Commentary: It’s Not Just Housing That’s Going to Save DJUSD, It’s Jobs and That Means… Economic Development

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

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.

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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8 Comments

  1. Matt Williams

    Emperor’s New Clothes .,. that is the City’s economic development plan.  The only thing discussed is physical space, but buildings don’t hire people, companies do.  What is the “magnetic charm” of Davis for new companies?  It is UCD.  But it is much less the availability of STEM students, who are job seekers, but rather the transfer of technologies out of the university into the private sector.  Unless those technologies actually transfer, there are no jobs.  And successful technology transfer only happens if the university is an active collaborative partner with the private sector.

    UCD is a schizophrenic partner. The Sacramento campus where the innovations are predominantly focused on human health advanced is full of entrepreneurial vigor and UCD actively supports the transfer of that entrepreneurial vigor to the private sector.  Unfortunately the non-human counterpart on the Davis campus is relegated to second class, even third class status.  Until that changes the quest for added entrepreneurial jobs in Davis will emulate a Cervantes novel.

  2. Ron Oertel

    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.

    Perhaps it’s because folks realize that the purpose of the school district is to serve the city, not the other way-around.  (Is anyone actually disputing that?)

    And perhaps it’s because fewer-and-fewer residents have kids in the school system.  Which goes back to the purpose of the school district, in the first place.

    A letter from Elaine Roberts Musser in the Enterprise, I think, did a good job of assessing the situation.

    Would you say that Ms. Musser is a conservative?  That’s my impression, at least.  Not sure of all of her views, but certainly regarding growth and development.

    The Vanguard long-ago aligned itself with conservatives regarding development – as has the entire YIMBY movement.  Not that this is a “bad” thing in-and-of itself.  Just noting which side of the political spectrum it’s coming from.

    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.”

    This sentence inaccurately “groups” those living in for example (market-rate) housing in Spring Lake, vs. those living in Affordable housing in Davis.  It is an inaccurate assumption, as they’re not necessarily the same group.

    But again, it’s not the job of any community to grow to meet the desires of a declining school district.  (Again, is anyone actually disputing that?)  And in the case of Affordable housing, has it actually been suggested that Davis should pursue more Affordable housing, just to suit the desires of a declining school district?

    Is there also some kind of (rather insulting) implication that those living in Affordable housing have more kids than average, to feed the ever-hungry school district?  And that pursuing Affordable housing is some kind of a “legitimate” goal, as a result of that?

    The fact is that economic development is what creates “housing shortages” in the first place.  That’s why some did not support DISC.

    Ironically, those who supported DISC were (generally) the same type of people who (normally) claim to be concerned about housing shortages. And they (somehow) did so with a straight face.

    What you have here is a small group of people who normally claim that they’re concerned about housing shortages, who are actually pushing for a housing shortage.  And they know it.

    In the case of DISC, it was actually the “slow-growth” people who were advocating against housing shortages.

    For that matter, some of those same people repeatedly point out the “benefit” of rising housing prices, as a result of creating demand for housing.  In other words, the exact opposite of what they normally claim to be concerned about.

    All housing eventually turns over.  The “problem” from the point of view of the school district is that it’s not turning over fast enough.  This would also (ultimately) be true for any new housing, as well.

    What you’re seeing being advocated here is a perpetually-growing city (in terms of economic development, thereby creating more demand for housing), along with a perpetually-increasing size of the city overall – just to meet the desires of a school district that’s hoping to avoid right-sizing.

    That’s no way to run a city, or to contain never-ending sprawl.

     

     

  3. Tim Keller

    I agree with Matt that the city’s economic development policy has lacked definition.   I have heared that the new economic development staff member position is almost filled, or by time of me writing is newly filled, and I have already reached out to City Hall to meet with that person EARLY and try to make sure that we have a strategy with regards to economic development that is aligned with our natural strengths and opportunities.

    As I pointed out in a commentary here some months ago… there is a whole pipeline of activities that the city should be doing and must do, before they even consider another DiSC like project.

    That said, I don’t see the direct connection between schools and economic development as clearly as Elaine does… except to the extend that BOTH require housing, which is certainly correct.

    The startups currently in my incubator are not run by 100% davis residents… there is a diaspora of people displaced from Davis, who commute here from Dixon, Woodland and Sac…   But per the topic at hand, most of these entrepreneurs are indeed younger: either already having kids, or yet to start families.  If they lived here we would have more children in our schools, that is certain.

    1. Ron Oertel

      The startups currently in my incubator are not run by 100% davis residents… there is a diaspora of people displaced from Davis, who commute here from Dixon, Woodland and Sac…

      They aren’t “displaced”.  They’ve pursued options which are cheaper, with more “bang for the buck”.

      Also, do you know where the spouses of your employees work? The reason I ask is because it might not be in Davis.

      But per the topic at hand, most of these entrepreneurs are indeed younger: either already having kids, or yet to start families.  If they lived here we would have more children in our schools, that is certain.

      Many of them already send their kids to Davis schools.  And even so, it’s apparently “not enough” for an ever-hungry school district.

      Perhaps DJUSD needs to expand the size of their poaching grounds, especially as places like Spring Lake get built out.  (Eventually, leading to a decline in students there as well, as existing residents “age-out” of the school system.  It’s already happening on the West side of Woodland.)

      And if a school is built in the so-called “technology park” in Woodland, that will further reduce DJUSD’s ability to poach students.  (I’m referring to the technology park which failed in Davis, before it even reached voters.  And added 1,600 housing units during its “move” to Woodland.  That is, if it’s ever built.)

       

      1. Tim Keller

        A LOT of the spouses of the people here work at the university.   A big fraction actually.   Generally one spouse gets recruited as faculty leaving the other to find a job…  Since many couples meet while still in school, they tend to be similarly trained and educated and in similar fields.   Some of them start companies that are here, others work for companies that are here.

        You are correct in that the couples like that whom I know DO commute to davis with their children already.   But nobody would call that a good situation.

        In general, if a person works in davis, and would LIKE to live in davis given the option, they are “displaced”.   I actually don’t know anyone who works here and lives outside of davis who wouldn’t rather live here, given the option

  4. Ron Glick

     “Unfortunately the non-human counterpart on the Davis campus is relegated to second class, even third class status.  Until that changes the quest for added entrepreneurial jobs in Davis will emulate a Cervantes novel.”
    I have no idea what Matt is trying to say.

     

  5. Ron Oertel

    A LOT of the spouses of the people here work at the university.   A big fraction actually.   Generally one spouse gets recruited as faculty leaving the other to find a job…  Since many couples meet while still in school, they tend to be similarly trained and educated and in similar fields.   Some of them start companies that are here, others work for companies that are here.

    I knew a lot of people who lived in Davis, and worked in Sacramento (or elsewhere).  Jobs (especially those outside of government or at UCD) tend to not be permanent.  Especially in the start-up world.

    But as far as UCD itself is concerned, it’s outside of city limits.  It’s also easier to get to UCD from the southern part of Woodland, than it would be from some place like DISC.  And not all that difficult from places like Dixon, either.

    You are correct in that the couples like that whom I know DO commute to davis with their children already.   But nobody would call that a good situation.

    The school district itself calls that a good situation, which is the reason that they’re poaching students from other communities. (Well, to be honest, the school district calls that a good situation for itself. Much as how they apparently view continuing sprawl as a good situation for itself.

    But ironically, a lot of the parents you’re referring to work at the oversized school district in the first place.  If it was “right-sized”, this wouldn’t occur to the degree it has.

    In general, if a person works in davis, and would LIKE to live in davis given the option, they are “displaced”.

    Using that definition, I’ve been “displaced” from much of the Bay Area.  Including places I’ve never lived in (e.g., Sausalito, Tiburon, Atherton).

    I actually don’t know anyone who works here and lives outside of davis who wouldn’t rather live here, given the option.

    If the prices were the same (for what you get), maybe so.  This is another reason to not add employers such as DISC in a locale with already-high housing prices.  (Though truth be told, Davis prices really aren’t that high, in the broader context.  I believe they’re right around the statewide average.)

    For that matter, prices are not uniform within Davis, itself.  For example, Mace Ranch is cheaper than some other places within Davis.

    Isn’t the city better served when it has higher quality of schools?

    Overall, sure.  But “quality” is not the same thing as “quantity”.  In fact, the parcel taxes would go farther if there were fewer students.

    I

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