Guest Commentary: We Need Housing

By Don Shor

We need housing on campus.

We need housing in town.

We need them both now.

We need to break the logjam that is obstructing housing projects and creating housing insecurity for many.

Failure to approve any of the projects means that the rental housing market either stays very tight with extremely low apartment vacancy rate, or (more likely) gets worse.

Objections are raised to nearly every project that is proposed.

— Traffic issues.

— The types of apartments, # of beds per unit and their student marketing focus.

— Infrastructure costs.

— Long-term impact on city budget.

— Location too far from campus.

— Near neighbor objections.

— Toxicity issues.

— The university will take advantage of any increase in private housing.

The problem is that the cumulative effect of these objections, if successful in blocking project proposals, means that the housing market remains acutely short of rental housing with respect to current and projected demand.

This shortage of rental housing has a material harmful effect on renters in the form of housing insecurity, increased rents, and poor-quality housing without remediation, or it leads to high commuting costs if they seek housing outside of town.

It has indirect effects on neighborhoods as an increasing number of single-family homes are converted to investment rental properties.

It reduces the supply of entry-level single-family homes as they are converted to rentals rather than being on the market for families and lower-income buyers.

Objections by project opponents do not add up to a coherent housing policy. Their chief argument is that UCD needs to build more housing, which is certainly a desirable goal. Constraining housing growth in town in order to put pressure on UCD is directly harmful to those affected by the current market shortage. The argument is made, oddly, that increasing private supply will not help with the current excess in demand. This simply defies logic.

It is frustrating that the university, without consultation, announced that they would add about 10,000 residents to the local population over a ten-year period. It is certainly their responsibility to provide a major portion of the housing for the students they are adding. Unfortunately, even if they provide 100% of the new student rental housing, there was a prior backlog of thousands of beds due to inadequate added housing on campus AND in town. And that doesn’t even begin to address the increase in faculty and staff, many of whom are buying homes in nearby communities and commuting in each day.

It is also frustrating that the city did not plan for this increase once notified of it, nor take any action to measurably increase rental housing in a gradual manner as the university added more students and staff. It means that we need to build a lot to catch up.

Prior to Measure J/R, housing growth of Davis kept pace with enrollment growth of the university, although vacancy rates were low. The combination of increased growth at UCD, the housing recession, and a nearly complete cessation of rental housing construction in Davis has led to a serious shortage of rental housing. We need housing in both the public and private sectors to correct this deficiency.

The large multi-bed apartment proposals could provide quick relief to our current housing situation. It is not surprising that developers wish to build and market them for the student rental market, as those renters form a majority of the demand. Alternatively, a larger number of smaller apartment units, much like what you see in South Davis and along the north end of Sycamore in north Davis, could be built. But we don’t have sufficient space to provide the requisite numbers. The current proposals do, in fact, provide units for a range of possible renters. They skew toward students because that is where the predominant market demand is coming from. But taken together, the projects do include some affordable housing and some housing open to everyone.

Affordability of housing in Davis and elsewhere is not easily resolved without some larger land parcels in the city dedicated specifically to that purpose.  Affordability requirements on new housing increase the market cost overall and increase the disparity of housing costs in Davis compared to surrounding communities.

My opinion is that the university has been very derelict in meeting the needs of their students. That the university and the city need a more formal and effective structure for communicating and planning, something that creates tangible goals and guidelines with written agreements. If it is necessary to use litigation, it should be toward specific goals and outcomes and should be preceded by every effort to develop a working relationship first. But all of that is for future planning. We have a current deadlock and it needs to be resolved in as pragmatic and efficient a manner as possible.

When you have an emergency with competing interests, you have to triage. There is no question we could use more affordable housing. The city’s budget issues need to be addressed systemically and with clear long-term goals and strategies. But the most immediate and compelling crisis in our current situation is that of housing insecurity and insufficient supply. It will take both private and public housing to solve that crisis.

We need to break the logjam that has prevented housing development for a key demographic in our community. These large projects would break the logjam.

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About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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  1. Tia Will

    When you have an emergency with competing interests, you have to triage. There is no question we could use more affordable housing.”
     I am in complete agreement with Don. I would like to add that recent decisions on exemptions for developers within close proximity to the campus have not reflected this kind of triage. Projects such as Trackside, that could have been locations for affordable housing, have been approved for luxury apartments. As someone very familiar with the concept of triage from my profession, these types of approvals are far from a triage or needs based approach.

    1. Howard P

      Simple question… Tia, how much would you be willing to contribute, or ask (require, if a parcel tax) other folk in Davis to contribute, to subsidize affordable housing if we recognize that developers are not charities… how about housing for the homeless?… I’m in for $500 / year in a parcel tax, for those purposes… no exemptions… what say you?

      1. Tia Will


        ,I would personally be in for at least twice your $500. But I recognize that I am singularly blessed with a good ( albeit now fixed) income and have one child who is completely financially independent and another that will be within 2-3 years. I cannot agree with the  “no exceptions” because I recognize that there are some in our community for whom their home is their single biggest asset and they may have very little in terms of discretionary spending.

        What I would love to see is a means tested parcel tax. As a crude example ( you know my lack of proficiency with numbers), say 2K for me, 1K for a starting physician with no significant savings yet, $ 500 for you, $ 250 for the Greenwalds or Raycrafts when they are able to purchase their first starter home. What say you ? If this is not legal, I would love to see a change in the law.

        1. Richard McCann

          Means testing parcel taxes would require a state constitutional amendment to what is already a very convoluted property tax system. That’s a non-starter in an emergency situation.

      2. David Greenwald

        I think we should be looking toward a new tax increment at the state level to replace RDA. I don’t think locally financing is practical when you’re already asking people to pay for infrastructure and schools through a parcel tax.

  2. Todd Edelman


    But we don’t have sufficient space to provide the requisite numbers.


    larger land parcels in the city dedicated specifically to that purpose

    What’s up with the Infill Project? What’s the feasibility of building on the largest parking lots at shopping centers – University Mall, Marketplace, East Covell Nugget, Target, 8th St Plaza (place with Grocery Outlet), and houses of worship, Civic Park and the PG&E Plain? From the City can we at least have some rough ideas of how many appropriately-storied homes could be created at all these places so that our pressure can have more of a focus?  (Yes, transport impacts from these places will be lessened if they add very few cars, and will cost at least 15% less to build if they exclude all but exceptional parking, and all this density will make transit more viable and cycling infrastructure an even better investment.)

      1. Todd Edelman


        Suburban retail won’t work without parking

        That’s exactly the point. Make the places less suburban, so that they work with less parking.

        Places like University Mall and the 8th St. Center would have to stay three-stories or less due to their proximity to single and two-story housing, but the Marketplace and especially Oaktree Plaza could go higher since that wouldn’t block anything to the north from the sun. (I mean, that when the sun is at its lowest at noon at Winter Solstice it should still shine on the southern edge of the ag land there.)

        PG&E would need some commercial on the railway/freeway side. It’s sort of ridiculous that some houses of worship here have huge parking lots during a housing crisis, and I am agnostic about which should get built on first….

        1. Ken A

          Todd is correct that we would not need any parking to support retail if we were an “urban” town and had another half million residents living within the city limits.  Manhattan is about 2x the size of Davis with more than 20x more people.  If we went three stories along 8th st it would still be “suburban” not “urban”…

      2. Jeff M

        Super Owl Brewery opened in West Davis about three months ago and has been filled almost to overflow capacity every night it is open.

        I asked the owner why he thinks he has been so successful in attracting people given the location being so far away from the commercial center of Davis.

        He said:

        1. Good beer… but he recognized that almost all craft brewers make good beer.

        2. Lack of entertainment options for that area of town.

        3. Copious available parking.

        He said he was not sure how to rank the three… he suspected that the parking was a bigger deal than he first considered given comments from customers.

        Now we don’t want people drinking too much beer and driving, but there are a lot of people coming to purchase a growler or two and take it home with them.  There are also some larger groups with a designated driver.

        The bottom line here is yet another example were the environmental-focused scarcity approach isn’t good for business.   Parking is a requirement for retail to succeed and thrive.  Build enough parking and customers will come.

        1. Todd Edelman

          Access. Parking is just one solution for access. Parking is more important than beer or music? Who are these losers?

          That business has to contribute to the City’s goals – of which beer and fun are only two.  Driving-focused development + alcohol is a huge killer. The City has a Council-approved goal for bicycle modal share: Within three years about 1/3 of trips to places like bars have to be by bicycle. Peripheral locations need to contribute, too. There is nothing very “Davis” about this place, the way you describe it. Perhaps that doesn’t matter to you.

          But anyway, write to the Bike and Pedestrian Coordinator and suggest that the monthly Bike Party ends at this place. We can help you to stop being part of the problem. I’m just as honest as you are anonymous.

          The bottom line is that if we all followed your philosophy we’d be dead a long time ago.

        2. Howard P

          Yes, Todd… inebriated folk on bicycles, rather than cars, will solve all DUI (or. BUI) and safety issues… got it

          Now, can we get back to housing needs?  The actual topic…

  3. David Greenwald

    Back to the topic at hand, I think Don raises the core issue here: “Constraining housing growth in town in order to put pressure on UCD is directly harmful to those affected by the current market shortage.“

    I get that people believe that UC Davis is directly responsble for this problem, but I feel that trying to battle UC Davis to do more housing ends up putting students in the middle and they are the ones that get hurt.

    I also point out that the original ask was 100/50 from activists and the city.  UC Davis is basically proposing to add 85% of the housing and will get to 46.  That’s not perfect, but it’s workable, especially with four apartment complexes adding 5000 to 6000 beds in the city.

    And that’s the other thing – four apartment complexes is not a huge impact on the community.

    1. Ken A

      I’m wondering why people “only” say UC Davis is “directly responsible for this problem” since if Don, David, Nugget, PG&E, Sutter Hospital and Target all moved their business out of Davis the demand for housing in town would drop.

      1. David Greenwald

        I’m not one who buys into the blame UCD narrative. But I would say the volume of students is a bit larger than the sum total of the six entities you named.

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