By David M. Greenwald
One of my enduring frustrations in recent years has been the anti-student mentality that emerges during land use disputes. If you live in a college town, and enjoy the benefits of living in that college town, you have to understand that students are part of that town.
I was reading a piece on Substack by Darrell Owens and he made some interesting points.
“The University of California bears partial responsibility from an administrative perspective. The UC has used precious public dollars on adding more administrative positions rather than more faculty for the classes,” he writes.
But Owens also notes that a huge part of the problem falls on the state. He notes, “California’s population growth continued massively these last five decades and people have demanded that UC expand enrollment. Yet California built 23 prisons since the 1960s and only 1 new UC and 3 new California State Universities (CSU).”
Owens also points out “the group who so far is successfully obstructing UC Berkeley’s enrollment is not called ‘Build More Classrooms and Housing.’ They’re called Save Berkeley Neighborhoods because their issue is that student growth is annoying to affluent homeowners who chose to buy their houses right beside a college campus.”
He also points out that the plaintiffs themselves are UC alumni (just as many of the opponents of student housing in Davis have been).
Owens notes: “It’s not just Berkeley either, the hatred for students is in Santa Cruz, Davis, Irvine, and Riverside. It’s very common to hear at City Council meetings students spoken of like they’re not true residents.
“Guess what, students pay sales taxes, they pay rent which pays property taxes, they are registered to vote here and they sleep here so they are residents — whether you like it or not.”
Owens explains, “The homeowner groups are increasingly aware of the apparent perception that they’re just merely just NIMBYs who are selfish. So they obfuscate by noting that the housing shortage (which is decades old at this point) is amplified by an ever growing influx of students without sufficient dorms. But the very same plaintiffs of this lawsuit against UC Berkeley fought against UC Berkeley housing projects and against upzoning for more housing.”
Owens is spot on that this is not limited to Berkeley either, and we certainly see this a lot in places like Davis. In fact, I flashed back to the debate over University Commons. While I believe that overall the impact on the neighborhood will be a lot less than most people feared at the time, I can see legitimate concerns about height and density of the proposed project, even with the council taking clear steps to mitigate some of it.
Still, what concerned me in July 2020 was the depth of the anti-student sentiments expressed by many people. After all, if across the street from the university is not the place for student housing, not sure where it is—even if you want to quibble over size and scale of the project (which again is legitimate).
“If built, University Commons would help decrease traffic in the city, not increase it. Additionally, the University Mall is badly in need of redevelopment, with many of the storefronts empty even before the current recession. A mixed-use development would revitalize the retail portion of the mall, while providing housing where it is needed most,” Mermin wrote.
She continued, “Many residents of Davis from all stripes seemed to recognize this at the City Council meeting. Students, business owners, renters, homeowners, and neighbors all spoke in favor of the project. I was encouraged to see that comments were 2:1 in favor of the project, but saddened by the reasons a few were against it.”
But on the downside, she said: “Virulent anti-student rhetoric was spewed by far too many in what I thought was a welcoming college town. Commenters repeatedly echoed the misguided sentiments of the planning commission—that this project is for the students and not the community.
“I find it extremely offensive to suggest that students are not part of the community. We live, work, vote, and spend our money here. However, that did not stop commenters from saying the project was “too supportive of students,” or that they did not want to be turned into “a giant dormitory.””
Mermin noted, “One commenter even said that ‘we are inundated in this area with student housing, you’re turning our area into a student ghetto.’”
As Mermin points out, “I think that one should expect to live near students if one lives near campus. Yet, this project isn’t even encroaching on a single-family-housing neighborhood—it is literally surrounded on three of the four sides by apartments and dorms, with the other side being a Rite Aid.”
I have made this point a number of times, people want the benefits of living in a college town—small town, affluent, well-educated, high engagement, but then want to shunt the students to the campus and keep them out of mind and out of sight.
And in fairness, it’s not just Davis. I remember when I was a student at Cal Poly, having grown up in San Luis Obispo, and my friends would say it’s amazing how anti-student this community is when we are the ones brining in money and jobs.
Nothing in modern society empowers and lifts people out of poverty and into the middle class more than a college degree. We live in a community with a world class university, most of us, myself included, would not be here were it not for the university—and yet, we either intentionally or unintentionally treat the next generation of leaders as though they were an annoyance.