Lost in the shuffle of the new Aggie Research Campus as well as the Paul’s Place homeless discussion are numbers out of the university that remind us why building more student housing was the priority – and also that, while both the university and city have approved the creation of new beds, neither will have new beds coming online any time soon.
As the press release put it: “Today the UC Davis Student Housing Affordability and Insecurity Report for 2017-18 quantified the anecdotes about student overcrowding and housing insecurity in Davis.”
The report (available here) estimates that roughly 15 percent of students – 5000 individuals – “experienced some form of housing insecurity, such as not being able to pay rent, moving two or more times a year, or doubling up in a bedroom without a lease agreement.”
Moreover, an estimated 7 percent – another 2400 individuals – “reported some form of temporary or sustained homelessness such as being thrown out, being evicted, or having couch surfed.”
Furthermore, about 700 students reported sleeping in a car, “or some other place not designed as shelter.”
They found, “This problem is more pronounced in later undergraduate cohorts, with nearly 25% of UC Davis seniors reporting either housing insecurity or some form of homelessness.”
There are those that will argue that these numbers are inflated, that this is not real housing insecurity, that this is not real homelessness.
This is largely a story about cost and scarcity.
One impact of the prolonged housing shortage and low vacancy rate – undergraduates live 1.62 per bedroom. That means the typical three-bedroom apartment houses five students on average.
The findings include that “overcrowded apartments strongly outweigh the number of overcrowded single-family houses (a 3-to-1 ratio or greater).”
Over the last few years, we had heard a number of horror stories including at last year’s student housing forum. We have heard about students living in cars, students living in homes with substandard electricity, a student forced to sleep on a couch in a living room with a blanket put up as a partition for a semblance of privacy.
“An emergency situation forced me to leave my Davis apartment unexpectedly, and the lack of available housing left me unable to find a room to move into,” explained Nichole Holm, UC Davis doctoral candidate in Integrative Genetics and Genomics. “I spent two months staying at friends’ homes and sleeping on floors of spare rooms as I applied to over 100 rentals. When I was days away from living in my car, I finally secured a room, far above my graduate student budget.”
Among the common housing problems are housing expenses with over 45 percent of survey respondents citing that as a chief problem. Overcrowding is another problem. For those living outside of Davis and those living off-campus, distance is cited as a problem that is much more frequent than housing expenses.
There are also frequent problems with pests, management issues, maintenance, and leasing terms.
We have largely treated the housing problems as a matter of supply. The city of Davis has through a rental ordinance attempted to crack down on negligent landlords, but, for the most part, the belief has been that students and renters, in general, are vulnerable when the vacancy rate precludes the possibility of terminating a lease due to substandard conditions.
Moreover, the vacancy rate is directly related to overcrowding problems, but the increase in the number of students per bedroom is indicative of the fact that the consistently low vacancy rate is not telling the full story in terms of the rental market.
Basically, as student populations have increased and supply has not correspondingly increased, more students are living in the same facilities – they are simply packing in more tightly both because of affordability concerns as well as supply shortfalls.
As the report notes: “Crowding—or undesirable levels of occupant density—is a concern with respect to communicable disease transmission, negative effects on mental health, differential health outcomes for women and children, greater risk of homelessness, and personal privacy and development.”
The campus and city have attempted to address these issues through increased supply. While the city has approved over 4000 beds and the university ultimately will add over 9000 beds, none of them will come online for 2019-20. That means conditions could actually worsen.
In the city, Sterling is moving toward completion and could open for 2020. Lincoln40 cleared legal hurdles and could commence. Davis Live Housing has been approved. However, the 2200-bed Nishi project is still caught up in litigation.
Meanwhile, the university planning is moving forward. The West Village expansion and other plans for housing in the first wave are expected to add about 3300 beds – 1000 to be ready for fall 2020, with the rest available in 2021.
By 2021, then, it is conceivable that around 5000 beds in the city and on campus come online. That won’t solve the problem, but it will lessen it.
In addition to issues of overcrowding and supply, there is the problem of affordability. There has been a disconnect between housing policy and affordability.
Many have pushed for more housing on campus, which on some level makes sense. But, as we have noted, UC Davis is very expensive to live on campus.
The survey found “continuing undergraduates living off campus in Davis experience the lowest cost of housing among all students.” The survey found that the discrepancy between on and off campus to be around $246 for two-bedroom apartments to be “large” and perhaps indicative “that students are crowding—perhaps overcrowding—into units in order to reduce costs.”
When we asked Matt Dulcich from the university how the university would address on-campus affordability, he did not express a lot of optimism and does not believe that the ability exists for the university to be able to subsidize on-campus housing.
Given that two-thirds of new beds are on campus, affordability could well remain a concern.
The bottom line is that, to the extent that housing insecurity is a function of supply, the city and university have taken steps to alleviate it. To the extent that it is a function of cost, we should be more concerned that the current steps have not really addressed the core problems.
—David M. Greenwald reporting