Commentary: Can the University Be a Solution on Housing?

For many people in this community, the university providing more housing on campus is “the” solution for the student housing crisis.  They will point to the amount of land that UC Davis has and the percentage of housing that other campuses house.

The problem of course is that this is neither a new problem or a recent failure.  Back in 1989, now nearly 30 years ago, UC Davis and the City of Davis agreed to an MOU in which UC Davis would provide at least 25 percent of housing on campus, and 38 percent of housing on campus by 2012.  And yet those promises never materialized.

No one disagrees with the idea that we need more housing on campus, but not only has UC Davis failed to provide that housing on campus historically, they have failed to provide it in an affordable manner.

The problem, as ASUCD President Josh Dalavai put it to the Vanguard last month, is “it doesn’t do students much good if we just erect like ten West Villages and no one can actually afford to live there.”

Along those lines, the numbers we pulled are astounding.  Housing on campus is just not affordable.

Keep in mind these appear to be based on a nine-month (actually slightly less than nine months) schedule.  Keep in mind that these include room AND meals, but that actually makes it worse.

The monthly cost here is $1473 for triple occupancy, $1626 for double and nearly $1800 for a single room.

Eileen Samitz pushed back on these numbers, noting that they include food.  She said, “How can you possibly be trying to compare the cost of on-campus housing which includes meals, to this off campus housing which does not include meals? There is no logic to this desperate comparison of ‘apples to oranges.'”

We know that, and we labeled it appropriately, but if you think students are spending $400 to $600 a month on food by themselves, you don’t know students.  More like half of that.  The cost of meals makes this housing more, not less, expensive.

Compare those costs to what students will likely spend at Nishi.

The annual subsidy per is $1536 at very low affordable level, then divide it by 12 = $128, add that to the $672 rent and you get $800.

Then $4752 is the annual subsidy per bed for the extremely low, divide it by 12 = $396, add that to the $404 rent and you get $800.

So the estimated market rate – PER THEIR DOCUMENTATION – is $800 (apparently council was rounding off when they said $100, but these exact figures put it in the right range).

Eileen Samitz, interestingly enough, countered that “market-rate for Nishi is ‘estimated at $750-$800’ per bed monthly is just ‘talk.’  There is no commitment to that monthly rental cost for market-rate beds in writing, is there?”

The problem is that all they can do is estimate the cost of the market rate units.  I wonder if people understand that market rate means determined by the market and therefore, if they lock in those rates, they would no longer (by definition) be market rate.

And yes, those number don’t include a meal plan, but, by my guess, the students probably spend $1000 to $1100 per month on room and meals as opposed to $1473 to $1800.

Nevertheless, the chancellor deserve some credit at this point for attempting to address key issues.  Prior to his arrival on campus, the university was willing to go to 6200 new beds on campus, and in January they announced a plan to get to 8500.  While that is still short of the 10,000 we have pushed for, to get the university to 100 percent of new students and 50 percent of all students in the next ten years, they’ve gone a considerable amount of the way there.

The question, of course, is whether they will actually build those 8500 units and whether students will opt to live there when they have much cheaper options off campus.  As it is, they are struggling to fill beds at West Village, even in the heart of the housing crisis.

When Chancellor Gary May announced that UC Davis would be adding more on-campus housing, he acknowledged that they cannot solve the housing crisis alone.

He said, “While we are planning the most ambitious student housing construction campaign in campus history, housing market changes cannot be resolved by UC Davis alone.”

Toward that end, the university did what they failed to do in 2016 – they provided the means to support Nishi.

The last time Nishi came up, the university, mired in its own turmoil, let it die on the vine when they could have stepped up and at least made it known that they were supportive of student housing.  The MOU is huge, and it shows a commitment by the university.

An MOU is not a signed agreement, but the place can’t be built without the access point.  Realistically, the chancellor knows he needs more housing in town and, by hamstringing Nishi (as they did in 2016), they actually work against their own interests.

Finally, in the midst of the affordable housing discussion comes the commitment from the university to look into just that… affordable housing.

In the three task force issues, they will examine affordable student housing, food security and mental health care.

“These are issues that have tremendous impact on our community,” the chancellor said. “UC Davis has a great many services and resources available to our students, but it’s not a static landscape.

“How can we continue to provide the resources our students need effectively and efficiently? That’s what I’m asking the task force members to help me determine.”

Heading up affordable housing will be David Campbell, Cooperative Extension specialist, director of the California Communities Program and associate dean in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

Maybe this won’t solve anything, but at least they are looking at it.

There are those who believe that the university has the sole obligation to solve the housing crisis.  I don’t share that view. I continue to support the 10,000 bed goal.  There are two concerns that remain, however – one is whether those will actually be built and, two, whether they will actually be affordable.

In theory, if we can add 10,000 beds on campus and another 5000 to 6000 off campus, we can get close to the magical 5 percent vacancy rate that will help free up the market.  But there is still way too much hope in that statement and not enough follow through.

—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. Eileen Samitz

        Yea, it’s funny how UCD has time and resources to do studies about the vacancy rate in Davis, but UCD sure never offers data on what the campus vacancy rate is? Why hasn’t the Vanguard asked that question of UCD?

        1. Keith O

          But David, if you do an article about students not wanting to live on campus and that the rents are too expensive I would think you would/should have data on the vacancy rates for campus housing.

        2. Eileen Samitz


          UCD hires Bay Area Economics to do the Davis vacancy rate. This is so UCD can continue trying to blame the City for UCD’s irresponsible behavior in neglecting to build the needed on campus student housing that the other UC’s are accomplishing.

          UCD’s incompetence is inexcusable and shirking their responsibilities of providing affordable on-campus student housing is simply inexcusable.

          On top of this, UCD’s continued stone-walling the City by refusing to meet to discuss the student housing problems is also inexcusable. UCD s all talk and no action on “trying to be a good neighbor”.  UCD is certainly not a good neighbor to Davis, and continues to not be a good neighbor.

          1. Don Shor

            On top of this, UCD’s continued stone-walling the City by refusing to meet to discuss the student housing problems is also inexcusable.

            Huh? This is not even remotely true. Ask any city council member.

        3. Keith O

          Eileen writes:

          UCD hires Bay Area Economics to do the Davis vacancy rate.

          So UCD hires outside consultants to give us the Davis city vacancy rate but we don’t know the on campus vacancy rate?  Is this true?

          Eileen has a point here, why would UCD hire consultants for the city of Davis vacancy rate if they indeed did so?

        4. Ken A

          UC Davis has been doing a housing survey in town for over 40 years.

          In recent years they hired the local Davis office of BAE (not Bay Area) Economics to help with the survey since it was cheaper to pay pros (that do it all the time) then to have students (who di it just once a year) mail out forms and follow up by phone when apartments don’t respond (like they did in the past).

  1. Ken A

    If David keeps getting push back for posting the cost of housing with meals he can post the info on the link below that shows that “sharing” a room on campus “without ” a meal plan is over $1,000/month (more expensive than the cost of sharing a room in almost any other apartment in Yolo, Sacramento or Solano Counties).

    Eileen and others pushing for all new housing to be built on campus need to remember that due to prevailing wage laws, ADA laws and the way big organizations like UCD build stuff any new housing on campus is going to cost a mind boggling amount of money per bed and have even “higher” rents than the current on campus stuff that is already about “double” the cost to rent a room anywhere else in the region.


    1. Eileen Samitz

      Keith, while I understand your point, it is important to also acknowledge that the UCD land has zero cost, which has the biggest impact on the cost of new development, plus UCD has plenty of land.

      So, there is still no excuse for UCD to not be providing at least as much on campus housing as six other UC’s including UC Irvine, UC Santa Cruz, UC Santa Barbara UC San Diego, UC Riverside, and UC Merced. UCD is the largest UC campus with over 5,300 acres, so there is no reason why UCD can’t provide on-campus housing for 50% of its total student population, like the other UC’s are.

      1. Ken A

        If you look at what UCD charges to share a room on campus WITHOUT any meal plan in dorms built years ago with ZERO land cost you will see that it is still MORE than DOUBLE the cost to share a room at most of the of the two bedroom apartments in town (where the developers needed to buy the land).  I know that some people in Davis want to live in a “college town” but not actually see any “college students” (or red plastic cups) but the fact is that most kids are already having a tough time paying for school and most can’t afford to pay OVER $40K for the cheapest rent on campus (WAY over $40K if they don’t go home every break and for summer since they need to pay rent somewhere else in town when UCD kicks them out of most on campus housing).

        1. Eileen Samitz


          I am not defending what UCD is charging students for rent. I know that UCD can do better to charge less for more affordable rent for the students, because the other UC’s have accomplished that.


        2. Ken A

          Eileen have you actually looked at rent on campus at any other UC schools (or do you just “wish” they “charged less”)?  Cal, UCLA and UCSD has some of the highest on (and off) campus housing cost in the nation below is a link to an article from a few years back when rent at Cal was quite a bit lower than it is today (rent in the Bay Area has spiked more than Davis in the past three years)
          UC Berkeley campus housing prices rank among highest in nation

          P.S. Since Eileen “knows” that UC Davis can “do better” I’m wondering if she has told UCD how she thinks they can lower housing costs, maybe going with lower cost IKEA furniture in the common areas or getting rid of landscaping staff and making the students mow the lawns and trim the trees around the on campus housing?

        3. Eileen Samitz


          Yes, in fact I do have suggestions. Starting with UCD finding out from other UC’s how they are accomplishing affordable on campus housing. Also, instead of hiring an inexperienced outfit like Carmel Partners who had never done student housing and who completely underestimated the energy needs of students who use far more energy due to their need for computers for much longer periods of time and recharging cell phones, etc.

          West Village has had major problems since day one because the developers did not know what they were doing regarding the different needs in design and construction for student housing, particularly energy.

          Why didn’t UCD hire a company which specialized in student housing who knew what they were doing? Why isn’t UCD reaching out like UC Irvine did to UC Santa Cruz to learn how Santa Cruz was able to create so much on-campus housing? As a result, UC Irvine has a thriving and expanding on-campus student housing program of 44% on campus housing. UC irvine’s on-campus housing costs are below market rate and is so popular that there is a constant waiting list. The students and the parent love UCI’s on-campus student housing. There is no excuse why UCD can’t also accomplish what other UC’s are.

          Instead, UCD still stubbles along and trails all the other UC’s with the production of only 29% on-campus housing on its massive 5,300 acres, the largest UC campus in the system.

        4. Ken A

          After posting that the housing at other UC schools is MORE expensive than UCD (that means “LESS Affordable”)

          Eileen posts that UCD should “finding out from other UC’s how they are accomplishing affordable on campus housing.”

          Under current state laws new housing at UCD (or any other UC Campus) will ALWAYS be MUCH more expensive than any other housing in the area.

          Even UCR (in the armpit of CA) has on campus 2 bedroom units renting for over $3,500/month (WITHOUT any meal plan).

    1. Keith O

      David, I think your numbers represent students who will scrimp the most when it comes to their food budget.  On average I would say that most students spend much more than $200/month on food especially when you consider that they will frequent dining establishments and fast food restaurants. Plus you have to add into the equation that the campus food is already prepared for the students. There’s a cost involved with that also.

  2. Keith O

    Even if university housing isn’t completely full because of the higher prices it still takes some of the squeeze off of city housing.  So yes, the university is and should be part of the solution.

    1. Eileen Samitz

      Yes, UCD needs to be stepping up and needs to provide at least the 1,500+ more beds needed on campus for the 50/100 plan if they are sincere about addressing the student housing shortage that they are most responsible for.

      And as far as David “magical” 5% vacancy rate (I have not heard of this vacancy rate in Sacramento region) that vacancy rate is most likely to be found in the expensive student housing mega-dorms, not in the traditional 1- , 2- and 3- bedroom apartments which are needed by our families and local workers. These luxury student mega-dorms are going to be empty due to their expense and because their design does not work for families and most workers.

      This glut of luxury mega-dorms proposed will do nothing to help the need for rental housing for non-students, or the students who can’t afford them.

      1. David Greenwald

        You’re continuing to call them luxury mini-dorms when I have proven pretty much every which way they are cheaper than the housing on campus which is your preferred solution.

        1. Eileen Samitz


          You have proven nothing of the sort, but you sure are trying to sell your ridiculous comparison of on-campus housing with meals, to off-campus housing without meals.  Oh yes, and you believe that students live on $50 a week for food. Right…

          So you think anybody is believing this desperate pitch of yours? It is simply absurd.

      1. Eileen Samitz

        Per David:

        To Keith: “I agree, I fully support the push for UCD to build 10,000 beds.”

        You say this, yet David, everything you write and do undermines this.

        1. Eileen Samitz

          Wow, what “advocacy”. When was the last time you have written anything of substance to pressure UCD to build the 10,000 beds needed on campus for the 50/100 plan, and sooner than later? Any limp-wristed “I support it”, does not count.  That is not real or effective advocacy.

  3. Eileen Samitz

    David: “The MOU is huge, and it shows a commitment by the university.”

    David, the UCD MOU proposal is nothing but a huge lack of commitment since is not legally binding. Any MOU (particularly form UCD) is not worth the paper it is written on since it cannot be legally enforced.  Why did UCD write in their MOU proposal on Nishi at least three times that “it is not a legally binding agreement”? Do you think that language was accidentally included?

    Seriously, it is hard to believe David that you are such a cheerleader for this proposed UCD MOU with it obvious lack of commitment. It is also disappointing to see you continuing to cheer on UCD to throw the City under-the-bus.

    Hopefully, our City leadership has better judgement then believing that an MOU from UCD has any value of present or  future commitment. Our City has already learned that lesson from the last UCD – City MOU which UCD bailed on.




    1. David Greenwald

      An MOU cannot be legally binding, but having the access is in the baseline features and thus cannot be gotten around.

      “It is also disappointing to see you continuing to cheer on UCD to throw the City under-the-bus.”

      You’re making stuff up here.

      1. Eileen Samitz

        Actually, David, it is you making up stuff here including thinking that students are only spending $200 a month on food.

        You have not proven anything with trying to compare on-campus housing including food with off-campus housing which does not include food. You even admit that you are guessing on this stuff, yet expect people to believe it.

        1. Eileen Samitz


          What I am saying is that you are trying to invent your own “facts” about what housing costs are on and off campus. But now you to try to diminished actual monthly food costs for students to try support your mantra of “build anything”? I am interested in getting data on how many students actually live on $50 a week to eat, as you claim most students do. It is you David, who is not operating in the real world.

          And then with your magical plan, that will make the magical 5% vacancy rate just appear. All we need is your magic wand now…. (can you add in a unicorn because my neighbors kids would love that too.)

  4. Eileen Samitz

    David: “The problem is that all they can do is estimate the cost of the market rate units.”

    David, you continue to exclude the major point I was making which is that the developers will simply raise the cost of the market rate units (or beds) to subsidize their “affordable” units (or beds) that you keep trying to feature.

  5. Eileen Samitz


      You are clearly are trying to imply that the Nishi developers are taking care of this proposed “private subsidy”.  I am saying, again, that your defense of the Nishi’s property owners self-directed “affordable housing”  is essentially the “fox guarding the chicken coop”.

    1. David Greenwald

      I’m not sure where the fox guarding the chicken coop comes from, the Nishi affordable housing plan is in both the baseline features and the development plan. However, the money has to come from somewhere and we don’t have RDA money anymore so that means it comes from private internal subsidies. Please explain how you would prefer it would work under the current funding restrictions?

  6. Don Shor

    Ok, some statistics.

    MIT calculates expenses in determining what a regional living wage is, and they do it by county. Their estimate is that in Yolo County a single person living on $12.77 per hour on spends $68.54 per week on food.

    They estimate that housing cost for that individual would be $875 per month. Sharing the housing cost with another adult drops it to $442 per month.

    The MOU is important because it shows a specific commitment to access and eliminates the need for access from Richards. Obviously an easement would result from the MOU. It’s not the final step in the process of making that access a permanent feature of the site.

    The 5% apartment vacancy rate is not magical and not impossible to achieve. Adding more beds on campus and adding more private units in town is the way to move in that direction. If Nishi doesn’t pass, we definitely won’t move in that direction. There are many complicating factors that make it difficult to predict exactly when we might get to 5%. City staff, if I recall, estimated the number of units we would need in order to get there. I don’t know what their methodology was.

    Yes, the other renters will be subsidizing the affordable units at Nishi. That’s the way it works. There is no other source of funding for affordable housing except grants from the government. Any mandate for affordable units will end up directly or indirectly costing all other renters in town more for their rent. If a project doesn’t show a reasonable rate of return, developers can’t get financing for it. If you support mandated affordable housing units, you support these internal subsidies. That’s just a fact of life.

    I have stated my opinions about the city’s affordable housing policies before. But I am pleasantly surprised to see an actual category of affordable housing for extremely low incomes, and to see a project targeting affordable housing for students directly. I would have preferred Rochelle’s position as to the final numbers, but I think reducing the overall percentage while creating more truly affordable housing is a step in the right direction. The previous policy was not working. And living on campus is not, and will never be, truly affordable.

    1. Howard P

      You raise an important point, Don…

      The 5% apartment vacancy rate is not magical and not impossible to achieve.

      The 5% number is a commonly accepted indicator…  not a goal unto itself… it is clear that a less than 0.5% vacancy is strongly indicative of a possible “seller’s market”, and is correlated to higher, inflated housing costs.  Not causal.

      There are likely many places in the United States (inc. California) that are affordable, and have less than 1% vacancy rates… but they are not in communities where rental housing is a primary business venture, where housing demand from internal or external ‘forces’ is high.

    2. Keith O

      Looking at Don Shor’s posted MIT numbers I have to wonder if beer is considered a food?

      I also wonder how everytime I go to a restaurant and see many college students how they still manage to pay only $68.54 per week on food?


  7. David Greenwald

    Eileen wrote: “On top of this, UCD’s continued stone-walling the City by refusing to meet to discuss the student housing problems is also inexcusable. ”

    Two members of council have told me that this statement is categorically untrue and went as far as to say she was literally making this up.

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