When the student housing crisis started to gain focus late in 2015 as UC Davis was launching into their LRDP process, I looked at the numbers—UC Davis had only 29 percent on-campus housing, second-lowest figure in the system and well below many of the other campuses.
The university providing 100 percent of new enrollments with housing on campus and 50 percent overall made sense to me. I parted ways with some who wanted UC Davis to build all of the new housing and thought it made sense for the city provide some of it—and thus was supportive of Sterling, Lincoln40, Davis Live, and, of course Nishi.
But as we started to look deeper there were flags. We looked at the cost of housing on campus versus off campus and there was a huge gap at UC Davis—more than most of the UCs, but pretty much anywhere University of California campuses were struggling to build market rate or below market rate housing on campus for their students.
Matt Dulcich, speaking at several different forums for the Vanguard and representing the university, could not commit to providing substantially lower cost housing for students.
What is now becoming clear is that, while the answer of more housing on campus made political sense and perhaps from the standpoint of equity, it might not make practical sense from the perspective of the students.
As we discussed last week with some of the leaders from ASUCD on our podcast, UC has not figured out how to provide affordable housing (small “a” for the most part) for its students.
Adam Hatefi explained, “UC is having trouble providing affordable housing—yes, but it’s not just the UC, it’s the entire state. It’s not just students, although students are affected by the issue but affordable housing across the state of California is a huge problem.
“The supply of housing in the state of California is dramatically lower than what it should be,” he said.
UC is not the only party here for sure, and we have covered a lot of the housing crisis and will continue to do so. But we were told that the solution to the student housing crisis was that UC Davis needed to step up to provide more housing—and they are.
If you think about it, UC Davis owns the land. UC Davis can build on that land. They should be able to figure out ways to reduce costs or subsidize those costs.
“But they don’t,” Adam Hatefi pointed out. UC Davis this year, for the first time, didn’t even “guarantee housing for freshmen because we physically don’t have enough housing on campus.”
But as we know, that problem at least will be temporary. UC Davis is building housing. You can see it off Russell with the work progressing on West Village. We saw a presentation of it a few weeks ago at the State of the City address.
“The university doesn’t have enough housing,” Mr. Hatefi continued. “One reason for that seems to be the reluctance to build taller, denser housing developments.”
In Cuarto, they are rebuilding buildings, but “they went from three floors to four floors.” He asked, “What is the point of that?”
Why not six or seven stories, he asks? It’s a good question. Davis Live is about to go to seven. University Mall is proposing seven. Why can’t UC Davis do it?
As I point out, they have plenty of space as well on the ground. It’s not like they can’t extend West Village to the north or the west more to build additional housing.
“They could absolutely build taller, they could absolutely build wider,” Adam Hatefi says. “They’re not.”
But then we get to the core of the problem, in that “it costs the university more money than other entities and I still don’t know why that is the case.”
ASUCD President Justin Hurst gets to the crux of the problem. The key issue is not just supply —which again by and large is coming—but affordability.
“Affordability in university terms is below market rate,” he said. And the problem: “Market rate is higher than most people can afford.”
The question of what affordability is, is very important to this discussion.
“The definitions we offer for how we define affordable always fall short of what are required to meet both the needs of the tenant and the needs of the people who own these properties,” he said. He pointed out that while the developers often make a lot of money, they have lots of costs and needs going into the project “and if they can’t make a certain level of revenue within the first couple of years then they can’t keep owning those properties.”
This is a frustrating issue. Over the course of the student housing discussions, I tried to raise the point that providing housing on campus is not more affordable for students—it’s actually much more expensive. They not only can rent for less money off campus, they can also save by skimping on food, not having a car, and more and more rental places are covering the other basic costs—cable, internet, water, even electricity.
There seems to be little reason why the university can’t do this stuff for cheaper—they don’t have land costs and, more importantly, they don’t need to make a profit off the housing. They only need to be able to pay their bills.
And yet, without those considerations, they cannot get this thing to be at or below market rate.
Adam Hatefi points out: “For one bed in a three-bed dorm room, it is more expensive right now than doubling up in a room in an apartment in the city of Davis. That makes no sense.”
There is a consequence here. One of the reasons we saw the Graduate Student Strike at UC Santa Cruz where they are begging the university for COLA is to cover the cost of housing.
The UC Santa Cruz this week on Friday “issued termination letters on Friday to 54 graduate students who have been waging a months-long strike for a cost-of-living-adjustment amid soaring rents.”
This is a student housing issue at the core of this strike. And this is an issue that the students we talked to said could very well come to UC Davis as well.
As Adam Hatefi put it: “There is no clear solution for how to resolve the situation. Nobody really knows how to make sure that these graduate students have the ability and are being paid enough to live and be able to actually afford housing and to live in these areas.”
So we may have addressed the supply problem, both with housing on-campus and off, but that might be just the tip of the iceberg.
—David M. Greenwald reporting