By David M. Greenwald
Davis, CA – Slow growth advocates in the city have for the last five or six years pushed for more housing on the UC Davis campus (which makes sense), but also opposed most student housing projects in the city—including large student-oriented apartments that some have disparagingly referred to as mega-dorms.
Despite strong opposition from some in the community, the council approved large apartment complexes that rented by the bed at a number of locations including Sterling, Lincoln40 and the voter-approved Nishi.
Having approved a number of projects that will largely serve students, the city council has made it clear that they are not inclined to approve more such projects—at least in this cycle.
I will lay out their finding briefly and why I believe the city should not have pushed for this.
Staff at the Planning Commission noted, “RHNA allocation is not within the control of the City. Final RHNA numbers were adopted by SACOG in March 2020. City participated in the RHNA allocation methodology process with SACOG.”
They confirmed that the decision on how to count the by-the-bed rentals toward RHNA (Regional Housing Needs Allocation) “has already been made by HCD.”
And that “HCD has already rejected City’s proposal for additional credit for large-format households.”
This was fleshed out more fully in the staff report, where they noted: “By-the-bed rentals do not meet the federal definition of a housing unit, but they are located in apartment units that do meet the standard, with separate bathroom facilities and a separate entrance from other units.
“The methodology for RHNA credit for these bed rentals acknowledges that each bed is not, and should not be, counted as a separate unit for RHNA purposes, but it establishes an equivalency.”
Staff elaborated that they met with HCD in December and at that time, staff for HCD “confirmed that HCD would not accept any alternative methodology for calculating RHNA credit for larger format (i.e., 4 or 5+ bedroom) apartments.”
Slow growth advocates will hem and holler about this, of course, as they have. Some have suggested that city council was negligent to have approved such housing before knowing if it would count for RHNA.
But it does count for RHNA. Each unit counts toward the city’s fair share allocation requirements. They just don’t get extra credit for having large-format, bed-rental units. Nor would I argue should they.
One of the arguments against these large-format bed-rental, student-oriented apartments is that the city has other needs for housing. So these advocates used these other needs to push back against the format and, in all likelihood used concerns about the format to push back against this kind of development in the first place.
I largely supported the student housing format. We had an acute housing need that became glaring in 2015-16. The campus clearly needs to and needed to add housing, and they have been working to fulfill those obligations. But the city also needed to step up. The city had not build new student housing since 2002.
Building large scale housing near campus is actually a responsible strategy from a land use perspective—it limits the footprint, and puts students in walking and biking distance from campus. Even Sterling, which is a bit further from some of the others, is an easy bike or bus ride to campus.
I always believed that, while student housing wasn’t the only need, it was the key to addressing housing overall in Davis. It alleviates pressure on the rental market, and shifts housing away from the neighborhoods and toward the campus.
But, the rationale for counting it as more than just a single unit is dubious in my view.
Functionally, a four- or five-bedroom, unit rented apartment serves about the same purpose as a bed rental. Simply because there are individual rooms with private bathrooms and a lock for privacy doesn’t change the structure of housing.
Most rental housing in Davis, especially near campus, will be dominated by students anyway.
But more importantly, the push to count large-format rental housing as more than just a single unit, belies the actual push from slow growth advocates—they were opposed to the format in the first place and now want the housing to count more highly.
But every time we do that, we end up reducing the housing elsewhere and thus we fail to meet other housing needs—which were supposedly so important in the first place that we could not build exclusively student housing.
Overall this decision will probably have pretty limited impact. The council seems highly unlikely to approve any more bed-rental apartments that are student oriented in the near future. While I can understand that rationale, I do think, for the sake of condensing our land use footprint and putting housing near campus, that option should remain on the table.
While slow growth advocates look at this as a way to get more housing—which it does—it is also beneficial to preserving other space for infill housing. Because the housing that was approved was dense and efficient, we were able to meet most of the needs for student housing with projects like Davis Live, Sterling, Lincoln40 and Nishi—which then leave open other infill land for other land uses.
So it should not be looked at exclusively as a negative, even from the perspective of the slow growth communities. Many, however, are disappointed because they thought they could possibly count each bed separately rather than part of the unit overall.