented beds at Nishi.

However, only Sterling and Lincoln40 are planning to have exclusively bed leases.  In a previous article, we have noted a number of advantages to such an arrangement, from liability to the ability
to remove troublesome tenants to efficiency.

However, Plaza 2555 is planning to rent by the unit.

There is not yet a firm proposal from Nishi, however, Tim Ruff did tell the Vanguard that they could have either bed leases or unit leases.  He said, “Either way, 3 or 4 people could get together and rent a unit or potentially a family – but we were defining affordability by bed so individual students could be served.”

Second, while Sterling, Lincoln40, and Plaza 2555 have a majority of four- or five-bedroom units, they are not exclusively so.

Lincoln40 will have the highest percentage of such units at 70 percent, but even Lincoln40 only has eight proposed five-bedroom units and it also has 38 two- and three-bedroom units.

Sterling’s market rate apartments are comprised with two-thirds of them as four- to five-bedroom apartments.  But they also have 52 one- and two-bedroom market rate apartments, plus 38 affordable units on the affordable site, both of which could provide for families or non-students.

Plaza 2555 has the most diverse mix, broken down as follows: 30 micro units, 17 one-bedroom units, 14 with two bedrooms, nine with three bedrooms, 96 with four bedrooms and 34 with five bedrooms. That means that 130 of the 200 units have four and five bedrooms.

Not only that, but a lot of these units are townhouse configuration rather than apartment configuration.  Yes, they are targeting 554 for student beds, but they have a mix of housing options and are renting them by the unit, not the bed.

The developers are seeking out groups of students to serve, rather than necessarily individual student rentals.

Finally, Nishi at this point is the least mega-dorm like proposal, with no five-bedroom apartments, and half of its units are two-bedroom apartments.

In short, as the chart shows above, none of these projects are exclusively four- and five-bedroom apartment complexes.  There is a mix and there are one to three bedrooms available at every project, ranging from half at Nishi to 30 percent at Lincoln40.

A point that keeps getting missed by the opponents of mega-dorms is that the fact that the rental market in Davis heavily skews toward students anyway.  We have estimated as low as 65 percent to as high as 85 percent of all apartment rentals in Davis are occupied by students.

We asked the city if they have an estimate on that number but, right now, they do not.  However, we hope to get something from the city in January.

The key point, though, is if the number is indeed between 65 and 85 percent, then these apartment projects are providing housing that is somewhat proportionate to the overall demographic breakdown in Davis.

With that said, I think Tim Ruff is realistic about who will live in Nishi.

He pointed out, “It’s right adjacent to campus.”  He said, “We’re not necessarily restricting to students, but the fact that it’s right next to campus…  The students won’t need cars…  The idea’s to lure students closer to campus and get them out of some of these neighborhoods.”

He offered, “I think that will help loosen up…every percentage you can take off the vacancy rate – two percent, three percent, four percent – each step you go, you are going to put more tools in the hands of the tenant, so that when they come to the landlord they can ask for pretty much (what they need), they can negotiate.”

Some of the Social Services Commissioners seemed relieved that the project had a mix of housing and could serve a variety of people, but the reality is that the project is next to campus, it has limited access to Richards Blvd., and, realistically, the people that are going to live at Nishi are students.

Tim Ruff said, “For all intents and purposes it will draw students and (be) appropriate for students.”  He pointed out that they studied apartments around town and even further away, and they found that “some of these apartment complexes are 90 percent student.”

That is one of two points that we have made from the start in this conversation – the student market is so tight that all of the rental units that become available are likely to be snatched up by students.  So, if the larger units rented by the bed are more efficient and cheaper, I don’t see a huge problem with providing those type of rentals.

The other problem, as I have pointed out, is market rate apartment housing is too expensive for most families.  Students have the ability to share rooms and split rental costs, but families do not have that ability – and for a family to live in a market rate three bedroom, for example, they would pay around $2300 per month in rent which, in general, would require around $92,000 in annual salary to be able to reasonably afford it.

That’s well above the median income for Yolo County and if you’re making $92,000, you would probably be able to buy a house in other communities, so why would you want to spend $2300 on a rental?

While Eileen Samitz argues that these “mega-dorms are exclusionary due to their design,” Don Shor takes issue with that, arguing that “anybody can live there.”

He believes it is false to say they are “exclusionary.”  He writes, “Renting by the bed is not exclusionary. Developing apartments with more bedrooms than usual is not exclusionary. Reserving housing for seniors IS exclusionary. Master leasing apartments solely for UC students IS exclusionary.”

He adds, “These units add to supply that anyone can rent.”

Bottom line that this comparison shows is that there are one- to three-bedroom apartments being built – yes, the majority of units are four-bedroom units, but, then again, the majority of the renters in the Davis market are and will be students.

—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. Ron

    From article:  ” . . . to the ability to remove troublesome tenants . . .”

    Please explain how this would work, in a “rent-by-the-bed” arrangement.  (Assuming the tenant pays his/her rent.)

        1. Ron

          I was referring to problems between roommates, which management does not see as their problem.

          Packing an apartment unit full of strangers, together – what could go wrong?  (No, I don’t believe that there will be many “cohesive” groups of friends, renting by-the-bed.)  Anyone living in a “mini-dorm” now is not likely to be swayed to move to a more-expensive place.

          Normally, roommates have some “say” regarding who moves in with them. That seems much less likely in the case of megadorms.

          Hopefully, those sharing a room will get along, at least.

        2. Howard P

          Ron… your argument is flaccid, to say the least…

          Yeah I know, “mega-dorms, mega-dorms, mega-dorms” [your words, previously…]

          I say heffalumps, chimera, unicorns…

    1. Cindy Pickett

      At West Village, they match roommates based on a preference sheet. But things can go wrong. My first year graduate student ended up leaving his shared apartment this fall because of a bad roommate situation. The managers were able to place him in a different unit. They weren’t able to boot the troublesome roommate because there was no clear evidence of a lease violation (e.g., evidence of smoking in the unit). But the good thing was that they weren’t tethered together and management treated them (lease-wise) as separate individuals.

  2. Ron

    From article:  ” . . . the people that are going to live at Nishi are students.”

    Any word regarding the reason that the developers haven’t reached a deal with UCD (after Nishi 1.0 failed) that wouldn’t necessarily require annexation by the city?  (I recall that another commenter mentioned the air quality issue, as one reason.  Are there others?)

        1. Ron

          Hey, it’s good to make folks laugh.  I do it all the time, reading your articles.  🙂

          Regular readers know that your articles are not an attempt to provide the “complete/unbiased story”, regardless. Take them with “a grain of salt”, as they say.

        2. Ron

          Your bias also heavily influences your choices of “columns”.  (For example, objectively exploring the reasons that the Nishi developer and UCD did not reach a deal, after Nishi 1.0 failed.)

          I can provide other examples of “missed opportunities” to present objective/complete articles that would likely be of widespread interest, as well. (I’ve already pointed out a couple, previously.)

        3. David Greenwald

          Meanwhile we have this discussion, rather than the information I researched and put out.  If you want analysis on something different, then research it, write it, and submit.

  3. Howard P

    To the main topic/question… the answer is NO…

    Dorms have sleeping units, shared bathrooms for 20-30 or more people, no ‘private’ kitchens (almost always, ‘dining commons’)…

    Others may spin things all they wish… doesn’t make it real, certainly not in the Davis proposals… “mega-dorms” as defined by some, are as real as unicorns, heffalumps, or chimera… whatever (or, BS)…

    1. David Greenwald

      The objection raised – whether legit or not – is that the structure of these dorms is exclusionary and the closer scrutiny suggests that even within that structure, there is more variability than people are letting on. If the student rental percentage is over 65% of the market, and I think it is, then these apartments are actually accommodating the mix.

  4. Ron

    One “good” thing about presenting this article, today:

    I recall that Don has “sworn off” arguing about this, for the remainder of the calendar year.  🙂

    I think I’m done, as well.  (Unless someone says something overwhelmingly “challengeable”. But hey, what are the chances of that occurring?)

    1. Howard P


      Feel free to challenge, as you are usually taking the ‘last post’ position…I’d suggest a new approach in the new year, but am damn sure it would fall on deaf [hearing -impaired, to be PC] ears.

  5. dan cornford

    Yes, yet another case of deja vu all over again.  Thanks Don for declaring a truce for the holidays, or he, like many of us,  may be tired of debating the exact same topic several times a week.  David obviously isn’t.  I too will be a part of the truce and heck I am sure everyone would agree that Ron well deserves a rest from so brilliantly kicking people out of touch virtually every day.  Happy Holidays Ron!

        1. Howard P

          Merry Christmas!

          Meant as a recognition of the secular, ‘financially important’ event… or the real one?  Which probably did not occur in December… ignoring other traditions that are not focused on the Christ?  [fake use of the term ‘Christmas’, to ‘pretend’ to be sociable offends me (big time), and the commercialization of a potentially significant event offends me more]


          Peace to all, whatever you are inclined to believe or reject… Pax… Pachem… Shalom… Salaam… ‘hang in there’… whatever floats your boat…


  6. Eileen Samitz

    Vanguard has yet another mega-dorm article and there is much that needs to be addressed in it. It would seem to be absurd to have this repetitive theme from the Vanguard on a daily basis which over and over again advocates for these mega-dorms despite the problems they present.

    That said after this posting to set some things straight, I don’t plan to spend the day re-stating the issue of how these mega-dorms do not serve the housing needs of local workers and families but are exclusively designed for students, because it is so obvious.

    Here are comments to address misleading information in this article:

    1) To answer these question of the title, “Yes, these are mega-dorms” and the reason is because they are predominately 4- to 5-bedroom apartments which do not help provide housing for local workers and families due to their design (particularly having a lock per bedroom door). Indecently, an interesting concern was raised recently of what happens if there was a fire and firefighters having to break down 4 or 5 doors, rather than one per bedroom.

    2) “Commissioners seemed relieved that the project (Nishi) has a mix of housing…) when it was only one Commission who expressed this however Nishi only has 2- and 4- bedroom apartments (some have a bathroom per bedroom and some share a bathroom per two bedrooms) but there are no 1 bedroom or 3-bedroom apartments. Having only 2 and 4- bedroom apartments does not seem to be a mix, particularly when 1- bedrooms in are in great demand by local workers.

    3) Regarding the “reporting” on Plaza 2555 in this article mixes the affordable housing with the market rate and claiming diversity. The 30 “micro-units” are defined to be for legally affordable qualified resident plus 10 more units which are likely to be 1- or 2- bedrooms apartments. So that equals the 40- unit affordable housing proposal, not any of the 160 market-rate apartments.

    So, the remaining 160 of the 200 units are the market-rate units meaning that there are only 30 total 1, -2-, or 3- bedroom market-rate apartments, yet a total of 130 of the 4- and 5- bedroom market-rate apartments. You call that a diverse mix? It sure is not a diverse mix proportionally, is it? Just to clarify, Plaza 2555 will be overwhelmingly 4- and 5- bedroom apartments which amounts to 130 of the total 160 market rate units.  However, the Vanguard conveniently fails to clarify this true ratio of 130/160 market-rate apartment count and instead combines the market-rate apartments with the required 40 affordable apartments combining them to the 200-apartment total for the entire project. Also, it is notable that affordable housing is getting short-changed again due to this disparity of the overwhelming predominance of 4- and 5- bedroom apartments. So, yes, Plaza 2555 is a mega-dorm despite the Vanguards efforts to claim it has a “diverse mix” of apartments.

    Furthermore, while it is claimed that Plaza 2555 will not rent-by-the-bed, it will be interesting to see how the developers will fill all 130 of these 4- and 5- bedroom apartments without doing any renting-by-the bed agreements. How many “groups” do they really think they can recruit which will conveniently have 4 or 5 students willing to live together? So, it begs the question, is the Plaza 2555 developer willing to include in its development agreement or conditions of approval that they will do no renting by the bed? I doubt it but let’s see what they say about that?

    4) While constantly pointing out Nishi’s proximity to UCD the Vanguard conveniently does not mentioned that Nishi 1.0 never achieved getting:  a) any kind of permission for access to UCD; b) a legally agreement with the railroad to go over or under the railroad tracks to get to UCD, and c) no City-County tax sharing was ever agreed upon which has everything to do with the financial analysis of Nishi and fiscal impact upon the City. Also, why shouldn’t Nishi be traditional 1-,2- and 3- bedroom apartment to serve local workers and families which may work at UCD as well as students? Particularly since UCD will be bringing on more staffing for its growth?

    5) The Vanguard created table of apartment types by number of bedrooms does not break down the date to list 1, 2, and 3 bedrooms separately because that would reveal that Nishi has no 1- bedroom or 3- bedroom apartment but only 2-bedroom apartment which is expressed in its 1-3-bedroom range. This conveniently tries to imply that there is a full “mix” of apartment types at Nishi, which is not the case. Lincoln40 has no 1-bedroom apartments either. Again, one-bedroom apartments are in great demand by our local workers.

    6) While the Vanguard created table does not include data regarding the lack of 1- and 3- bedroom apartments at Nishi, the table does list 5- bedroom apartments. This is also to conveniently make the point that Nishi has no 5- bedroom apartments to try to make it appear that Nishi may not be a mega-dorm, when it clearly is.

    So, it would be more honest “reporting” if the Vanguard would provide the information like the table it created for this article with the actual breakdown of I-,2-, 3-,4 -and 5-bedroom counts per project and distinguish the market-rate apartment count versus the legally required affordable housing apartment count instead of blending them as was done here. That would be more up-front rather than presenting partial information like this which is categorized in a biased way to try to support the Vanguard’s position on supporting mega-dorms. Again, the Vanguard continues to advocate for mega-dorms despite the fact that they are exclusionary housing by design for students which does not help provide rental housing needed for local workers and families.

    Meanwhile, I like others, I have other things today for the holidays right now so I will not be spending the entire day re-stating what has been re-hashed over and over again but wanted to point out how biased this article is. The Vanguard’s repetitive articles on this subject and excessive advocacy for the mega-dorms, particularly over the holiday season, is completely over-the-top.

    1. David Greenwald

      Whether Eileen wants to respond or not, I feel the need to address her points…

      Point 1: “which do not help provide housing for local workers and families due to their design”

      Sean has made the point several times that these do provide housing for workers who are younger and do not living in family housing. But the other point here is that these apartments do provide 1-3 bedroom apartments – in fact one third are 1 to 3 bedroom at any one place with Nishi having half its apartments as two bedroom. That would seem to contradict the point you reiterate.

      Point 2: “Having only 2 and 4- bedroom apartments does not seem to be a mix” – That seems arbitrary. So in your estimation, it must have 1, 2, and 3 bedroom apartments? Lincoln40, Sterling and Plaza 2555 all have that mix, btw. This point seems absurd.

      Point 3: The micro units are not defined to be affordable qualified, I was told that they are affordable by design.

      Point 4: Those are all issues that clearly will have to be worked out or they don’t have a project.

      Point 5: The table was a summary information, the article listed the exact breakdown at Nishi. This is the first time you’ve mentioned that there needs to be 1, 2, AND 3 bedrooms in the same complex, again I find that absurd.

      Point 6: I did list the 5 bedrooms separately as I was somewhat surprised to see how few are actually proposed overall. For all the talk about 4 and 5 bedroom units, there are but 70 proposed total across the four projects.

      The nice thing about the Vanguard is that the articles stay up and they’ll be here when you get back.

    2. Howard P

      Point 1:

      Indecently, an interesting concern was raised recently of what happens if there was a fire and firefighters having to break down 4 or 5 doors, rather than one per bedroom.

      Well, have a SF unit, and there is one door per bedroom… forgetting the first word (typo?), this part of the post by ES is inane, at best.

      Point 2:

      but there are no 1 bedroom or 3-bedroom apartments. Having only 2 and 4- bedroom apartments does not seem to be a mix, particularly when 1- bedrooms in are in great demand by local workers.

      What is a “mix”? All the apartments I lived in, and friends lived in, in Davis, were two-Br… and for adding to the undefined “mix” why not 5?  1, 3, 5 are all ‘prime’ numbers… all dorms were 2-3 beds per unit. @ 1 bed/”unit”, that’s not a dorm.

      And local workers do not always want to live alone.  Many local workers, who choose to live alone, do so in 2 Br rental houses…

      The “great demand” is unsubstantiated, and appears to be specious, at best.

      Point 4:  Nishi 1.0 had no residential, except for a hotel…  Nishi 1.0 had an approved Tentative Map, back in the ’90’s, but “died”… the previous iteration was Nishi 2.0(+)… this “Nishi 2.0” thing is as wrong/contrived as the “mega-dorm” term… an untruth (at best)…

      Some will question my response as we approach the “holidays” (derived from Holy days)… like we should observe a ‘truce’…

      The holidays are either about truth, or about myths… did Christ exist?  Was he the Son of Man/Son of God?  Did the Maccabees exist? Did they hold out for seven days with miraculous provisions for oil for their lamps? Did they preserve the Jewish faith?  Or are the “holidays” just an excuse for spending, hanging out with friends/family, and gorging on food and “spirits”?

      1. Eileen Samitz


        Thanks for pointing out the typo in this sentence. Let me try this sentence again regarding the potential fire situation in a mega-dorm to clarify it. It should have read:

        “Incidentally, an interesting concern was raised recently of what happens if there was a fire and firefighters having to break down 4 or 5 doors (due to a lock per bedroom) rather than just one front door.”

        On your other comments, I have already addressed them (except the last one of course.)

        Happy Holidays!

  7. Eileen Samitz


     I am really not wanting to spend any more time on this but here are responses to your comments:

    1)     Again, your retreat to trying to group 1-, 2- and 3- bedroom apartments rather than identified how many are in each category? You make broad assertions about “mixes” of housing types of these mega-dorms, you don’t give the details needed to see through your smoke screen. Plaza 2555 has only 30 units out of 160 market-rate apartment that are 1, 2, or 3- bedroom.  But wait, if I use your method, of “analysis” combining market-rate and legally required and qualified affordable housing units, it would only be 30 total of 1-, 2- and 3- bedroom apartments out of 200 apartment units. It is embarrassing if you consider this a legitimate “mix” of apartment type. Also, while Sean has his own opinion as we all do, he is on the Vanguard Board so it is hard to think that he would have an unbiased opinion.

    2)      Quite the contrary it is your comment that is arbitrary regarding mega-dorms like about Plaza 2555 having a “mix”. If Plaza 2555 had only one (each) of a 1-, 2-, or 5- bedroom apartments while the remaining 157 market -rate apartments were 4- or 5- bedroom apartment. would you still try to claim that Plaza 2555 has a “mix” of apartments? It is the disproportionately large ratios of these 4- and 5- bedroom apartment which is one of the main issues with these mega-dorms. I mean come on

    3)     The developer defined these 30 “micro-units” as “affordable by design” plus 10 additional affordable units which certainly being implied as their “individualized affordable housing” proposal. But any which way you look at it, with a total of 200 apartments total, they need to provide at least the 40 affordable apartments for the legal requirement since they have defined 130/160 of the market-rate units as 4- and 5- bedroom (96  4-bedroom and 34  5- bedroom = 130). That still leaves only 30 1-, 2- or 3- bedroom apartments (or 30 “micro-units”) for total 160 market-rate apartments. That is not much of a market-rate “mix“ at all.

    4)     These “things to be worked out” including: a) no legally binding permission to access UCD yet, b) no legally binding agreement with the railroad to go over or under the railroad tracks yet, and c) no City-County tax agreement yet which has everything to do with the financial analysis of the Nishi project and the fiscal impacts on the City which were never worked out in the years they worked on Nishi 1.0 and are not small details. So, it is interesting how you try to minimize these significant issues particularly since you have been railing about the need for economic development and economic containment by the City for past months. What about the fact that there is no innovation park in the Nishi 2.0 for revenue which was the original reason for even considering Nishi for development? The Vanguard hasn’t mentioned that at all.

    5)     I find it absurd that you are still trying to avoid doing the breakdown to reveal the real picture of these mega-dorm proposals. And I have consistently be asking for 1,2 and 3- bedroom apartments, and why not per complex for a “mix”?

    6)     You state that there are “only 70 5-bedroom units across the board”. Well what about the 599  4- bedroom apartments predominating across the board? Plus, half of the Lincoln40 units are double occupancy so it is 6 beds per unit, not 4 occupants per unit.

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