By David M. Greenwald
Davis, CA – Last week Senator Scott Wiener introduced SB 886 to make it easier to build housing for students and faculty. In the wake of a court ruling that could force UC Berkeley to cut back on student enrollment, the timing is impeccable, though actually the legislation was not in response to the Berkeley situation.
Michelle Andrews is the Legislative Director of ASUCD at UC Davis. She told the Vanguard on Tuesday that she and students at UC Santa Cruz started working on SB 886 a couple of months ago and they connected with California YIMBY to do something on CEQA and student housing.
“The timing kind of worked out perfectly with the Berkeley lawsuit,” she said, noting that the efforts were actually underway well before the decision. “We definitely were not expecting that.”
She explained, “We had had the press conference scheduled for the 22nd (of February) for awhile and then the week before we didn’t even realize that the decision would be coming out the week before.”
They did scramble after the lawsuit to bring some Berkeley people to speak at the press conference.
According to Andrews, who is also President of the UC Davis College Democrats, “In a nutshell, it’s going to make housing, a lot more accessible for students and faculty at all colleges in California.”
This is an effort to start addressing the large student housing crisis hitting not just Davis, but at all the colleges in California.
Andrews expressed concern about the homelessness rates among students.
“The UC homelessness rate is 5 percent,” she said. But it goes up to 10 percent for CSU and for “community colleges (it) is almost 20 percent, which is completely unacceptable.
“We know that more housing needs to be built,” she said. “But we also know that NIMBYs work really hard to get it blocked whenever it’s in their towns. So we wanted to kind of minimize the impact that NIMBYs are able to have on the construction of student housing by making this bill focused just on campus, so they can’t say hey, it’s not the city’s responsibility to build housing.”
Andrews added, “Housing is needed right now, not just in a few years. We know that the CEQA process holds it up for months if not years.” So, she said, “because we need housing right now, we want to get rid of that roadblock. And that’s what this bill does.”
In recent years, UC Davis has opened student housing at West Village, while Davis has opened Ryder and Sterling.
But Andrews said, “We are definitely still feeling the crunch.”
She noted, “A lot of the issues with private developments like Ryder and Sterling are that they are completely unaffordable for a lot of students.” Moreover, she said, “most students prefer to live on campus. Not only is it more convenient, you can walk to classes and get food on campus and all of that, but a lot of the times financial aid can help with housing costs on campus.”
She said “and a lot of people live on campus, so it’s a big appeal to stay on campus.”
She said, “So the outside developments are helping, but also nothing has changed in the sense of people are still having to sign leases in January to move in, in September. People are still paying insanely high rents. I believe the average rent in Davis went up in the last year and they’re having to battle with dozens of other students for the same house, if you want a house.”
The dynamic means that students, who start their college career as freshmen in late September, have to find housing just a few months later.
“You don’t know the people that you’re going to end up living with,” she pointed out. In some cases, they may have only known the person for a month. They end up signing to live with them nine months later, “and then the relationship changes and they’re stuck living with these people because they signed it so far ahead of time.”
Or even worse, “your financial situation changes… but you’re now tied to a lease in September that you can’t really do anything about it.”
Michelle Andrews believes that the problem of student homelessness is actually underreported.
“The 5 percent of UC Students are homeless, that doesn’t necessarily mean the people that you were talking about that are living in their cars or sleeping on their friend’s couches,” she said. “The definition of homeless that the universities use is very narrow. I don’t think we know the whole scope of how bad it is.”
She added that “11 percent live in hotels or transitional housing. That’s on top of the five percent that are homeless. I think a lot of students are ashamed of their situation and so they don’t want to share it. But we do know that housing costs are something that are a huge barrier for students and if they aren’t able to afford their rent, then yeah, they just have to resort to living in their cars without anyone knowing.”
With regard to SB 886, Michelle Andrews pointed out “our goal with this bill isn’t to decrease the environmental quality of student housing.”
She noted that many CEQA lawsuits attempt to frame the issues as revolving around the environment, but she says that’s not the case.
She noted that even with this bill, “campuses will still have to undergo CEQA for their long-range development plans, and so nothing will really change in terms of the environmental footprint of student housing.”