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