UC Davis to close affordable housing complex

A half-century-old complex that provides affordable housing for UC Davis families is slated to close this summer as the university continues its push to modernize campus housing.

The collection of two-bedroom Orchard Park units on the northwest end of campus has long been home to graduate students and their families. At just over $900 a month, the 200 apartments remain affordable in a city where anti-growth policies and rising student enrollment have pushed rental rates ever higher.

Residents say Orchard Park has been an invaluable resource to graduate students – especially those with children – who otherwise might not be able to attend the University of California, Davis.

But university administrators contend the buildings have outlived their usefulness. They say a complete redevelopment would be more financially sustainable than renovations and cited increasing maintenance costs, although they have not conducted a conclusive study. Campus housing officials did not respond to requests for information on the complex.

The apartments today are nearly empty since most students have vacated in anticipation of the closure. Some have been offered spots at Solano Park, a sister property on the opposite side of campus. Other residents have moved off campus altogether, some seeking shelter in lower-rent areas like Woodland and Sacramento.

A proposal to demolish Orchard Park and replace it with new apartments has drawn fire from some residents, who cite the increased rent as unmanageable. The backlash has forced the school to rethink its plans, but residents are still being told to leave by July 31.

“A lot of people are confused,” said resident Caroline McKusick, 24, a doctoral student in anthropology. “It’s not like on July 31 these roofs are going to collapse on our heads.”

Jeffery Gibeling, dean of graduate studies, is organizing a committee of students and faculty members to make recommendations on the future of graduate student housing. The affordability of family housing on campus, he said, has become a “graduate student welfare issue.”

“If we want to attract the very best graduate students, we need to provide them with financial support,” said Gibeling, who is also a professor in chemical engineering and materials science. “All the planning we did before has stopped. We’re starting with a fresh approach.”

He added that all options are on the table, including renovations and redevelopment.

Orchard Park and Solano Park are UC Davis’ only university-operated housing complexes other than the freshman dorms. The demolition of Solano Park may not be far off either, with campus, city and county officials looking to redevelop the area into a neighborhood called the Downtown University Gateway District.

English doctoral student Tom Johnson, 31, is watching the process with a wary eye. The Solano Park resident and father of three children said he chose to attend UC Davis because of the low cost of campus housing.

“I can’t afford to live in the city of Davis,” said Johnson, who like many other graduate students on this campus opposes the redevelopment plans for the parks properties. “We’ve already looked into the cheapest options.”

The previous $80 million redevelopment plan for Orchard Park envisioned a mix of 431 units for graduate students, families, other students and campus staff. Under the proposal, which officials began exploring in 2009, rent would range from $876 for a one-bedroom unit to $2,165 for a three-bedroom unit depending on the type of housing, according to the university.

The hope was to take some of the profits from the market rate housing to subsidize the rent for graduate students, said Robert Segar, assistant vice chancellor of campus planning. The developer would have paid UC Davis $550,000 annually for the ground lease privilege.

Rent was slated to rise to $1,026 for a two-bedroom graduate student unit when the complex opens in 2016, while a market rate unit would be leased for $1,665.

To voice their dissatisfaction, residents and community members launched a sit-in at the Student Housing office last month. They also have sent letters to UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi, and an online petition has garnered 780 signatures so far.

During a meeting Thursday night in Orchard Park’s dimly lit community room, residents vowed to continue the fight. They still hope the university will consider extending their lease until January in the wake of the latest decision to halt construction.

“It’s an insult to all those who have made it through school with these apartments,” McKusick said of the university’s plans.