People (and frogs!) before cows

It was hard not to feel irritated as I opened the homepage of East Meadow Action, a grassroots group recently formed to defeat the development of Student Housing West (SHW), particularly regarding the Family Student Housing project on East Campus. The group has its heart in the right place. They believe that the field at the base of campus is a setting deserving of preservation, and are trying to prevent the building of new student housing to achieve this goal. I’m writing this to counter a number of points brought up on their site about the planning and design of SHW. I feel qualified to discuss this matter because I’ve been serving as a graduate student rep on the planning committee for the project since its early days last summer. From the start, I’ve been dedicating my efforts to keeping the project economical to ensure lower rent and as dense as possible, to prevent campus from sprawling into land needed by wildlife. I’m sorry to say that East Meadow Action’s efforts to defeat construction will harm both students and the environment if they succeed.

Student Housing West is an enormous planned development on the West side of campus designed to house ~2600 undergraduates, 200-220 graduate students, nearly 140 apartments for student families and a childcare facility. Well, it was initially planned to be on the west side of campus, beginning below Kresge College and continuing down the hill to the current site of Family Student Housing. That was the site university administrators provided for developers pitching their concepts for the project in an extended series of meetings last summer. We selected one developer, Capstone Development Partners, because of their proven track record of student housing construction and management. I personally voted for them because their plan had the highest goals for sustainability and the team made it clear that they would work to adapt to any contingencies which would surely arise during the future planning process.

rana_aurora
The red-legged frog. Apparently Californians ate them to near-extinction, no joke. From Wikipedia.

It turned out that their promised adaptability was put to the test when we were informed that nearly half the site would not be usable for construction. It turns out that a very cute and endangered species, the Red-Legged Frog, uses that corridor for their annual migration from the northerly forests to the grasslands near the Arboretum. Capstone suddenly had to work with half the space that they had initially anticipated for the 2800 students destined to live at West Campus. In addition, it meant there would be no housing prepared for current families living in Family Student Housing (FSH) when it was torn down to make room for the new development.

shw-sites-aerial
Aerial view of the two sites. Source: UCSC CHES

This news could well have killed the project. SHW would not be built in time. Students would be left to fend for themselves and find housing in town on Craigslist. But members of the planning committee discussed another site for the new FSH, one which I have long personally considered a waste of space: the “meadow” near Hagar and Coolidge Drive. As an environmentalist and earth scientist, I bristle at the suggestion that the field at the base of campus is some kind of natural grassland. This space is heavily damaged; if it was left alone, it would return in a few decades to being redwood forest much like North Campus. But it hasn’t been left alone. It is instead a haven for domestic cows which graze and trample the space year-round. The animals, while endearing, continuously roam mowing every blade of grass to a stub, happily emitting methane on a prime piece of real estate.

IMGP3684-ANIMATION
The cows declined to comment on their thoughts re: Family Student Housing.

Perhaps the current ongoing environmental review of the site will find that the land is needed by some sensitive species other than domestic cattle. If that turns out to be the case, then I will shut up and the project will probably need to restart at the drawing board. But some of the “alternative sites” that East Meadow Action assures us are available on campus (but never get specific about) seem far worse to me. Some possibilities include the forested land north of campus or the trailer park on the Northwest of campus. Both of these places seem much worse candidates to pave over to me in terms of ecological value (redwood and oak woodland) or their need for people (the trailer park is some of the most affordable housing on campus and much beloved by the students living there). I would much rather pave over cow pasture than a forest or someone’s home.

When I read through the website of East Meadow Action, I am struck that the centerpiece of their argument is the aesthetic value of lower campus as open space. I confess that I find this extremely irritating. It’s irritating to me because aside from being an advocate for conservation of sensitive species like the red-legged frog, I am also a student who has to get by living in this town, and I don’t have the luxury of worrying about aesthetics. When they mentioned Ranch View Terrace as an example of “building done responsibly”, my opinion was sealed. Take one look at the floor plans described for the single family homes of Ranch View Terrace, “a large housing complex set back from the road and mitigated by vegetation and topography.” How exactly are we going to house 2500 students in single family homes, artfully hidden behind trees? East Meadow Action is not motivated by environmentalism. They’re motivated by the same Not In My BackYard mentality that is choking the development of dense housing in town. We are in a housing crisis and their ocean views are a luxury that we can’t afford.

plan1
East Meadow Action’s ideal for student housing.

I agreed to be SHW rep because I want to make sure future graduate students will have an affordable housing option on campus. I currently am “lucky” to spend 40% of my stipend on rent in town. When I first came to attend grad school here I had to deal with Craigslist and ended up paying over 60% of my income for the first two years I lived here. Students are pursuing extreme solutions. I know people considering living in the woods, or in unzoned bedrooms in town that are another source of tension with the community. It will only continue to get worse as rents rise in the coming years.

Right now, all we can do to remedy the issue in Santa Cruz is pass rent control ordinances and increase supply. SHW is the best project we have to increase supply and do so ensuring maximum density. I want UCSC to continue to be a forest campus, which necessitates not chopping down trees. I am trying to ensure that students have an affordable housing option on campus. I want student families to have guaranteed housing that comes online right when their previous outdated complex is torn down. The sentimental affection that some may feel for the aesthetics of a cow pasture strikes me as the privilege of a comfortable and vocal minority. I value the croaking of frogs and the laughter of children over the yammering of NIMBYs and, yes, even the mooing of cows.

Dan Killam

Fourth Year PhD Candidate, UCSC Earth and Planetary Sciences

University of Southern California ’12, BS Environmental Studies

Graduate Representative for Student Housing West

15 thoughts on “People (and frogs!) before cows

  1. SAMEER KAWASH

    Dan,
    Your piece was posted on Nextdoor. I’m with you on most points but two.
    1. Aesthetic development is not inherently in conflict with density or efficiency. This is a dangerous false choice.
    2. Please look into the impacts of rent control. This is a lovely ideal but the reality is terrible. The stock of rental units in town will drop. Rents wont go down, ever, and will most certainly go up by the maximum allowed, as often as allowed. Ask your peers how many of them have every had their rent raised. I assure you it will be a tiny minority. Most landlords don’t raise rent often (except corporate managers who typically write a 1%-2% annual increase into the lease term). Under the current ballot terms, any landlord in town will raise rent as much as allowed every time they are allowed. I know “rent control” sounds like a good idea. Look at the studies. It’s never worked. More housing and more creative housing is the only solution (dorm style rentals off campus anyone?).
    Thank you for your thoughtful piece.

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    1. Zav Hershfield

      @Sameer: I’m not sure why you chose to bring up rent control – as it wasn’t mentioned in the above article – but I need to correct some inaccuracies in your post.
      1. most landlords don’t raise rent often – please cite statistics or sources, otherwise this is a meaningless argument drowned out by the people being forced to leave Santa Cruz by rent raises. For example, in the Cypress Point apartment complex tenants have been receiving regular rent increases with each lease renewal that are greater than the 1-2% you cite without sources. CP is a corporate-owned complex.
      2. any landlord will raise rent as much as allowed – the rent control ballot initiative currently applies only to multi-unit rental buildings built before 1995. Other buildings (any single family home and any apartment built after 1995) will be unaffected by controls and I doubt landlords there will raise rents by “as much as allowed” which under CA law is literally any amount.
      3. rent control has never worked – rent control works great. it keeps people in the homes that they’ve lived in for many years. it requires landlords to provide good cause for eviction rather than have the ‘freedom’ to throw people out of their own homes with totally inadequate notice. it prevents displacement by unpayable rent increase. these are things its intended to do. What rent control doesn’t do: lower rents or build more affordable and low income housing. All of the above is necessary to insure adequate housing access to those who need it. If you want rent control to do something its not intended to do – not sure what to tell you.

      @Dan: with respect to your efforts on the SHW committee, its not enough. SHW will NOT be affordable – it will cost up to 70% of grad stipends in some students’ cases. Additionally, while the developer chosen by the committee may have great sustainability goals, they also have a proven track record of screwing up construction projects, OSHA violations, and child labor law violations.
      From city on a hill press article: http://www.cityonahillpress.com/2018/02/15/the-many-faces-of-capstone/
      “Capstone Development, however, has a contentious legal history. The Hartford Courant reported that a Capstone Development project at the University of Connecticut, which is not listed in its project portfolio, was discovered to have a carbon monoxide leak due to faulty ventilation that required $650,000 to repair, along with other fire and building code violations.
      Capstone Development also partnered with Capstone Building as the general contractors for the construction of Roulhac Hall at Stillman College. During that project, a 16-year-old worker fell from a roof 26 feet to his death due to a lack of fall protection compliant with Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards. This incident was also a violation of federal child labor laws, as workers under the age of 18 are forbidden from working on roofs.
      Just two months earlier, Capstone Building was cited by OSHA for failing to provide fall protection while serving as general contractor for the construction of a residence hall of similar height in Eugene, Oregon, which was also developed in partnership with Capstone Development.”

      Obviously, this isn’t your fault – there’s a whole committee involved and enormous pressure from the University institution to make these projects happen. But students deserve better than the prices SHW will be charging.

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      1. Hi Zav, I do mention rent control briefly in the piece in the last paragraph. And Capstone was the best of the potential developers/managers, I can assure you. That’s all I can say confidentiality wise As far as the affordability angle, we are continuing to try to push the prices lower but I can’t work miracles. Im sure you’re aware, but building on campus is expensive. Several times what it costs in town. And building in Santa Cruz is more expensive than other cities in CA due to labor costs. The latest numbers suggest that rent (for the large shared kitchen space) will be sub 1000 in the mid 2020s including utilities, which is much better than can be said for current grad housing. I am doing my best by keeping amenities frugal and pushing the plans towards density. That’s really all I can do. Can’t make the university pay us more, and can’t make the structural expense of building on campus go away.

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      2. Zav

        Dan: sorry, I missed that part about rent control in your last paragraph, thank you for the correction. I respect the work you’re putting in on the committee, but even sub-1000 for a bed is outrageous. We need genuine affordable housing. We cannot rely on market mechanisms to provide a human necessity like shelter.

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      3. I hope we can have new projects start up in town that can be truly affordable, $700 or less. I don’t think it can be done on campus frankly. For this project, when I suggest $800 as a better number, which I have a number of times, the discussion shuts down. I get lectured that grad student rents are already “subsidized” and that the only way to make our rents lower is to charge undergrads more. I am as frustrated about this as you, but it is what it is. There will be continuing meetings about this with a new grad focus group and I’ll continue to nag and cajole as incessantly as I can, I can assure you. We have gotten them to retreat from their previous insistence on premium doubles which were over $1300 a month, and gotten them to commit to a few dozen more “beds” (hate that jargon) than they were planning. By “we” I mean the GSA, GSC, the union and me. We will continue to be as hardass as possible and see what we can squeeze out.
        As far as market based or not, frankly this project would not exist without private capital. The school doesn’t have credit necessary to take on a project of this size. They had to go the p3 route at this time or it simply wouldn’t happen.

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  2. Sameer

    @Zav: Now you know why I brought it up. I’d prefer not to use Dan’s blog as a debate forum. I’d be happy to discuss any of your three points in person. I’ll be at every pro-rent control meeting I can find.
    I want affordable housing as much as anyone, and not just for those lucky enough to have it as of October 2017, on campus and off. You attack and undermine Dan’s work but you didn’t offer a single, bettter alternative. Who SHOULD build it? Idealism and magical thinking aren’t helpful.

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    1. Zav Hershfield

      Hi Sameer, this is a public discussion area – what’s wrong with having a discussion? Dan is seemingly comfortable weighing in publicly on an issue of some contention. Here we are as well.
      As far as alternative solutions –
      1. UC funding for UC operated, off campus affordable housing that allows students and non students
      2. UC legal and financial support for he development of permanently affordable housing cooperatives
      3. UC funding for tenant legal support services to insure tenants are adequately protected against unscrupulous/ignorant landlords
      4. Also rent control and just cause for eviction protections – not under UC control, but important.

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      1. Hear hear. At the end of the day, this all requires money. Which requires funding from the regents or UCOP. Which requires increased allocation from the state. Which requires that Californians understand it’s in their interest to support the UC both in terms of the massive economic returns that would result from students having stable housing and the duty that we have morally. But that is outside my jurisdiction, but I think people are waking up to the need to build, and now we have to work on improving access. I looked you up Zav, thank you for your tenant advocacy. Hope to run into you at meetings around town 🙂

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      2. SAMEER KAWASH

        Ok Zav, you’re game, Dan seems onboard, let’s discuss!

        First, I really like your ideas for state funded/subsidized, off campus housing. Building on virgin land on campus is absurd and absurdly expensive. What are you doing to promote this idea? I’m eager to help.

        On to your pro-rent control (RC) points. One general note; all of my arguments assume that Costa-Hawkins is repealed. It may or may not be but the initiative before us in Santa Cruz does not limit its scope to only those units not excluded by Costa-Hawkins, so I take the liberty of assuming the SC initiative intends to apply to any and all rental units.

        1. I have no statistics beyond anecdotal surveys of everyone I’ve ever known who’s ever rented. But I’m not the one asking for change so the burden of proving my argument is pretty low. You want to impose a massive change to remedy a purported ill and provide a promised outcome, so I’d say the burden to prove your claims is far higher. Please cite your statistics/sources. You mention one apartment complex and provide no actual figures to support your claim.
        Meanwhile, can you acknowledge that under RC, any and all landlords who didn’t regularly raise rents will now be incentivized to do so? So how has RC helped anyone other than the current tenant population?

        2. You know very well that the ballot initiative says nothing about the type of rental unit impacted. See above: It’s only Costa-Hawkins that limits this. If that is overturned, as I imagine you hope it will be, then the SC ballot initiative will apply to all rental units.
        I think you misunderstand my “as much as allowed” comment. That only applies to those impacted by RC. Do you honestly believe that landlords under RC won’t do so? And yes, under current CA law, that is any amount. And under reality, that equals the highest amount that the market will bear. The market in SC has extremely low supply per the demand, so the rate the demanders are willing to pay is high. This is largely due to and exacerbated by the size of the student population within that demand pool. Student demand drives up market rates because students will combine resources and share space in ways that most non students will not. The problem is not rent rates. The problem is lack of supply.

        3. My favorite! Please provide the studies showing the successes of Rent Control. Sure, RC keeps people in homes. But ONLY those people lucky enough to have them before RC happened. Newcomers? Sorry, no places available. Enjoy your drive from Watsonville. Add to the the fact that those (whatever the number) with landlords who weren’t regularly raising rent, will now enjoy the annual rent bump.
        And RC doesn’t “ensure adequate housing” . Look it up. Do your research. RC reduces the stock of rental units. Every time. Rentals are converted into condos or other dwelling types that are sold to owner occupiers. No one builds new rentals. Supply tightens.
        If you honestly want rents to stay sane, work this hard to encourage and support dense development. THAT will help.

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  3. SAMEER KAWASH

    One small but crucially important note: Misguided and counterproductive as RC is (and it is if you accept things like research and historic facts), I don’t even care to fight it so hard. Because far worse and corrosive are the insane eviction restrictions that come with it in this ballot measure.

    Have you read the text? If you were a landlord, would you rent to anyone? Would you rent to someone with even the slightest blemish on their record? I wouldn’t. No rational person would. These new rules make eviction essentially impossible, no matter what.

    Are you aware of the current eviction rules? It’s not exactly easy to evict under current law. Yes, I understand that if RC is imposed, rules to prevent opportunistic evictions need to be in place. But that’s not what these new rules are. Do you realize that the new rules make it cost the landlord cash out of pocket to evict someone for failing to pay the rent? How is that just? How is that right?

    A close friend had a renter who paid one month of rent and stopped paying. It took my friend a full year to evict this person. That’s under current law! How is that not enough? Under the proposal you support, that same situation would have taken my friend the full year plus she would have had to PAY the tenant at least 6 months worth of “market rate” rent. Can you see that this creates a huge dis-incentive for anyone to rent out an ADU, a house, a condo, anything? Can you see that this creates an incentive to sell off an apartment building as condos? Can you see that, in a market with demand as strong as here in SC, there are plenty of buyers for those marginal units and the stock of rentals will drop and never recover? Yes, you will try to force government to build more housing, but that will take years and never come close to filling the gap created.

    This isn’t going to work. It will make worse everything you claim to be trying to fix. If you honestly want remedies to the high cost of housing, then work for that. RC and these new eviction rules were crafted in some fantasyland where “landlords” are evil and need to be punished and where they are, some magical force will just create thousands of lovely new housing units.

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    1. Zav Hershfield

      @sameer: sorry, that’s simply incorrect. The new ballot measure requires relocation money in case of “no fault” evictions, such as a landlord move in or an eviction to make substantial repairs bringing a building up to housing code. For “at fault” evictions – such as non-payment of rent, illegal sublet, substantial damage to property – landlords are not required to provide relocation money.

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      1. SAMEER KAWASH

        Perhaps I’m mistaken. I’ll reread.
        Meanwhile, this doesn’t change the core of my argument.
        Other than wishful thinking and animosity toward “landlords”, what evidence do you have to offer showing that RC and the eviction rules proposed will have the desired effect (maybe we need to define your “desired effect” too)?
        There are decades of RC data, so you should have no problem providing the data that show rents being well below market for decades plus plenty of rental supply coming to market.

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      2. Zav Hershfield

        Well, my desired effect is that tenants currently living in homes can stay in those homes without fear of displacement by unreasonable rent raise or without reason for eviction.
        And I don’t have that data. Rent control does not affect the entire market, it affects rent controlled units. In San Francisco rents across the board have gone up yes, and rent controlled units have gone off the market or been converted. Is that the fault of rent control? I say no, it’s the fault of owners of those buildings seeking higher profits than are available in rent controlled apartment buildings. Therein really likes the problem. We can say build build build and hope that brings prices down, but what will that really do to help someone being displaced from their home, today? Nothing.
        The root of the problem is that we depend on market mechanisms to provide housing, a human need. I am interested in rent control because it is the fastest thing we can do to prevent mass displacement of middle and low income renters from Santa Cruz. Do I think we need new housing? Of course. Do I think we need denser housing? Yes. However, a substantial enough number of units that will significantly impact housing prices will not come available for many years yet – this is a city that sees steady population growth and should expect (unless CA directs greater funding to the UC and it stops searching out high paying out of state and international students to fill its budget shortfalls) a greater influx of students.
        The question of supply is a real one – but we need better models than market rate construction in order to insure access to affordably priced housing.
        To answer an above question about what I’m doing to pursue alternative housing development models – not much right now, because I’m only one person working on a current political campaign. You can be sure though that the future should bring some interesting new possibilities.

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      3. SAMEER KAWASH

        Thank you for engaging in this conversation with me. And thank you for your honesty. Dan, I hope you are still reading.

        Zav, you have just made my point for me. You stated that you don’t actually even care about any data we have on the decades of RC in various cities. You just want an immediate, short term “fix”. Your words “…tenants currently living in homes can stay…”

        When you claim that “Rent control does not affect the entire market…”, you are simply wrong. You may not want it to do so, but every economist who has studied it will tell you that it does.

        Your example of San Francisco is a perfect study of the flaw in your reasoning. You want to accept and celebrate the intended outcomes of rent control, “…tenants currently living in homes can stay…”, but you then want to pretend that the unintended consequences aren’t the result of rent control. Once again, serious scholars who study these things (the decades of data) will tell you that you are wrong. Those consequences, like units converting to condos and reducing the rental supply, are 100% the result, intended or not, of crusades just like yours.

        I don’t disagree with your intended ends, it is your means that wish you would be honest about.

        You’re concerned about poor (horrible) conditions in rentals? Great. We already have laws to fight that. Work to enforce them.
        You’re concerned about the high price of a rental? Great. Secure some financing and build some high density housing and rent it out for what you think is fair. Also, support every single effort to force the UC Regents and the administration at UCSC to build more housing, on campus and off. Adding thousands of rental demanders (students) every few years to a tiny town is how we got here in the first place.

        You seem like an academic person. Please do some research into the known impacts of rent control.

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      4. SAMEER KAWASH

        And Zav, if you won’t listen to me, or if I come off as an ass (as I sometimes do), at least read this NYT article. And share it with your peers. And then ask each other if this is really what you want.

        Like

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