Sunday Commentary: Has the Issue of Student Housing Finally Been Addressed?

Eileen Samitz delivers her public comments with the Davis contingent looking on

If you look at polling this year, you will see really for the first time in recent memory the top issue is the affordability of housing.  It seems that Davis, long known in the state and region for its slow growth policies, is concerned about housing shortfalls and the resulting rise of the cost of housing.

This doesn’t seem to be an aberration either.  In 2018, for the first time, voters supported not one but two Measure R votes – first at Nishi and then West Davis.  Since the 2000 passage of Measure J, the community had kept a lid on new housing projects, voting down in turn Covell Village, Wildhorse Ranch and Nishi most recently in 2016.  Only the 2016 vote was even close.

From 2015 until probably the last year, it was fair to say that student housing was the biggest local issue, bar none.

It seemed that largely the entire community was engaged on this issue.  However, there was a divide in the resolution.  During the university’s LRDP (Long Range Development Plan) process, it was community and student pressure that compelled the university to move from an initial position where they simply acknowledged they would not be able to accommodate all new student growth with housing – to a position where the university addressed all new growth, and then some, with additional housing.

They didn’t quite get to 100 percent of all new enrollment and 50 percent of total enrollment, but they got close.

Where the political divide occurred on this issue was the extent to which the city should also build new housing.  Some residents felt that the university controlled their own growth, they had huge swaths of land, and the lowest percentage (or second lowest) of all campuses in terms of on-campus housing.

Therefore, they needed to address the issue themselves.

Students, on the other hand, were less particular about where the housing should occur and more mindful that the cost of housing off campus was a good deal lower than on campus.  Starting in 2015, they came to city meetings in large numbers to press the city to approve more housing off-campus – something that the city had not approved since 2002.

The city has since approved over 4000 beds in the city – at Sterling, at Lincoln40, at Nishi and at Davis Live Housing.

Students would come to meetings and speak during public comment and hold signs pushing for additional housing.  And it worked.

One of our concerns had been that, while the university has agreed to build more housing in the past, they have not lived up to their agreements.

Along those lines, last fall, the city, county and university reached an agreement which would require the university to build 6000 beds by the fall of 2023, with the agreement to pay $500 to the city and county for each bed not delivered within six months of that time line.

For the first time, the city and university had an enforceable agreement.  While I was skeptical of such a process, it seems to have actually strengthened the relationship between the two sides.

“I’m appreciative of the agreement reached by the City, County and University,” said City Councilmember Lucas Frerichs at the time. “The delivery of additional student and faculty housing is paramount, and the additional commitments to collaborate on issues which affect us all, including transportation projects and the City’s Renters Resources Program, helps strengthen the relationship between all our institutions.”

Part of that MOU required a yearly townhall with an update – which is what occurred on Thursday.

What was striking about this meeting was the lack of overall attendance – about 40 people.  And the lack of students attending – zero.

Earlier in the week, 500 people came at 3 pm on a Monday afternoon to John Garamendi’s townhall meeting.

On Thursday at 6:30 pm, 40 people came to listen to the Chancellor along with three councilmembers and two county supervisors talking about the UC Davis MOU and student housing.

That was a surprise.

The biggest question perhaps was: where were the students?  The answer perhaps is that the city and UC Davis have largely addressed the issue of student housing – at least for now?

With perhaps 15,000 new beds approved in the city and the university and an MOU in place to enforce that agreement, it is a reasonable question to ask whether the students are now satisfied with the current state of affairs.

There is of course still work to be done.  However, both the city and university have had barriers lifted to building that housing.  UC Davis resolved its lawsuit with AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees).  The city of Davis prevailed on both Lincoln40 and Nishi – although Nishi could still be pending appeal.

The urgency for the students seems to have dissipated, although with no new housing come on line this fall, the situation is hardly better for students.

What was striking was who did show up to speak on the issue of student housing.  The usual suspects.  That would be Eileen Samitz, Colin Walsh and Nancy Price.

They were arguing the same thing they have been arguing since 2015 – more housing on campus.

But while none of those are on the student side of 50, the people not there were those who actually have to live in student housing.

There clearly are issues that matter to students in this community.  Recently, many mobilized around the issue of district elections.  They see that as a way to ensure that housing issues are addressed within the city of Davis.  Many will be mobilized by the Aggie Research Campus and the promise of potential jobs for recent graduates in the growing STEM fields.

But one thing that is clear is that the temperature has gone way down on the student housing issue, and that is a credit to both the university and city, each of whom stepped up to provide housing – and perhaps more impressively buried their past differences to cooperate on it.

—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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29 thoughts on “Sunday Commentary: Has the Issue of Student Housing Finally Been Addressed?”

  1. Alan Miller

    It seemed that largely the entire community was engaged on this issue.

    Not WM’s ‘silent majority’ (a term he hates) — they were raising families and working.  Not yours truly’s ‘students who study, drink beer, and want to get the f*ck out of Davis’ — they were, well . . . . . nope:  only activists, stakeholders and the ‘usual suspects’ were actually engaged, and a few others who momentarily crawled out from under their rocks.  And none of those matter, because they don’t really represent those who don’t participate.  Those who don’t participate have the view of those who claim those who do participate don’t have the view of the majority.  We have to do something about this.

  2. Alan Miller

    There clearly are issues that matter to students in this community.  Recently, many mobilized around the issue of district elections.

    You mean: “The usual student suspects” mobilized.

  3. Alan Miller

    the temperature has gone way down on the student housing issue,

    Not with actual students looking for housing in the current market.  They aren’t looking for solving the housing crisis in 2023, they are looking for a bedroom under $1000 if they are lucky.  And getting the f*ck out of Davis.

  4. Craig Ross

    The Vanguard really buried the lead on this – the lead here is that Colin, Eileen, and Nancy Price are still fighting a fight, no one else cares about, trying to get more housing on campus.

        1. Bill Marshall

          Not speaking for Alan, but yep… affordable housing for students, faculty and staff…

          Moving forward is the key… housing available for occupancy 5 years from now (more demand should be in the planning pipeline now, or very soon…

          In the mid-late 70’s, early ’80’s,  development was approved with eye-droppers… prices for new homes  soared, got reflected in the ‘existing’ market… ’90’s is when the cork popped… Northstar, Wildhorse, Mace Ranch, Oakshade/Rosecreek… with Covell Village on horizon, we got Measure R…

          Both UCD and the City need to realize that there is a ‘pendulum’… easier to deal with when it is near the bottom… rather than when there are wild swings… between Mesure R/J and economics, it has been ‘feast or famine’ for creating MF and SF units… pendulum…

          The solutions to the ‘problem’ is two-pronged… UCD and City… measured, planned, and executed… we are going thru a swing in the pendulum, that should have been anticipated, and dampened, a long time ago.  Crisis management is not ‘sustainable’…

  5. Ron Oertel

    Not one quote from the individuals whom David is referring to, in this article.  Or, the reason for their concern.  Nor did any students show up, even though their interests would correspond with the issues raised.

    Students, on the other hand, were less particular about where the housing should occur and more mindful that the cost of housing off campus was a good deal lower than on campus.  Starting in 2015, they came to city meetings in large numbers to press the city to approve more housing off-campus – something that the city had not approved since 2002.

    At what point did the Nishi developers and Spafford and Lincoln reportedly become involved with student “mobilization” efforts, via the UCD College Democrats (or with individuals, directly)?  And, to what degree (financially, or otherwise) did that occur?

    And, are similar efforts still occurring?

    This appears to explain the reason that some students are more “involved” with development proposals in the city, vs. those on campus.

    1. Ron Oertel

      To clarify, I understand that Nishi campaign fund disclosures (to Davis College Democrats, or others) can be found on disclosure documents, and that some students reportedly worked for Spafford and Lincoln.

      Regarding Spafford and Lincoln:

      “Spafford & Lincoln is a management consulting firm specializing in political campaigns and business development.”

      I recall seeing comments from the Nishi developer on the Davis College Democrats Facebook page.

      However, I have not spent a great deal of time looking into this.

    2. Rik Keller

      Ron O.: I have not seen any evidence of student “mobilization” on Nishi that wasn’t directly tied to developer payments, whether to individuals or groups they were connected with.

      The Nishi campaign donated $ directly to the UCD College Democrats.  It’s right in the campaign disclosures. And then they also gave money to individuals: I correlated a lot of those names with students (usually connected with College Democrats) who were active on social media supporting the project and trying to shout down opponents.

      And then there is the political consulting firm of Spafford & Lincoln, who were the chief strategists for the Nishi campaign, and who had a lot of their UCD/College Democrat student interns working on the campaign. It’s unclear how that money flowed though: they could have been paying a lot more students and it wouldn’t have shown up in the disclosures.

      This is classic “AstroTurf” strategy: buy the support of a small group that purports to speak for a larger group and make it appear that there is grassroots support.

      And let’s not forget that the hotdog budget alone for developer “educational” events held at student apartment complexes was larger than the entire amount of expenditures by campaign opponents.

      It’s too bad that this small group of students were bought at bargain basement prices and sold their fellow students down the river, rather than advocating for a robust affordable housing program. Projected Nishi rental rates are substantially higher than median market rate rents. And the pittance that are in the “affordable” category are actually shared rooms, where the combined rent will usually be far in excess of the market rate rooms.


      1. Bill Marshall

        Let’s see… UCD/College Democrats would tend to me more ‘progressive’, more eco-friendly, right?

        But some seem to think growth/development limits are ‘progressive’… eco-friendly.


      1. Craig Ross

        What are they not wrong on?  The students were active on student housing issues long before there was a Nishi and on issues that had nothing to do with Nishi.  So what are you claim they are not wrong about?

    3. Bill Marshall

      Going to need some tinfoil hats for all the conspiracies being floated by … (pick your pair)… these days [both sides of development issues].  It’s getting more and more ineffective, and potentially tragic. [Gross paraphrase]

      Will not lead to true consensus… the 2nd to third deviations (pun intended) are the loud voices in the room.

      Both sides own some truth… both sides will ‘lie thru their teeth’ [digging up ‘esoteric’ examples] (and/or, ignore facts by others), or malign those who don’t share their views, to push their point.  C’est dommage…

      Alan’s 11:09 post is correct… but they [not Alan](uber anti-growthers) are also, not really speaking the whole truth.  There are ‘reasons’, often plausible in the moment, for all stereotypes… or “profiling”, or, [pick your term]…




  6. Rik Keller

    This article really has a Pollyannaish view of the agreement between the City and UCD in regards to housing.

    The reality is that the City was asleep at the wheel for a decade as UCD dramatically increased enrollment rates while simultaneously not addressing student housing. Then the City negotiated a weak, toothless agreement.

    I find it absolutely stunning that the penalty for UCD not producing housing that is supposedly “committed” to in the agreement is just $500.

    The analogue for a jurisdiction’s affordable housing requirement is to allow a developer to pay an “in lieu” fee in place of building a required affordable unit (that should go into a housing trust fund).It’s very important to set that fee amount high enough  to be able to cover the subsidy cost (or “gap”) for a unit so that you can construct a unit elsewhere.

    As of 2015 the City of Davis in-lieu fee rate was $75,000 (does anyone know what the current rate is?). Let’s say that UCD doesn’t build 1,000 committed units and pays a fee/fine of $500,000. That is equivalent to an in-lieu fee for 6.7 units. It will be FAR cheaper for UCD to just pay a one-time fee than it will be to actually construct the units.

    Beyond the student housing issue, other communities adjacent to UC campuses have been pushing for impact fees associated with enrollment increases. Meanwhile, our City government just gets rolled. And then they participate in a 2x2xx2 to pat each other on the back.


    1. Ron Oertel

      Rik:  “Then the City negotiated a weak, toothless agreement.”

      Let’s not forget that some opposed the pursuit of (even) a weak agreement with UCD.

      Rik:  “Beyond the student housing issue, other communities adjacent to UC campuses have been pushing for impact fees associated with enrollment increases. Meanwhile, our City government just gets rolled.”


      1. David Greenwald

        I was definitely against pursuing a lawsuit at least with the university.  I was pleased that they not only got a reasonable MOU and agreement from the university, but it seemed to strengthen their ties not create animosity.  I don’t agree that it’s weak – if the university reneges, they not only will have to pay (granted a marginal amount) but they will be liable for a breech of contract, which isn’t so insignificant.

        1. Rik Keller

          That’s not how the contract works. It has a fine/fee provision for not producing the housing. If they don’t pay that, if could be a breach. The City did a terrible job negotiating this after years of inaction.

        2. Bill Marshall

          Rik… time will tell… you are postulating, and therefore you final sentence is in question.   Time will tell.

          As are (questionable) your presumptions and conclusions as t bad deal… time will tell… you might be a prophet, or, a fraud… time will tell…

          1. David Greenwald Post author

            I’m no lawyer, but my reading of the MOU is that the agreement to pay out the $500 is a good faith showing by the university, not a waiver by the city.

            Section IV B of the contract: “Nothing herein shall constitute a waiver by the City or County of any claims or rights that may arise from UC’s failure to abide by the requirements of the mitigation measures identified in the LRDP EIR or the terms of this MOU.”

  7. Ron Glick

    Perhaps more important than the penalties in the MOU is the reality on the ground. Drive down Russell and there are several cranes building housing at West Village. Hundreds of cars belonging to the construction workers can be seen.
    What were once research fields have apartment buildings popping up like mushrooms.

    So much for measure R saving farmland.

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