By David M. Greenwald
Davis, CA – A key question that I have coming out of last week’s City Council meeting—can the discussion with DJUSD ignite a community-wide discussion on the future of housing and declining enrollment?
What made things perhaps more interesting is the coincidence that this discussion took place the same week that the Planning Commission was basically forced to concede that the University Mall renovation project would lack mixed use housing—something that huge swaths of the community seem to recognize as a huge lost opportunity.
To this point, there doesn’t seem to be a huge response to the discussion of declining enrollment. Perhaps that’s because there is no concrete project or proposal to react to. Perhaps because the discussions were simply at the 30,000 foot view.
This is an issue that I have been pointing to for some time—the housing crisis in Davis has led to a sharp increase in the cost of housing which has in turn led to a decline in the number of local students attending our schools.
A letter from Elaine Roberts Musser in the Enterprise, I think, did a good job of assessing the situation.
She noted that the discussion centered “around the idea of providing affordable housing in town for teachers.”
Musser was rightly skeptical of that solution, noting, “While a laudable goal, it really doesn’t address the main problem — fewer students.”
As she pointed out, “Davis teachers who don’t live here can already enroll their children in Davis schools, so providing them affordable housing won’t increase the number of students attending our town’s schools by much, if at all.”
She then went a direction I hadn’t really thought of—the need for jobs and economic development.
She argued, “The one thing that would result in more students coming to Davis is an incentive for young families with children to move here. That incentive is new well paying jobs, which requires economic development.”
That’s a good point. With the exception of the university, Davis lacks the kind of strong jobs base that would attract young families who are in need of not just affordable (small “a” affordable in this case) homes, but also well-paying jobs.
While the university certainly employs a large number of professionals, decreasing numbers of young faculty are moving here because Davis lacks housing that they can afford—but DJUSD has compensated for that somewhat by allowing UC Davis faculty to place their children in Davis schools even if they don’t live here.
While it is clear (at least to people like me) that Davis needs more of that middle range of housing for families, just as with the case of housing for teachers, to some extent, we already have a solution for UC Davis faculty.
Just as having more teachers in town helps in other facets, having more faculty in town will help the situation, but it may not be a full solution.
But just as with housing, we have run into a problem each time we have tried to bring in more economic development to diversify the local economy.
As Elaine Roberts Musser put it, “there is a powerful anti-growth contingent in town that has stymied both growth outside city limits as well as infill. They want to keep Davis ‘as it has always been, a small town’ with few traffic snarls and quaint feel.”
She explains, “The problem with this myopic view is the graying of our community, so that eventually we become a city of primarily senior citizens. No economic development and the high cost of housing prevents young families with children from moving here. Eventually, as we are seeing, student enrollment begins to decline, with the result that schools have to start closing.”
This is particularly evident in that over the last seven years now, we have seen three economic development projects voted down by the voters. In 2016, the voters narrowly rejected the Nishi project with 300,000 square feet of R&D space. Eventually the 2018 project that was approved was student housing only—which limited the traffic impacts, but eliminated the job producing potential.
Then in 2020, the voters narrowly rejected DISC and two years later overwhelmingly rejected its successor, DiSC 2022.
Davis has a ready supply of young professionals with STEM degrees exiting the university every year. In 2019, Danielle Casey, then of the Greater Sacramento Economic Council (GSEC) told a Vanguard function that UC Davis is ranked 5th best public university in the nation—the No.1 Veterinary Medicine college and Ag Science school in the nation with 1000 research studies underway in basic science, translational and clinical research, and more than 900 active patents.
She argued at that time, “UC Davis’ research specialties in life sciences, agriculture sciences and veterinary sciences mean opportunities for commercialization in Davis but also in the region.”
And yet, Davis has an extremely low retention rate compared to other similar university regions. The talent is there with a huge number of UC Davis students graduating with STEM degrees.
UC Davis has only 23 percent of its graduates living in the Sacramento Region, which compares poorly to a number of other schools across the west.
The lack of commercial space means those young, talented students are leaving the area and, with them, a chance for young people to settle in Davis and have children and families.
Yes, we need housing for young families to be able to move here, but we also need jobs for them to want to stay in Davis and, right now, unless you work for the university, those jobs just don’t exist.
Elaine Roberts Musser concludes: “Citizens need to think long and hard about what they really want, and the ramifications of those decisions. If they want vibrant schools where none close down because of declining student enrollment, if they want infrastructure that is not crumbling, they need to step up to the plate and start supporting economic development. The City Council can’t do it alone.”
We have seen that over the last decade and a half.
Personally, I think that has to start with community conversations because, frankly, too many people are not connecting the dots.