Education

Pay more or move – tough choice faces UC Davis students in tight rental market

A bicyclist rides past the site where the city of Davis, UC Davis, and private developers have proposed the Nishi Gateway project next to the university. Davis voters rejected the ambitious 46-acre “innovation district” last year.
A bicyclist rides past the site where the city of Davis, UC Davis, and private developers have proposed the Nishi Gateway project next to the university. Davis voters rejected the ambitious 46-acre “innovation district” last year. Sacramento Bee file

A mega apartment project with a towering six-story parking garage is facing criticism from Davis neighbors, even as the city struggles to house the growing number of UC Davis students amid skyrocketing rents.

Plans for the Sterling Fifth Street complex call for multiple five-story buildings with a separate garage that could accommodate 525 cars. With 244 units, the complex could accommodate more than 1,000 students and easily be one of the largest apartment communities in the college town.

The five-acre site, near the Davis Police Department, was a longtime children’s home operated by EMQ FamiliesFirst. The facility was shuttered by the state a few years ago after child abuse allegations came to light.

If you put that many people in proximity to each other, you’re just asking for trouble. There needs to be some shared responsibility for new housing. We think the university ought to do more.

Jerry Hallee, 76, a resident of the Rancho Yolo mobile home park and a retired assistant executive vice chancellor at UC Davis

The Sterling project offers a glimpse into the polarizing debate in the community about new growth that has effectively stalled since Davis voters rejected the ambitious 46-acre Nishi Gateway project last year. City regulations generally prohibit developing the surrounding farmland, so new units would likely come from infill projects.

The debate has pitted the university against some local residents, who believe UC Davis should bear sole responsibility for constructing housing to keep up with its enrollment goals. The school plans to add about 6,000 students over the next decade, up from 35,000 today.

Jerry Hallee, 76, a resident of the Rancho Yolo senior mobile home park, is spearheading opposition to the Sterling project, citing concerns about traffic, congestion and noise.

“If you put that many people in proximity to each other, you’re just asking for trouble,” said Hallee, a retired assistant executive vice chancellor at UC Davis. “There needs to be some shared responsibility for new housing. We think the university ought to do more.”

The Fifth Street site is still owned by EMQ FamiliesFirst, which last year changed its name to Uplift Family Services.

In a written statement, a spokeswoman for the organization said it was “working diligently” to resolve the concerns of neighbors. The Davis City Council is expected to vote on the Sterling project in the spring.

Davis’ rental market historically had low vacancy rates, owing to the tremendous demand from students in the college town. But new units have not kept pace with rising enrollment, causing rents to spike. Some students have resorted to doubling up or even occupying living rooms to reduce the financial burden. Others have fled to the nearby cities of Dixon, Woodland and West Sacramento to escape the high prices.

“When you look around, everything is full. It was a big surprise,” said Rafic Hamade, a UC Davis sophomore originally from Clark County, Nev.

Hamade and a roommate pay nearly $1,900 for a two-bedroom apartment. By comparison, in 2009 the average for a two-bedroom unit in the city was $1,226, according to a university report. Figures for 2016 are not yet available.

Hamade said he is unlikely to move out, even if prices go up. Like most of his peers, he finds the convenience of biking or taking a quick bus ride to class a big factor in choosing to stay in Davis.

“The lack of inventory puts a lot of power into the landlords’ hand. There is no competition. There’s no where else to go,” said Doug Ressler, research manager at Yardi Matrix, the real estate research arm of software company Yardi Systems.

Davis has about a 1 percent vacancy rate, which is significantly lower than the 5 percent needed for a healthy marketplace, Ressler added. Yardi Matrix is forecasting a rent increase of 5.5 percent for the city in 2017, which is higher than the national average of 3.9 percent.

The tight supply of apartments is also affecting the city’s single-family housing stock, with landlords buying homes to rent them out to students. Neighbors have complained about excessive trash, noise and congestion from the added traffic.

“Down the street, there is a student house. They must have six people in there,” said Mike Phillips, a longtime resident. “In most neighborhoods, parking is a freebie. Now, there are cars everywhere.”

Mayor Robb Davis noted that people were being pushed out and now having to commute in, which is contrary to the city’s environmental values.

“You begin to get speculative purchases of property that are turned into mini-dorms,” he said. “That’s not the intent of single-family housing stock.”

The Davis City Council sent a letter to UC Davis last month asking the university to add more housing to its Long Range Development Plan, which will be updated in the coming months.

UC Davis has tried to cushion the rent hikes by renegotiating an agreement with the privately run West Village on-campus apartments to allow students to double up in 624 rooms effective this school year. There is no word on how many took up the offer in a community where one-bedroom apartments go for $2,000.

“If students felt compelled to save a little money, they could share a room,” said campus planner Lucas Griffith. “We count that as net-new student housing, although it was a lease negotiation.”

Richard Chang: 916-321-1018, @RichardYChang

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