University Policies Drive One Family from Affordable Graduate Student Housing


The discussion over student housing has largely focused on undergraduate students.  While their numbers dictate attention, university policies actually put graduate students in more jeopardy – especially when they have families.

On Friday, the Vanguard met with one such family whose rather unique circumstances illustrate a number of problems.  They have asked not to have their names published as they fear their situation with the university might be tenuous.

The first thing I noticed as I met with the couple is that they came with four small kids in tow, ages ranging from five to about 18 months and there is another one on the way.

The husband, a graduate student, told the Vanguard that they don’t live on campus anymore.  This arrangement was not by choice and they “miss what it was.”

He described that life at Solano Park was fairly good – it was a good and safe community.  However, it was a community under stress as it faces being shut down at some point by the university.  Already, Orchard Park has closed down.

While he described Solano Park as “family student housing,” Orchard Park’s closure “introduced the frat guy type.”  He said that of the 300 or so apartments at Solano Park, only 100 were actually families.

“We had a two bedroom apartment,” he said.  “Rent was $906 a month which was barely affordable.”

Graduate students get about $2000 per month and, at the rate of $906, half of it goes to rent.  The university actually limits how much a graduate student can make.  The maximum is $3500 – that includes both on-campus and off-campus working.

So unless people want to go into student debt, they have no capacity to make more money.

When we covered the bargaining negotiations last month, Ellie White told the Vanguard that “C graduate academic student employees are paid $3,865 per year less than the living wage reported by Yolo County. This severely limits the options of affordable housing available to student.”

She is worried that when Solano Park closes in 2020, there are no other affordable housing options on campus.

Caroline McKusick noted that a university committee “concluded that monthly rent at the new Orchard Park should be only 33% of a TA [teaching assistant] salary,” but the university ignored that recommendation.

As a result, families like the one we interviewed were paying half their salary for rent.  And as we will see, that is better than the alternatives for them.

Their story takes a bizarre turn in October 2016.  Part of the issue is that they lived in a two-bedroom apartment.  That meant according to regulations they could have two people per room and one for the house, for a total of five.  But the birth of their fourth child pushed the number to six.

Never mind that a baby is not even mobile or that they effectively have four very small children.

“They allowed five people, but we had six people,” he said.  He explained that in discussions they described fire “guidelines” and other codes, none of which seemed like mandates to him.

He explained that right after the birth of their child, they got a letter from the university dated three days before his birth, stating that they were in violation of the lease with six people and wouldn’t be allowed to renew.

They attempted to appeal to student housing.  One thought that he had is that they could simply rent two one-bedroom apartments instead of one-two bedroom apartments.  Each of the one bedrooms could allow for three people and the math would work.  But the university would not budge.

They met with the woman from student housing.  She came over to their house to meet with them.  The family described her as very condescending.

They were told that they were “purely not able to stay because of our family size.”  He said, “She had absolutely zero compassion.”  She told them, “There’s no policy for this, we don’t want to set precedent (by granting an exception).”

But, as he pointed out, there wasn’t much danger of that.  In general, graduate students don’t have families with children.  When they do, they don’t generally need three-bedroom apartments, which is why the university doesn’t provide them.

He said that those with the power to help them, wouldn’t.  Those without the power were sympathetic, but unable to help them.

In a bizarre twist he asked about the option of having fewer people live at the apartment.  “What paperwork is needed?”

He explained to the Vanguard that a neighbor offered to put one of their kids on their lease to make it work.

But what the university’s Residential Services Assistant Manager said next was so bizarre, we asked to see a copy of the email to verify the story.

They were told that “if you decide to give legal guardianship of one of your children to your family, then we would need a notarized, legal document that demonstrates the guardianship. I am not guaranteeing a renewal if you provide this documentation. Our office would still need to review the documentation to grant an exception. I would also remind you that if it is perceived that this child is not living with your family and is in fact living with you at Solano Park, you would be in violation of your lease and University policy.”

In other words he said, “We could stay if we give up legal guardianship of our child and give them up.

“At this point we realized that the university wasn’t going to budge,” he said.  “By default we had to leave.”

But leaving, as it turned out, meant a host of other challenges.

They were still not making much money and one of the problems is that during the summer, the department where he is a graduate student shuts down and he has no access to summer money at all.

In order to rent in most places you have to pass an income qualification check, a credit check and provide first and last month’s rent.  “We can’t afford any housing with the two times rent requirement,” he said.

Russell Park seemed like an option, but it had a waiting list.

“We were going to live out of our van,” he said.  His wife worked at MacDonald’s in order to be able to make rent at Russell Park.  But, by taking the job, it disqualified them from EBT (Electronic Benefits Transfer) benefits.  “Basically we had to choose between housing and food.”  He added, “Section 8 in Davis has been impacted for 11 years.”

By sheer luck, they were able to get into the Russell Park apartment complex.

But there was a cost to that as well.  Their rent went up from $906 to $2100 per month.  That was for a three bedroom.  However, he pointed out that was better than the rest of Davis which was over $3000 per month.

They were still going to have a homeless month because of the timing of when they had to move out of their Solano Park apartment and when they could move into Russell Park.

Russell Park turned out to be not only unaffordable but a disaster.  There were cockroaches everywhere.  Russell Park was next to Orchard Park which had been vacant for several years at that point.  One day they plugged something into a wall outlet and it sparked.

He opened up the outlet expecting to find a loose wire and instead a ton of cockroaches came out of the wall.

They ended up having to knock out three walls to take out the hives of cockroaches.

“It was unsafe for children,” he explained.  “That meant we had to be living somewhere else while they decontaminated the apartment.”

For a whole month they paid for rent at a rate they couldn’t afford for a place they couldn’t live in.

Eventually they decided to move.  But Davis is impacted and expensive.  Anywhere they wanted to move, they had to show they make three times the rent and they don’t qualify.  Plus if you don’t move on the normal cycle, there are no vacancies.

They managed to find a farmhouse outside of Woodland.  They are paying month to month.  Rent is still about $2000, but it’s less than Russell Park, but outside of the affordable range.  They went from a three-bedroom apartment to a four-bedroom house.

The only reason the landlord took them on is that her father signed on, and it was a mom/pop property.  The prior tenants were awful and didn’t take care of the place, so the landlords were happy to take on the young family.

They made an exception so long as her father was on the contract as a guarantor.

“We are so lucky that they said yes,” she said.  “Every place in Woodland turned us down.”

But it’s still very difficult, she said, “Sometimes we don’t make it.”  She added,  “We make it by like $50 a month.”

She got a job at Home Depot for 20 hours a week to get by.  They have talked about her moving back to her parents’ and him renting a single bedroom.

“Summers especially – we’re shut down for the summer,” he said.  “It’s a drought for three months.

“Three thousand dollars was hard, now $6000 is impossible,” he said.  “We don’t know what we’re doing.

“We loved Solano Park,” he said.  “It was old, next to the train tracks.  But it was cozy.  It was secure.”  He said,  “They took that from us.

“We wouldn’t want to go back,” he said, even though they didn’t have to pay for parking or car expenses.  It was a ten-minute bike ride.  He said that “the only advantage is that it was affordable.”  Sort of.

—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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36 thoughts on “University Policies Drive One Family from Affordable Graduate Student Housing”

  1. Ken A

    I’m wondering if David has a link to the UCD site that says UCD grad students can only make a maximum of “$3500 that includes both on-campus and off-campus working”.

    {Removed by Moderator}

  2. Sharla C.

    I don’t think this is a typical graduate student.  This is a family that hopes to live on essentially one part-time income to support 6 people.  Graduate students are limited to working no more than 75%, allowing a minimum of 25% to be devoted to their own education. Most have 50% positions.  If he works 100%, then it makes it difficult for him to also be a student.

    1. David Greenwald Post author

      It’s not a typical grad student – I’ll be interviewing more typical ones later this week. But there are issues here that carryover including the cost of rental housing.

    2. Ellie White

      No one wants to work 100%. We want to work 50%, spend the rest on research AND still get paid a living wage. We produce value for the university, but don’t see it reflected in our paycheck. Thanks for reiterating the things we hear from administration justifying why our poverty is OK. /s

  3. Tia Will

    When they do, they don’t generally need three-bedroom apartments, which is why the university doesn’t provide them.”

    A few thoughts regarding this couple’s situation:

    1. In the interview, it is admitted that the university has rules at least in part based on need. Did the couple review the established rules prior to making the decision to have another child?

    2. Is the couple advocating only for themselves, or do they believe that similar exceptions should be made for others? If so, up to what family size? Eight people, 10, 12 ?

    3. At what point does it become incumbent upon individuals to fully accept the consequences of their own voluntary actions? Note, not those with circumstances beyond their control, but those of which they have full control?

    4. I do not see this so much a situation of “compassion” as I do of consistency. Is the university, or any other entity, obliged to “make exceptions” or “break rules” when there are many other options available. Perhaps the graduate student in question could take a hiatus/ leave of absence and be granted a position upon return when his economic situation has stabilized. I have known many students who have deferred further education in order to work full time and save. The interview notes one option of wife and children moving in with family to save money. I also know many who have chosen this option. Perhaps the wife could work in some capacity from home thus sparing the need for child care expense. At the risk of seeming without compassion, I do not see this so much as a “housing need”, although that certainly exists. I see this as a life planning need, which is also a major societal concern.

    1. Ron

      Thank you.

      This particular article, which seems intended to criticize UCD’s housing policy (and the housing market in general), borders on absurdity.

      It’s unfortunate, because there probably are legitimate criticisms to be made. (As a side note, I’m wondering about the $3,000 figure cited, for an apartment in Davis. Plus, I understood that (essentially) there “were no apartments” available, per the Vanguard’s articles.

        1. David Greenwald Post author

          The Vanguard/ I have stated that a three bedroom market rate apartment is unaffordable for most families – I don’t think this story disproves that point.

    2. Sharla C.

      I just read in the newspaper about a Davis family with 4 children – 3 years, 2 years, 1 year and a 2 month old, whose parents made the choice to leave them at home early in the morning and have the mother drive her husband to work in Sacramento.  The mother was arrested and the children are in foster care after neighbors reported finding the oldest wandering around their apartment complex.   I’m guessing they have one car.  With the arrival of the new child and thus 4 children needing car seats, it is now may be impossible for the family to travel together anymore without violating laws. There are solutions, but it requires spending money and thoughtful planning.  Hopefully, they will get help in sorting this out.

    3. David Greenwald Post author

      Tia: The university could have been more flexible with allowing a family with very young children to have one additional member. From what I understand there isn’t a hard rule in terms of state laws on occupancy. And this wasn’t a situation likely to arise that much.

      1. Ken A

        While it is true that not that many grad students will ever have four or five kids I’m sure that there are many groups of three couples that would be asking to pack six people in to a subsidized on campus apartment to try and make ends meet with the low pay they recieve at a GTA.

      2. Sharla C.

        David, You note in your article that this couple has 4 children with one on the way.  Now we are talking about allowing a family of 7 to live in a small 2 bedroom apartment.  The article doesn’t say how close the student is to graduating.  It could be a few years.  How many children should be considered just “one additional member?”  The move to off campus housing was inevitable for this family as the University does not have housing that would ever accommodate such a large family.


        1. Howard P

          Also, raise the issues of creating a family that one cannot support without subsides from the public… guess we were stupid, and made sure the finances were in place before marriage or procreating…

        2. Howard P

          So, they were “housing insecure” before the fifth child was conceived?

          Not feeling any responsibility for their support in this… morally or financially (pity, possible charity, maybe)… but, of course, I’m just a mean, self-righteous, priveleged, implied biased, troll…

      3. Tia Will


        You make an important point about the lee way that the university may have had. From the article it seemed to me that the university was following established policy and refusing to make an exemption for this one family based on that policy. If that is not the case, it might alter my thinking about the flexibility of the university, although not about the planning of the parents.

        I also had another thought about this situation. I am wondering if the university has a liaison with the community to help handle unusual housing situations. Do you know if this is the case ?

        1. Ellie White

          Tia, it seems like your world view is more that of personal responsibility than that of the social responsibility of institutions, especially universities in this context. I invite you to critically look at that especially if you are older than the grad students that are here (we are in our mid 20s-30s, and I am guessing you are older). We are all shaped by the environment we are brought up in to some extent, but that may not be the “right” or “moral” way to see things.

    4. Howard P

      I see this as a life planning need, which is also a major societal concern.

      If you mean that society should reinforce that the ‘life planning need’ is incumbent on the individual(s), with society not being morally or financially responsible for their bad choices, I agree… if you mean society is responsible (morally and financially) for everyone’s choices, not so much.

      1. Tia Will

        if you mean society is responsible (morally and financially) for everyone’s choices, not so much.”

        I do not equate children with “everyone’s choices”. It is never the fault of children that their parents have not acted responsibly. It is the children I believe it is society’s responsibility to support, not their parents poor decision making.

  4. Eric Gelber

    That meant according to regulations they could have two people per room and one for the house, for a total of five. 

    What regulations are these? To my knowledge, the two-plus-one rule has never been codified in statute or regulation federally or in California. It is generally followed by California’s DFEH, but not as a hard and fast rule. Factors such as square footage of the unit, the ages of the occupants, sewage system capacity, and other considerations are normally taken into account. The outcome here may, in fact, have been reasonable but the black-and-white, bureaucratic response, if true, was not. Allowing an exception for a family with an infant and three other young children would not mean exceptions would need to be made in other circumstances.



    1. David Greenwald

      That is what UCD cited to them, I think it was expressed as “guidelines” rather than hard and fast code.  I agree with your conclusion, that was my thought as well.

    2. Tia Will


      That would most likely be true right up until the point where another couple sued due to what they saw as differential treatment.

      However, I did have another thought. Are there legal occupancy rules based on safety factors?

  5. Reuben Romero

    I’m trying to follow the logic of this story. Is the point here that Davis is an exclusive, wealthy community that is unaffordable for a family of six with a single, part-time income? That hardly seems like breaking news. Besides, the route taken by plenty of other UCD students in these circumstances is to not live in Davis; Woodland, Dixon, West Sacramento are all much more affordable. Strangely, the article mentions that Woodland is also barely affordable for this particular family. If this is the case, then Davis housing prices aren’t really the issue. Living on the part-time salary of one individual in the state of California is the real problem. Perhaps the notion is that UC Davis should guarantee a certain standard of living for the families of all graduate students that it admits? Be prepared to see far, far fewer students admitted to UC Davis. Finally, I found the thinly veiled distain for people who have to live in Woodland and work at Home Depot to be insulting, frankly. Like that is somehow beneath what someone from Davis should expect. If the people of Davis want to improve our city, working on that sense of superiority over the unwashed Yolo County masses would be a good start.

  6. Craig Ross

    Disappointing responses from the adults.  Have too many kids?  University’s response: give one of your kids up and you can stay in our “affordable housing.”  Talk about insulting.

    Everyone wants to put the blame on the young couple for having too many kids, I’m sure they didn’t realize that having four kids meant they would lose their housing.

    1. Ken A

      Keep in mind that UCD does not go out to student housing and “count kids” (or anyone else) on a regular basis so (like most news stories) there is a “rest of the story” that we don’t know about…

      P.S. I would still be interested to see if “UCD grad students can only make a maximum of $3500 that includes both on-campus and off-campus working” (since it sounds strange to me that UCD would 1. care or 2. try and stop a grad student that was working an hour a day tutoring a rich kid for $150/day)

      1. David Greenwald Post author

        I didn’t put this in the story, but the family told me that they found it interesting that the letter they received that they would have to move when their lease expired was dated three days before the birth of the baby and received right after that birth. They felt like one of the neighbors must have said something.

  7. Ellie White

    I expect heartlessness from a corporatized university with their only concern is for growth and exploiting their grad students. I didn’t expect to hear it here. The comments say more about the kind of place I am living in than the article itself.

    1. Keith O

      So what’s your solution?  You say you only want to work 50%.   Who pays for your housing and higher wages so you can get by working 50%?  An honest question.

      1. Ellie White

        The value I create for the university will pay my wages. I bring in grants. My friend just brought in a 1/2 million dollar grant. Another friend did 80% of the coding (work) for a $600,000 grant. To argue that there’s not enough money there to pay me a living wage (and that someone else has to pay for me to be slacker) is an outright lie. and you’re buying into it. The value we bring in to the university doesn’t make it down to the people doing the actual work. My own program the Civil Engineering program is under review for the s— they have been doing. and the students keep asking, where is all the money?

        1. Cindy Pickett

          Graduate students are limited in how much they can work as a GSR or a TA because they are also expected to be students. In reality, graduate students end up doing close to two full-time jobs — one as a student, one as a GSR or TA. AND, at the same time, the stipends that they are paid at UCD are below many other R1 institutions. My current graduate student is a single male and even in his relatively “easy” situation, we still have conversations about how to find affordable housing in Davis.

  8. Ron

    Ellie:  “The value we bring in to the university doesn’t make it down to the people doing the actual work.”

    That may be the actual/underlying story, here.  (Sure sounds familiar, in a broader sense as well.)

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