Analysis: Dorm Living for Professionals

Critics of various apartment complex proposals around town have claimed that these are “mega-dorms” and their structure makes them poorly suited for workers or families.  But it appears that these critics are ignoring changes that have occurred in the structure of housing, as changes have emerged in a number of markets to accommodate the unaffordability of rent in many locations.

A March 4 article in the New York Times notes: “In search of reasonable rent, the middle-class backbone of San Francisco — maitre d’s, teachers, bookstore managers, lounge musicians, copywriters and merchandise planners — are engaging in an unusual experiment in communal living: They are moving into dorms.”

It makes sense – we have been arguing for some time that market rate rental apartments, even two or three bedrooms, are unaffordable for families. If that is true in Davis, which, while more costly than neighboring communities, is actually more affordable than many other communities, and it must be doubly true in places like San Francisco, where rents are now utterly absurd.

The Times describes Starcity, “a new development company that is expressly creating dorms for many of the non-tech population.”  They note: “Shared bathrooms at the end of the hall and having no individual kitchen or living room is becoming less weird for some of the city’s workers…  These are not micro-units, nor are they like WeWork’s WeLive housing developments, where residents have their own small kitchens, living rooms and bathrooms but share common event space and industrial appliances for parties. These are not single-family homes that are being used as group houses.”

Instead, what Starcity residents get is a small bedroom 130 to 220 square feet.  Some of the buildings have a private bath, but that is for a higher rent.

The key is, the average one-bedroom in San Francisco rents for $3300 a month (as opposed to $1200 or so in Davis), but in Starcity, rooms can go for $1400 to $2400 a month fully furnished, including
utilities and Wi-Fi.

“If you think about the most private things that you do, a lot of them are related to the bathroom,” said 34-year-old Jon Dishotsky, Starcity’s co-founder and chief executive. “So that’s probably the hardest part.”

The Times notes: “Starcity’s target demographic makes $40,000 to $90,000 a year. Most of the residents, who range in age from their early 20s to early 50s, have no political philosophy around communes nor any previous experience in them. Moving in was a practical decision they each made. But after they arrive, what they are most surprised by is how much the building changes them.”

The rise of these type of arrangements goes against the argument made by Eileen Samitz and others, against so-called “mega-dorms.”

The argument that opponents make is that they offer “no significant market rate rental housing for non-students such as our families and workers.” They further argue that these apartment buildings “need to instead be designed as traditional 1-, 2- and 3- bedroom apartments, so that anyone can live in them, not just students.”

In late February, Ms. Samitz wrote, “What you also avoid talking about is the use and re-use of the design of new multi-family housing built now.  Mega-dorms cannot be used now or later for families and local workers, but 1-, 2- and 3- bedroom apartments can be used now and later by families, locals workers and students.”

She then argued that “the solution to affordability and more rental housing is  simply eliminating the mega-dorm format of 4- and 5- bedroom apartments, and replace them with 1-, 2- and 3- bedroom apartments for all.”

The Vanguard has pointed out that there is a relative small number of five-bedroom apartments being proposed as it is.  But many experts have pointed out there is no reason even a four-bedroom/four-bathroom apartment couldn’t be re-configured to serve families if need be.

The cost might be prohibitive, but the cost of even a two- or three-bedroom market rate apartment hovering between $1600 and $2400 on average could be as well.

But for workers, a dorm-structured housing arrangement could work quite well, as the San Francisco example shows.  And these models end up being much more affordable (at least relatively speaking) than their one-bedroom traditional apartment counterpart.

This was a point that Sean Raycraft attempted to make in his December Vanguard article, “What’s So Bad About Shared Housing.”

Mr. Raycraft argued, “Recent efforts and rhetoric by some in town would have you believe the interests of students are divergent from those of young families, working poor folks and other groups of renters. Its a divide and conquer strategy, that I hope fails. Renters are at the end of the day… renters. Improving the rental market as a whole will improve conditions for everyone who rents in town.”

As he pointed out, “Who is to say that a 25-year-old retail worker could not rent one of those rooms in a four-bedroom suite with a common living area?”

He argued, “The point is that while a shared space style of living isn’t exactly traditional, it by no means is exclusionary by design. In fact, similar communal living situations are happening right now, all over Davis. When four or five friends get together and sign the lease on a rental house for a year, they will usually get their own room, often with a lock on it, obviously with shared living spaces.

“While the living situation was not always perfect, it was a way for us to share space, and thrive in Davis,” he said.

Those arguing these arrangements can’t work are ignoring the fact that they are working, both in Davis and elsewhere.

As the New York Times article points out, these professional dorms are not just serving people in their twenties.  They chronicle the story of 37-year-old Katherine McKim.  “Ms. McKim had worked for Penguin Random House in New York but always admired the San Francisco-based publisher Chronicle Books, so when she and her husband divorced, she packed up and moved out,” they write.

“Everybody told me housing in San Francisco was really expensive, but I was like, ‘I live in New York, how much more expensive can it be?’” she said. “I was a bit cocky.”

Now she has a room for $2050 a month with enough space for a dog bed for her companion and a full-sized bed for herself with a TV, mini fridge, and a sink.

As the housing crisis intensifies locally and regionally, we must become innovative and find ways to make less than ideal circumstances work.  No longer can the answer simply be “no” because we think an arrangement is untraditional or will not work.  That is what Starcity demonstrates in San Francisco, and what some of these apartment complexes might end up proving here in Davis.

—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. Tia Will

    It would be interesting to see how many young workers/grad students/professionals in town would be interested in this kind of living arrangement. Seems like some data might be more helpful than assertions or denials of interest from proponents and opponents of these projects. Has any such survey been done ?  If not, how feasible would it be ?

    1. Ron

      As noted, Davis is not (yet) San Francisco, or its immediate neighbors.

      Davis has to “compete” with lower-cost, more traditional offerings in surrounding communities. (That’s what helps keep prices in Davis in check, to some degree.)

      Unlike some students, workers generally only have to make one round-trip “commute” per workday. (Which can be provided via public transportation.)


      1. David Greenwald

        That Davis is not SF (thank goodness) misses the point that the cost of living in Davis is too high, that workforce housing is a problem and this might be a cheaper way to provide it. That you seem to be opposed to considering that possibility is weird. Despite your assertion that people could use public transportation – most aren’t. At least from the stats we have on workers living outside of Davis who commute to work. They drive and they drive alone.

        1. Ron

          Here’s an article (from 2015), regarding a couple of Yolobus dedicated commuter lines, to Davis.  (Of course, this doesn’t mention the regular bus line that also provides service.)

          As of 2015 (when the second commuter line was apparently created), the article mentions a “small but growing” number of commuters who use that line.  (A brief Internet search did not turn up any newer articles, to see if ridership is increasing as more housing is built outside of Davis – which ultimately will include an “innovation center”, as well.)


        2. Ron

          David:  Again, I’m not “recommending” anything.  But, I am suggesting that many will choose to live elsewhere, if the only thing that’s available in Davis are megadorms, or small-unit, multi-family structures, and tiny houses.

          That’s a reality, not my “recommendation”. And, it’s already happening (regardless of the availability of public transportation). That trend will likely continue.

        3. David Greenwald

          Let’s drop the charade, you are objecting to the suggestion.  Second, yes, some people will choose to live elsewhere – that is from both their perspective and climate perspective suboptimal.  Third, some people are not living elsewhere and living under housing insecure conditions.

      2. Richard McCann

        Ron, only about 1/3 of car trips are for commuting. Commuters often combine trips with other purposes, which is why transit isn’t an effective alternative except in places where retail goods and services are easily reachable by foot at either end of the commuting See: trip.

        1. Ron

          Richard:  That point (1/3 of car trips) could be be used as an argument against over-densification, in Davis. (2/3 of trips are then just “driving around” by those who live in the city.)

          Public transportation works exceedingly well, for workers.  (I did it for years, from Davis to Sacramento. The cost was fully subsidized by my employer, making it a “no brainer”.)


        2. David Greenwald

          Again, looking at data from UCD (because it’s readily available), people outside of Davis are not using public transit to get to campus.  People who live in Davis are using public transit to get to campus or bikes.  So that’s a strong argument against your point.

        3. Ron

          Again, I’m suggesting that this has been, and will continue to increase regardless of the availability of public transportation. (However, both the availability and usage of public transportation to reach Davis appear to be growing, as surrounding communities grow.)

          It has more to do with what one can purchase (or rent) in Davis, vs. surrounding communities. (For example, if the choice is between a “dorm room”, or a traditional apartment – with an easy “straight shot” commute, guess which one would appeal to most?)

          The same principle applies to “for-sale” housing.

        4. David Greenwald

          The complaint made on both sides of the housing issue – Eileen and Sean Raycraft has been with regards to lack of workforce housing in Davis.  I’m putting this forward as a possible answer for that.

        5. Ron

          It seems to me that Eileen’s underlying/main point is that the needs created by UCD (e.g., as a result of their pursuit of non-resident students who pay them $42,000/year) is overwhelming the city and creating negative impacts.

          But, it appears that Eileen is not commenting very often on the Vanguard these days, so perhaps that’s just my interpretation.

        6. David Greenwald

          I have her quoted above, it’s pretty clear what she said and what this article points to is the possibility that this design actually works well for workers.

        7. Ron

          As Tia initially pointed out, we don’t actually know that.  However, I was pointing out the comparisons that anyone might make.

          I suspect that there’d only be a relative “handful” of non-students living (long-term) in megadorms.

          As you have pointed out, the biggest “demand” is from students.  And, the reasons for that has already been discussed (e.g., pursuit of full-tuition non-resident students, coupled with a continuing reluctance to build sufficient, affordable on-campus housing). The same type of issues that are occurring in other university towns, causing friction.

          Got to run for awhile.

        8. David Greenwald

          Why not? I agree that the biggest demand is from students – I’ve pointed out that students represent between 65 and 85 of all renters in the city. But there has been a point raised that it may not remain at that level and this could represent an adaptive reuse at worst.

  2. Ron

    I found the article below interesting, regarding the exodus from San Francisco and the Bay Area. (Presumably, the cost of a moving truck reflects “demand” to leave the area, as opposed to moving to it.)

    “Rent a moving truck from Las Vegas to San Jose and you’ll pay about $100. In the opposite direction, the same truck will cost you 16 times that, or nearly $2,000.”


  3. Ron

    David:  “Let’s drop the charade, you are objecting to the suggestion.”

    David, your repetitive housing articles are reaching a point of desperation.  Not sure if you’ve noticed, but I’m about the only “slow-growther” who is still commenting on them.  (And, even I have cut back.)


  4. Ron

    Regarding “workforce housing”, I’m wondering why the Chiles Ranch development has been delayed for so long. The “Coming Soon” sign has been in place for a long time.

      1. Ron

        From city’s website:

        “In general, all homes within Chiles Ranch will be designed for workforce buyers, and will have 3 or 4 bedrooms with floor plans that range from 1,400 to 2,200 square feet. Twenty-one (21) of the alley-loaded homes will have additional living space above the detached garage. Of these, up to ten (10) will have the option of a kitchen.”

        “The 22 low/moderate income condominiums (20 of which are clustered in five buildings) are on the west side of the project.”

        1. David Greenwald

          From what I gathered when it came back to council – they had it approved during the recession, there was financing issues, and even now they are right on the margin.  They were very concerned with the affordable housing requirements (which they only got a partial reprieve on).

        2. Ron

          Well, if this proposal is actually “on the edge”, then perhaps what you are advocating for isn’t actually financially feasible.  Especially if there’s other nearby communities that offer “more bang for the buck” which are competing for the same “workforce dollars”.

          Again, not a “recommendation”, but perhaps a reality.

          We’ve been down a somewhat similar path before, with the Cannery. There are townhomes and traditional middle-income housing (but with very small lots) in there.

          1. David Greenwald

            I’m advocating for nothing. I was opposed to the project as proposed and nothing’s changed my mind about it since.

        3. Ron

          Hey – I was able to reference the Vanguard, this time:

          “A lesser known part of the proposal, however, remains in place – the applicant has proposed 54 additional residential units, for a total of 90 one- and two-bedroom apartment units on the West side.  Units would consist of 12 units located above a retail building and 78 units located in two apartment buildings.”

          Man, good luck getting in/out of the single access point for that development.  I wonder how the existing residents of the Cannery feel about this (assuming that they know about it)?

          Hmm. Seems like a bicycle/pedestrian overpass might be in order. Along with the two that are needed for Lincoln40, but which (also) apparently are not fully funded – along with the needed intersection improvements. But, at least the city will likely approve it, anyway. 🙂



        4. Ken A

          I’m wondering if Ron has ever driven over to the Canary from West Davis since there has been more than one way to get out of the Cannery site since my brother in law dove trucks in and out of the property almost 40 years ago.  I’m also wondering why anyone cares how long it takes to get in or out of a neighborhood they don’t live in?

          The Cannery is smaller than El Macero and while it is scheduled to have more residential units it should have less traffic since unlike El Macero not nearly as many homes in the Cannery will have a gardener, pool guy, cleaning lady and piano teacher who drives in and out once a week (and not nearly the number of contractors will be driving in to to extensive months long remodels in a new development).

          If Ron drives over to count the number of exits to the Cannery ot see how the people get “trapped” in El Macero (that like the Cannery only has two places to get out  on one side of the development) he should make sure to being a book since there may be some long periods where not a single person is driving in or out.

        5. Howard P

          You are correct, Ken A… the employee/public access to HW and successors was opposite J Street, and tomato truck/other commercial access was on East PL… two access points… for a number of reasons, including public safety/emergency use…

        6. Ron

          Ken:  I didn’t realize that, so thanks for pointing it out.  I’ve been there a number of times, and hadn’t noticed another access point.  Howard’s comment makes me wonder if it’s still in use, as a regular access point.

          In any case, it’s relatively tight access, overall.

          I did not take a stand regarding the Cannery, partly because I was pretty busy at the time (and I was convinced that we might have Covell Village, without the Cannery as an alternative). (Regardless, I fully expect Covell Village or something similar to raise its ugly head again, at some point.)

        7. Howard P

          Ron and David… Ron asked…

          I’m wondering why the Chiles Ranch development has been delayed for so long.

          I know, at a 95% confidence level, and it is not due to lacking City approvals…

          Ron asked,

          Do you know the reason that this development has (apparently) been delayed?

          My answer is still “yes”…

          Combination of personal knowledge, sources, and logic…  I need to honor my ‘sources’, and to my personal knowledge I invoke the Fifth… logic is based on the other two, so will not share, here…

  5. Ron

    David:  “I’m advocating for nothing.”

    (That statement lacks credibility.)  🙂

    In any case, that’s what folks say about me, at times!  (Thought I’d try some self-deprecating humor, as well.)

      1. Ron

        Not what I implied, as I purposefully took your statement out of context.  But, you’re clearly advocating for some developments (and downplaying the impacts).

        And again, I appear to be the only “slow-growther” left, on the Vanguard.

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