Students and Community Members Express Frustration Regarding Lack of Housing Construction by Town and University
By Jenean Docter
Wednesday night, the Davis Vanguard hosted a community town hall meeting in the Davis Community Church. Students and other members of the public gathered to discuss the critical struggles faced by students fighting to attain an increasingly rare and expensive resource: affordable housing. Panel speakers included Matt Dulcich, a representative from the university, City of Davis Mayor Robb Davis, ASUCD President Michael Gofman, and affordable housing activists Sean Raycraft and Toni Sandoval.
David Greenwald, the owner of the Vanguard, recalled the “slower growth” of the “small community” of Davis that attracted him and his wife to settle in town following the completion of their studies at the university. However, as Greenwald noted, the town of Davis encompasses a population of 60 to 70 thousand people, alongside a student population expected to grow to 40 thousand within the decade. Sixty-five to 85 percent of renters in the city are students.
The resulting “conflict between the students and the town” materializes in disturbingly commonplace “housing horror stories.” Greenwald shared the story of a former Vanguard intern who was evicted by her out-of-state landlord because she experienced conflict with one of her roommates. Left homeless in December, and unable to find housing in the Davis rental market—where vacancy rates oscillate between a third and a tenth of a single percent—she was forced to move back home to Seattle. After moving in and out of mental institutions, she eventually dropped out of UC Davis. Had her landlord permitted students to sign individual leases under a rent-by-bed system, she would likely hold a UC Davis degree today.
“As expensive as you think Davis is for renters, it’s actually the second cheapest UC to live off-campus at,” Greenwald began. He noted that the City of Davis initially appears affordable when compared to rental rates in Berkeley, Westwood, Irvine, San Diego, and Riverside.
Yet, student housing at UC Davis is the “second-most expensive in the UC system,” he recognized. On-campus housing costs students 60 percent more than off-campus housing.
Even in Solano Park, an on-campus student apartment complex for students with families, renters pay nearly $700 per month for a space no larger than 450 square feet. A two-bedroom apartment in the same complex requires a financial commitment of $900 per month, and provides about 550 square feet.
Greenwald stressed that “this is an issue that can be solved locally.” Both UC Davis and the City of Davis “have the ability to satiate existing demand for student housing.” Yet, both parties have failed to fulfill this need, time and time again.
Matt Dulcich was the first speaker to offer comments. He represented the Office of the Chancellor, and is currently the Director of Environmental Planning at UC Davis.
Dulcich primarily discussed the contents of the University’s newly-released Long Range Development Plan (LRDP). Dulcich described the LRDP as a “forecast” and a “programmatic plan” for university development through 2027.
Dulcich congratulated the “heroic effort” put into the LRDP’s development within recent years. He also noted that the plan included an “open workshop” with members of the public in the Nelson Gallery two years ago, which received recognition for its collaborative community approach.
Mr. Dulcich reported that predicted UC Davis enrollment will likely rise to a figure between 34,000 and 39,000. To accommodate this growth of over 5,000 students, the university plans to supply at least 6,200 new beds, a figure Dulcich described as “progressive” and “ambitious.”
A base plan released by the university in January 2017 called upon developers to accelerate construction at Russell Park and West Village, targeting 900 new beds at the former and 1,875 at the latter. The current LRDP draft calls for 8,500 new beds in total.
The university released an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the plan last Friday, which will remain open for public comment through May 29. The EIR addresses issues such as vehicular traffic, agricultural land loss, species loss, and other environmental impacts. Dulcich encouraged community members to read the EIR, claiming that “it’s not really appropriate for me to try to answer” questions regarding such topics.
Although Dulcich mentioned that solutions such as “restricting initial rents and reducing amenities” remained on the table, he emphasized that “at the end of the day,” the projects are “expensive” because the university must purchase building materials. Dulcich also noted that the Housing Task Force is currently working to define “what affordability means.”
Dulcich, who holds a seat on Chancellor Gary May’s Housing Task Force, expressed that he feels “curious to see how this conversation evolves.”
“Are there other levers (to increase affordability) that the task force could be looking out for?” Dulcich asked. Among these so-called levers proposed by Dulcich was the option to build above-the-market housing, for students who could afford expensive rents. He justified the proposal by suggesting it might cross-subsidize more affordable housing projects.
Mayor Robb Davis followed Dulcich’s commentary. Mayor Davis reflected back on his primary goal when entering office: to construct more affordable, high-density multi-family housing units. Mr. Davis expected that the community would embrace this goal, but noted that he was “dead wrong.
“Unlike the university, we don’t control the levers (regarding the construction of housing),” Davis reflected. He noted that the city must wait for developers to bring forward construction projects, which are often legally challenged soon after.
Mayor Davis also cautioned against “sprawling, low-density housing,” and encouraged residents to fight to preserve surrounding agricultural lands. High-density affordable housing, according the mayor, will allow transit “to flourish,” and will reduce the environmental impact created by renters commuting into town because of lower rent prices in surrounding cities.
“Davis is a place where people really think critically about the environment,” Mr. Davis stated. The City of Davis has seen three housing projects since Robb Davis joined the city council. The first Nishi project faced a lawsuit over an EIR and failed to gain enough votes to pass. Lincoln 40, similarly, faced litigation regarding CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act). The Sterling student apartment project faced considerable backlash as well. “At each turn, we find ourselves thwarted,” he reflected.
Mayor Davis criticized the reluctance of some community members to support new housing projects to alleviate student pressure on the rental market. “You cannot call yourself a town that cares about the environment if you push people (out of their homes in Davis) and into cars (to commute from other cities instead),” he argued.
“We have before us critical choices,” Robb Davis told community members. The ability to bring lawsuits forward regarding CEQA requirements gives Davis residents challenging new construction “the option to pretend it doesn’t matter if you don’t see it.”
The mayor emphasized the necessity of “bringing people equitably close to school.” He recognized that many students are “really struggling,” and that the lack of affordable housing in Davis “left a bad taste in the mouths of students that ‘we don’t want you here.’” He emphasized, “We want you here.”
Mr. Davis prompted, “The question is: where is the trade-off?” He cited an inverse relationship between greener housing and affordable housing, and challenged the council to find a solution.
Michael Gofman, ASUCD President, followed Robb Davis’ statements. Gofman’s remarks were the shortest of those given by the panelists.
Mr. Gofman declared that he was present to represent “all of the different voices of the students” and their “struggles to get housing. This has to do with developers doing whatever they want to students,” a statement for which he received applause from the audience.
Sean Raycraft, a self-described town activist, followed Gofman. Mr. Raycraft has worked as a shop steward at the South Davis Safeway for the past 11 years. In that time, he has noticed “education quality declining” and “rent skyrocketing.”
Raycraft’s wife graduated UC Davis with nearly $30,000 in student debt—a feat Raycraft described as “lucky.”
Last summer, Raycraft witnessed some of his members left homeless by the hyper-competitive and increasingly expensive rental market in Davis. He recently helped three longtime friends move out of Davis due to substantial rent increases.
Raycraft also described a “mini-dorm” one of his members lived in, which cost them $400 per month to share a living room which was split in half with a bedsheet hung from the ceiling.
“The lack of student housing is affecting everyone’s quality of life,” Raycraft stated. He implored community members that they have a “responsibility to advocate” to “counter no-growth political infrastructure” preventing much-needed housing construction within the city.
Toni Sandoval spoke following Raycraft. She is a third-year transfer student, and a single mother to a toddler. She moved to Davis from Fresno so she could pursue an education to better her daughter’s life. Her transition to Davis has been “difficult and stressful,” but bettered by the community she found with her neighbors at Solano Park. “I no longer felt alone because of my neighbors,” she reflected.
She reflected that she “used to be angry” that day-to-day life was much more difficult for herself than for her peers. But now, she feels “so proud to come from that community,” and to “struggle” alongside other low-income parents.
“I was praying that I would get into Solano Park,” she recalled. Ms. Sandoval would not have been financially able to study at UC Davis if she had not been accepted into that community.
“The community of UC Davis exists of personal stories,” Sandoval stated. “If you don’t listen, you’re only representing the communities you’re building that can afford (expensive housing).”
Sandoval advocates on behalf of low-income students struggling to find housing for themselves and their families, even though she believes that it will be her daughter who first sees change.
Additionally, Sandoval mentioned the deteriorating condition of the housing at Solano Park. Sandoval uses four towels to continuously soak up leaking water released through her house.
“How do I move into an apartment and ask my maintenance man to fix my entire apartment?” she asked rhetorically.
Ms. Sandoval expressed that students do not need “fancy amenities” like the pools and recreational areas advertised at developments like West Village. Sandoval and others only need apartments that don’t leak.
“This is more real than you’re willing to admit,” Sandoval urged the community.
Microphones were then opened up for public comment. Students were given speaking priority.
Ellie White, a Civil Engineering graduate student at UC Davis, criticized the University Housing Task Force for closing meetings off to students. “Affordability is 30 percent of income, including amenities,” she emphasized. Yet, she stated, the Housing Task Force continually redefines affordability in a manner that “ends up costing students the most and the university the least.
“Do you really want to build another West Village, that goes 27 percent vacant?” she asked Mr. Dulcich. “It’s completely despicable to have houses that are empty,” White continued. She challenged Dulcich to “explain himself.”
Dulcich emphasized that creating above-market housing is a “lever” that will cross-subsidize affordable housing.
Additionally, a female Davis substitute teacher expressed her frustration regarding the rental increases in Davis. For years, her husband rode his bike from Woodland to Davis so he could attend UC Davis, and their children could attend kindergarten. Years later, they finally moved to Davis. She taught in Davis—despite being paid less in Davis than in Woodland—and appreciated being part of the community.
Recently, her landlord increased her rent by 81 percent, and gave her only 32 days’ notice—which is currently illegal in the state of California. “I’m teaching in your schools, I’m helping your children,” she claimed, “livid” with the lack of affordability in Davis. “We put so much time and energy into this community, and now we’re being pushed out.”
Dan Carson, one of two city council candidates to speak at the meeting, emphasized the importance of “working together with the city and the university in a collaborative manner” in order to “make progress on this issue.”
Carson described the housing crisis as a “humanitarian need” that would be “unconscionable” to not address. He supports Measure J/R, and expressed frustration regarding the frequent legal challenges brought against proposed housing projects.
Eric Gudz, another city council candidate, recalled the struggle to find housing as a student at UC Davis. In the summer of 2013, their landlord announced a $250 per month rent increase one week before the quarter was due to begin. Gudz had previously agreed to a $50 per month increase. They left the apartment within the required 30 days, and found a two-bedroom place in Old North Davis. Yet, Gudz’s new housing situation required them to provide a $4,000 security deposit—an insurmountable fee for most students. “This needs to be addressed. I’m not the only one. This is what drives me,” Gudz stated.
An international student, and head of household to two dependents, felt that Solano Park was her only option. Because she is an international student, she does not qualify for housing loans or a credit check. With the demolition of Solano Park slotted for 2020, she felt that she has been “left with no choice,” and expressed frustration at university officials for refusing to explain why Solano Park “can’t be kept the way it is.”
Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald, the wife of David Greenwald and a UC Davis graduate, offered her personal phone number to students and community members in need. She described the rental situation as “appalling,” noting that “we had those struggles then (when she attended UC Davis).” Ms. Greenwald advised community members to “work together as a group.”
Other students and members of the community shared their stories as well.
First-year undergraduate students spoke out against the university for charging rents greater than $1500 per month (including meals) for small, triple-occupancy rooms, and for punishing students who experience issues with their roommates. Multiple freshmen also expressed desire for the university to aid them in searching for apartments, after they are “kicked out” of dorms after their first year.
Others felt that they were “just pawns in the system,” and that the salary of some staff (notably ex-chancellor Linda Katehi, still paid more than $300,000 to teach a one-unit class once per week) should be lowered, with the money re-purposed toward the construction of affordable student housing.
The wife of a retired UC Davis employee noted that the increasing rental prices are pushing her and her husband out of Davis. “This is not just a student housing crisis,” she stated. “It has a ripple effect on retirees.”
A Cal Works eligibility worker and former UC Davis graduate echoed her sentiments. “What happens here in Davis doesn’t just affect Davis, but the county as a whole,” she emphasized. Single mothers attending UC Davis have two options: to live in Solano Park (provided that they are accepted), or to leave Davis, and incur even greater transportation and childcare costs.
Kevin, a commuter student, recalled seeing homeless students on Lake Boulevard.
He cautioned: “Just remember—there are students sleeping in their cars, and it’s gonna get ten degrees colder tonight.”
One must wonder how many more members of this community will be pushed out of their homes before any real change materializes. The university and town have promised to construct affordable housing, just as they have done in the past. But, when the political opinions of financially-interested property owners, developers, and the university dominate the conversation around affordable housing, it raises a single question: how can Davis regard itself as a welcoming community when it continues to willfully push its own people out?