Commentary: Who Gets Harmed As We Debate Over Process and the Perfect?

Three to a room student housing on campus

In this long debate over Nishi, I perhaps agree with Matt Williams on one thing – the system is in fact broken, but not as he describes.  I think it is broken because we cannot provide for the basic needs of the people who live in this community or those who go to school in this community.

We have set up a system that appears on paper to be fair – it allows the voters to have the final say over development projects.  But what that has done is actually perpetuate the inequity in the system.  The people who vote primarily are those who already own their homes, while the majority of residents of Davis are transitory renters, many of whom are not registered to vote here because of the transitory nature of their education and some are not residents at all, having not been able to find housing in town.

Matt Williams recently questioned whether there was a housing crisis.  He accused me of “attempting to create political spin.”

The irony is that, while he demands good data on finances, we actually lack reasonable data on housing needs and housing insecurity.

Our modest estimate, derived from a 2017 survey of students, is that there is roughly 3 percent of the student population which is housing insecure – that means they are homeless, or living on couches, couch-surfing, sleeping in cars or sleeping in the library.

Last week however, GSA President Don Gibson suggested that we really do not know the extent of the problem and that statewide the figure is about 12 percent.  In fact, Mr. Gibson told the Planning Commission that we do not have good data at all on housing insecurity and that the university, following the lead of the GSA and others, is finally going to start to collect data.

But let us put these numbers into perspective.  Three percent or 12 percent does not sound like a lot.  You could say, hey, 88 to 97 percent of all students are housing secure.  We are in good shape.

But 3 percent would mean roughly 1200 students.  Twelve percent, on the other hand, would be something catastrophic – 4800 students suffering from housing insecurity.

The problem is that we truly do not know.  Frankly, 1200 students who are housing insecure in my view would be a “crisis,” while 4800 would be catastrophic.

At our townhall meeting in April, we had one of our panelists describe the living conditions she has at Solano Park, which is supposedly affordable student housing.  We had another person describe living in a house and having to share the living room for $400 per month, with a sheet partition for privacy.

We ran the story of the family forced out of Solano Park.  I ran into another family, a mother – her daughter happens to be on my daughter’s soccer team and her husband a graduate student.  They were living first at Orchard Park, then Solano Park, and now they have a room in Woodland as her in-laws had to purchase a home.

Critics of the current Nishi will argue a variety of different reasons for opposing housing there.  Some are concerned about traffic despite the move to reduce impacts.  Some are concerned about air quality even though the developer has taken a lot of steps to mitigate that, through various mitigation measures, design features, and limiting occupants to student renters.

Others have argued we need to have a much denser project.  Matt Williams, for example, has suggested we go up to 5000 to 7000 occupants.

Matt Williams recently posted that “the 3,000+ students whom this suboptimal project are leaving without a roof over their head, need a voice too.  Especially since it is highly likely that the 67 you have cited who were at the Vanguard housing townhall will never live at Nishi.  Those 67 are willing to benefit 2,200 students per year while permanently disadvantaging 3,000 students per year.”

This is basically playing “Let’s Make a Deal” with student housing.  We are walking away from a certain (2200 beds) in hopes of winning the grand prize, in this case not $1 million but rather 5000 to 7000 beds.

Sounds good, but the problem is that there is no guarantee that there will be another Nishi project if this one goes down to defeat.  There certainly is even less of a guarantee they’ll come back with a larger project.  The question then is should we approve what is on the table and can be built and occupied in a few short years, or should we hold out hope that in five or ten years we can approve a lot more housing?

To me the answer is obvious – we should take the 2200 beds and figure out where to build more at a later date.

But Matt Williams was correct about one thing – most of the current students pressing for more housing will never live at Nishi, even if it is built.

That creates an incentive problem.  Students, who are busy earning their degrees and disadvantaged already in the system, have to overcome these obstacles to mobilize in the face of creating housing that they will never live in.

That may prove too much.

Matt Williams argues that Nishi 2.0 “will cost Davis taxpayers between $350,000 and $750,000 per year.”

I think those figures are absurd.  The developers have already agreed to pay for the “backbone infrastructure” which “infrastructure includes a roadway bike and pedestrian connecting to the UC Davis campus, bicycle paths and sidewalks, public utilities, storm water drainage and detention, and open space, and a grade-separated crossing of the Union Pacific Railroad.”

At most what we are looking at is a more modest statement, that the current project “has no dollars for deferred maintenance of capital infrastructure.”

Maybe.  Mr. Williams continues, “Guess who picks up the fiscal difference … Davis taxpayers.”

The problem here is if he is right, the developer is paying for the infrastructure and the deferred replacement costs of that infrastructure.  Who would have to bear those costs ultimately?  Student renters.

So we have a battle between the Davis taxpayer and student renters in this scenario and the winner here would be obvious as the taxpayer votes and the renter largely does not.

While I continue to support the concept of Measure R, it is becoming more and more clear that one of its flaws is that there is a group of haves who vote and a group of have-nots who do not vote.

This goes beyond the demographic limitations of young people voting.  This goes beyond the fact that students are transitory and many are registered still at their parents’ housing.  This goes beyond the fact that many do not live in the city proper because they live on campus or they live outside of town.

Add all that up and perhaps half or more of the student population is functionally ineligible to vote for something that affects them collectively more than anyone else.

The people with housing have a different sort of self-interest from those who are without housing.  They live in town.  Most own their own homes.  And they vote.

Measure R is not working in part because of this disparity between the housing haves and have-nots.  If we want Measure R to work, then we must figure out how to address this fundamental inequity.

For those who are content to push more and more students on campus – remember there is a byproduct to that as fewer and fewer will have the ability to vote in city elections.  That means that, increasingly, the student base will be disenfranchised from effecting change.

That means those with the most stake in these housing decisions will be left without a voice when it comes time for the city to make the final decision.  Maybe you can justify that – but increasingly, I think it’s problematic.

—David M. Greenwald reporting


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. Matt Williams

    David Greenwald said . . . “Our modest estimate, derived from 2017 survey of students, is that there are roughly 3% of the student population who are housing insecure – that means they are homeless, or living on couches, couch-surfing, sleeping in cars or sleeping in the library.

    Last week however, GSA President Don Gibson suggested that we really do not know the extent of the problem and that statewide the figure is about 12%.  In fact, Mr. Gibson told the Planning Commission, we do not have good data at all on housing insecurity and that the university, following the lead of the GSA and others is finally going about to collect data.”

    Yesterday Don Shor posted a link to the UCOP report: Global Food Initiative: Food and Housing Security at the University of California that contains the student survey information. (see  I have posted the Homelessness information from that report below.  It makes for interesting reading.

    The Survey also is a cautionary tale for the expression “Be careful what you ask for.”  If I were to be included in the survey results based on my four years at Cornell, using their criteria I would have been classified as homeless three out of those four years.   My personal financial circumstances were anything but homeless, but nonetheless I would have been reported by the survey as homeless . . . multiple times.

    The criteria I qualified under is as follows “International students (eight percent) had a high prevalence of homelessness, largely due to housing policy during holidays and university breaks.”  I chose to stay in Ithaca over both Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks.  The dormitory/group housing that I rented from the University was closed.  I had no problem finding alternative housing. But for the survey, I checked the box … thereby overstating the level of homelessness.

    I applaud the University for digging into the problems of Housing Insecurity and Food Insecurity.  I encourage them to step up their efforts and approach the problem with more than a single question.  Right now, after reading the UCOP report, I have more questions than I had before I read the report.

    1. Richard McCann


      You apparently don’t have much contact with UCD students at this point in your life. I frequently hear about difficulties in finding housing and a prevalence of “couch surfing.” We know that there is a housing CRISIS for renters in this community NOW. Why are you trying so hard to dismiss this situation? I think you’ve lost the higher vision of what is happening and where we need to go by getting lost in the weeds of finances and surveys. Only if you can clearly demonstrate that (1) a higher density development will be better financially to the developer, (2) the electorate will approve an even bigger project, and (3) UCD will provide access through its campus for such a project–all guaranteed–can we pass on this opportunity to address hour current housing CRISIS.

  2. Howard P

    General comment about the election, not just in regards to Nishi…

    Polls open 5 days from today, less40 minutes or so.  About 10-15 % (probably on the low side) of the Davis voters have already done so (before my composing this)… half of those have already mailed them in, the other half willl drop them off Tuesday.  In my experience, only about 1% of VBM folk change their minds, surrender their ballots and vote anew.

    Many others, both VBM and those who will vote at the polls, have already decided how they will vote, and the VBM’s probably ‘cast their votes’ by Sunday.  In our household, 67% have voted, with half of those mailed Tuesday.  I expect the last 33% will vote by Sunday… and the 67% who didn’t mail them, will drop those voted ballots off early Tuesday.

    Newspapers typically have cut off letters to the editor, etc., at least 4 days before the polls open.  That is to cut the temptation for one side of partisans to take a late hit on the other, with no chance for the other side to correct BS said, and/or to respond.

    We’ll see how the DV handles this…

    Folk… admit it… our minds are made up… and we reflect/influence a very tiny few of the Davis electorate.  “Bread crumbs” at this point.

    Do/vote as y’all will, but vote, or give up your complaining ‘rights’ on the results… if you vote, your b****ing rights remain intact…


    1. Tia Will


      Unless you count those who do not like to follow politics at all, but do exercise their right to vote. I have acquaintances who are still asking me who to vote for. Numbers are not high, but also not non existent.

      I believe that those who follow politics tend to make a conceptual error. We over estimate the number of people who see the world as we do, and underestimate the number of people who are focused on other aspects of life. We have no way of knowing how many people fit into this category for the simple reason that they do not announce themselves publicly.

      1. Howard P

        I follow voting… I’ve got experience seeing the % of registered voters who are VBM and not… and %’s of VBM who cast ballots.  %’ ages of non-VBM’s who vote (btw, %’ages always seem low in part by those who have moved out of the area, but who are still “on the books”).

        I don’t assume anything other that past performance is a good indicator of future results, when it comes to voting.

        I change not one scintilla of what I posted.

  3. Tia Will


    The people who vote primarily are those who already own their homes, while the majority of residents of Davis are transitory renters, many of whom are not registered to vote here”

    I want to stress that I am an advocate for Nishi and for adequate student housing. However, I feel that you are weakening your own argument by conflating two distinct groups and by seemingly pitting homeowners against seemingly “victimized” students.

    First, it is a student’s own choice to register to vote here if they reside here. There is nothing to stop a student from changing the location of their registration when they choose to live in Davis. True they will be voting not for their immediate need, but to improve the future for others. It is their responsibility to be willing to act for the benefit of future students. These students should not be lumped in with those who are ineligible to vote here because of residence. Typically, students do not vote in high numbers and that is on no one but the individual student who chooses not to vote. I have been tabling and offering to register students. It is amazing how many show a total lack of interest even though they live here.

    With regard to pitting students against homeowners, I do not believe that narrative. The assumption is that students ( given the ability to vote would always support more housing) and that homeowners would always vote it down. This is not accurate. Many homeowners I speak with want to support student housing in the community, but simply do not believe that developers are bringing worthy projects. Since the trade off pros and cons are always subjective, there is no objective way of determining which project is worthy and which is not. This is not a “good guys” vs “bad guys” situation although I know it is easier to conceptualize that way.


    1. Howard P

      It is their responsibility to be willing to act for the benefit of future students. 

      Disagree… that’s like saying it is a Democrat’s responsibility to vote for Democrats (feel free to flip that to the other side)… I reject ‘tribalism’ as valid…

      support student housing in the community, but simply do not believe that developers are bringing worthy projects.

      A bit of pomposity for those who believe they should decide “worthiness”.

      During my 5 years as a student in Davis, never voted locally… figured I’d be moving on… didn’t want to dictate to others what I’d not be experiencing… more interested in my home town… since 1972 have voted in every election, but one… was hospitalized… ironic, that it turned out that I’ve spent over 2/3 of my life in Davis… had I, and others like me, voted in the ’70’s, likely Richards OH would be 4 lanes… a long time ago…

      1. Tia Will


        Disagree on both counts.

        Students are not equivalent to Democrats as we saw when the Milo event occurred. There is no uniform tribalism amongst the students but rather a wide range of opinions including indifference. That was part of my point. If students feel housing is important, it is on them entirely whether or not to vote acknowledging that it will not benefit them directly.

        There is no pomposity at all in voting for  one’s own values. Isn’t that what all of us use as our criteria for voting?  You made a choice to vote elsewhere. Others may choose differently, either because they hope to live here, or because they have empathy for those who will. The only pompousness is the feeling that our personal decisions are more virtuous than those of someone who chooses differently.

        1. Jeff M

          There is no uniform tribalism amongst the students but rather a wide range of opinions including indifference.

          LOL.  Did you write that with sarcasm intended?


    2. Richard McCann

      “First, it is a student’s own choice to register to vote here if they reside here. There is nothing to stop a student from changing the location of their registration when they choose to live in Davis. ”

      The primary constituency affected by this decision are students who are ineligible to vote, i.e., those in on-campus housing or commuting. This is a very sizable group. Those who already rent in Davis and eligible to vote are already housed in some sufficient manner, and as Howard P points out, are probably less concerned about future housing decisions.

    3. David Greenwald

      I’m not weakening anything by properly analyzing the situation, Tia.  The point I’m making is that students who live here, will not directly benefit from nishi, because most would be gone by the time it opens.  Their lack of ties to the community and direct stake perpetuate the problem.

      1. Tia Will


        And I will not benefit from the Lincoln 40. As a matter of fact I will probably dislike its presence. However, that does not mean that I cannot appreciate the need for and support such a project. I believe that there are students who will vote for the welfare of other students.

        1. Matt Williams

          I agree Tia, and it is worth noting that Lincoln 40 was designed with 5-stories of housing, in part so that it could make as significant as possible contribution to the 10,000 plus bed shortage we have in student housing in our community.

          Nishi, in the other hand, has been designed with a maximum height of 3-stories.

        2. Howard P

          Clarification as to,

           there are some students that will vote in this election, but it will be a low percentage.

          Low %-age of total electorate, or low %-age of eligible students?

          How to document/verify?  Easy to say, hard to verify… in the precinct I’m working, 55.1% of eligible voters are VBM… you make an assertion that I doubt you can “back up”, and for the same reasons why I cannot “back up” any disputation… hearsay… conjecture, ‘implicit bias’?


  4. Jim Hoch

    I used to live in Key West. 30,000 permanent residents while on any given night “in season” there would be 70,000 people. Of the 30K residents only 7-8K would vote in an election so maybe 10% of the people would be responsible for decisions that affected 70K people.

    Davis has “educational tourists” and so our situation is not unusual.

    BTW “housing insecure” is a nebulous term invented by sociology departments in their continuing, though fruitless, quest for relevance and respect. It has no agreed on definition. it can even be used to mean housing that has a lack of “expression of cultural identity” so if a place does not have a beer pong table in front the residents can be classified as “housing insecure”

    1. Ken A

      Everyone is a little “housing insecure” since a Santa Rosa style fire could take out any Davis neighborhood on a hot windy night.

      The greeks on campus are “really” “housing insecure” since all it takes is a fake Rolling Stone story, one video of fraternity guys playing beer pong with high school girls or a video of sorority girls hazing their pledges by circling their fat with Sharpies  to have the house emptied out, the letters removed the the place locked down by the end of the week…

      1. Alan Miller

        The greeks on campus are “really” “housing insecure” since all it takes is . . . 

        Whaaaat?  Hardly relevant . . . Did your college frat get de-chartered for some low-character, alcohol-fueled antics?

  5. Jeff M

    Take a step back and look at the bigger picture.  Average area rent of say $850 per month for a young person to have their own bedroom.   That is $10,200 per year.  Let’s assume they make $12 per hour as a starting wage and work full time.  Their annual gross compensation will be $24,960.  Include their payroll taxes and income taxes and their rent now takes more than 50% of their income.

    So the local NIMBYs connect with the left social justice orthodoxy to support raising the minimum wage.  However, local business is also feeling the pinch of hyper-inflationary property costs.  Increasing their labor costs is rubbing salt into those expense wounds and thus fewer businesses pencil out… or they automate labor… and the net result is fewer jobs and fewer hours for those that manage to find a job.  And this flows to the same young people reeling with high housing costs.

    Today almost everything that a young person needs in their launch to adulthood of economic self-sufficiency is affordable except for housing costs.  Education costs are another issue, but housing costs are generally the primary component of higher-learning expenses.

    Measure R and the local rabid NIMBY and no-growth contingent are really putting the screws to local young people.  But the problem with young people is that they are busy dealing with the flood of hormones that nature or God or both filled them with so that they would procreate and ensure the survival of the species.  They don’t really spend much of their time contemplating the long term financial damage done seeing so much of their income go to landlords because it would cut into their partying and hooking-up time.   It has always been that way, and it has always been the responsibility of the adults around them to do the right things, make the right decisions, and sacrifice in their own selfish wants so that the kids would have a better life once they advance from the fog of being young people.

    We adults are blowing it.  And yet we keep defending our selfish behavior as if we are entitled and the kids… well they are just so unlucky that they were born too late to gorge on real estate.

    1. David Greenwald

      How not to win friends and influence people. There are good points in here but Jeff is more likely to push away potential allies with his rhetoric and tone

  6. Todd Edelman

    So… right now we have campus residents not able to vote for whom they might support, and city residents who attend UCD  now and may vote for people with whom they will have no relationship, as they will move out of town.

    Is there a possibility for the City to annex the UCD campus so that its residents can vote in the City, but then also give some kind of special autonomy to UCD in multiple areas?

    We can add fun features to it as well, such as requiring UCD to allow those admitted but not yet living on campus to vote in UCD elections, starting their cycling program from the moment a student accepted for admission decides to attend school here. If Jump Bikes allowed under-18’s to join, those from certain cities would be more familiar with these electric-assist bikes before they arrive.

    By the way there are various places that allow 16 year-olds to vote, so why would they register in the County they live in rather than the City their parents (and younger family members) live in? At the very least voter registration materials can be included in admissions materials – perhaps the County can establish some kind of intent-to-register program so that the elections board can at least have the email address of near-future potential voters (even in the current County scenario).


    1. David Greenwald

      It’s possibly to annex West Village and other housing on campus.  It was discussed a decade ago when West Village was being proposed.

        1. Todd Edelman

          I argue why it’s a good idea. You don’t argue why it’s a bad idea.

          It would make sense to only annex any residences, and then delegate more or less everything that’s not county to full UC Davis control, with the exception of voting and taxation.

          See also:

          El Macero
          Binnen Tract
          Foreign embassies and consulates
          Air Force One

        2. Alan Miller


          El Macero

          Binnen Tract

          Foreign embassies and consulates

          Air Force One




          A friend lives in Balkanization.  They don’t have their own trash pickup; real pain in the arse.

    2. Howard P

      16 year olds cannot vote in CA… they may ‘pre-register’ but they cannot vote.

      UCD residents can vote in Yolo county election matters… not City measures/candidates.

      UCD is not served by City utilities.

      If you understood anything about maintenance, taxation, etc. ,… well you appear not to… educate yourself… not in my job description…

      1. Ken A

        Didn’t we give back the tank?

        P.S. Any student living on campus that wants to vote in city elections can just register to vote using a friend’s address in the city (but not that many students want to vote at all)…

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