Monday Morning Thoughts: The Battle over Single Family Homes in Neighborhoods

A reader pointed out in a comment yesterday: “This ongoing argument throughout these threads that the prudent approach to the housing crises is to not increase supply is beyond absurd.”

It reminds me of the often-repeated claim: “You can’t build your way out of the housing crisis.”  What is the underlying empirical basis to support that claim?

I do happen to agree that the demand for housing will likely always exist in Davis, that simply building housing may not improve affordability as it would in other markets, and that we might not be able to reasonably exhaust demand without blowing up our city to the point where we have destroyed the small town feel and charm of Davis.

But one thing that is clear is that the status quo will not hold.  And we have to figure out reasonable ways to add housing supply that is affordable without turning Davis into the next Natomas or Elk Grove.  And that is no doubt a huge challenge.

But Davis is not the only community facing these challenges.  The New York Times chronicles the battle over one house at 1310 Haskell Street in Berkeley.

As the article notes: “Building more housing, more densely, could help address a widespread economic challenge. A fight over one lot in Berkeley, Calif., shows how tough that could be.”

The amazing thing is that this house was a nuisance for years but when a new owner turned out to be a developer proposing they knock down the building and replace it with three smaller homes, “the neighborhood erupted in protest.”

This should sound familiar: “Most of the complaints were what you might hear about any development. People thought the homes would be too tall and fretted that more residents would mean fewer parking spots.”

But here is the key point: “Whatever the specifics, what is happening in Berkeley may be coming soon to a neighborhood near you.”

Indeed we have had these battles already and I would argue that we will continue to have the battles.  With the scarcity of land that is not Measure R land, we are going to have more battles not
fewer battles.

A reader made an interesting point to me via email: “Single family homes in some Davis neighborhoods are nearing the end of their useful life, so it might make economic sense to densify (as described in the article) rather than completely rebuild the average 60 or 70 year old home.”

The article sees this scene replaying itself across the country: “Around the country, many fast-growing metropolitan areas are facing a brutal shortage of affordable places to live, leading to gentrification, homelessness, even disease. As cities struggle to keep up with demand, they have remade their skylines with condominium and apartment towers — but single-family neighborhoods, where low-density living is treated as sacrosanct, have rarely been part of the equation.

“If cities are going to tackle their affordable housing problems, economists say, that is going to have to change. But how do you build up when neighbors want down?”

We saw exactly this issue with Trackside.  The neighbors had a legitimate point there too, but the bigger issue was always going to be dicey – and that is how do you push density when the neighbors are always going to fight density?

“The housing crisis was caused by the unwillingness of local governments to approve new-home building, and now they’re being held accountable,” said Brian Hanlon, executive director of California Yimby.

The Times discusses the issue of affordability and points out: “The problem is that smaller and generally more affordable quarters like duplexes and small apartment buildings, where young families get their start, are being built at a slower rate. Such projects hold vast potential to provide lots of housing — and reduce sprawl — by adding density to the rings of neighborhoods that sit close to job centers but remain dominated by larger lots and single-family homes.”

The answer – which is one I favor as well – is more density within neighborhoods.

The article points out: “Neighborhoods in which single-family homes make up 90 percent of the housing stock account for a little over half the land mass in both the Bay Area and Los Angeles metropolitan areas, according to Issi Romem, BuildZoom’s chief economist. There are similar or higher percentages in virtually every American city, making these neighborhoods an obvious place to tackle the affordable-housing problem.”

“Single-family neighborhoods are where the opportunity is, but building there is taboo,” Mr. Romem said.

However, it is pointed out: “As long as single-family-homeowners are loath to add more housing on their blocks, he said, the economic logic will always be undone by local politics.”

The article points out that, despite a flurry of new legislation, “economists are skeptical that California can dent home prices anytime soon,” with the biggest issue being “where all these new residences will go, and how hard neighbors will try to prevent them.”

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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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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73 thoughts on “Monday Morning Thoughts: The Battle over Single Family Homes in Neighborhoods”

  1. Todd Edelman

    “The housing crisis was caused by the unwillingness of local governments to approve new-home building, and now they’re being held accountable,” said Brian Hanlon, executive director of California Yimby.

    No, it was caused by no lack of greed and an extreme lack of regional planning that integrated job creation, community preservation and construction of suitable housing.

      1. Ron

        Roberta:  A point I often bring up, as well.  (Actually, the recession started at about that time, and impacted the housing market well-beyond that point.)  If I’m not mistaken, the housing market continued to drop until about 2011. The recession and related housing crash was primarily caused by approvals of mortgages that couldn’t be supported by borrowers. The entire system was essentially corrupted.

        Davis suffered less than other communities, largely because there weren’t vast amounts of new houses that couldn’t be sold.

      2. David Greenwald

        Roberta: I do think there are separate issues here – the problem during the recession was not that the need for housing suddenly vanished, it’s that people’s access to money disappeared over a period of years and indeed the financial system nearly collapsed.

        Ron: And the point I made in my piece today is that the factors that allowed Davis’ home prices to remain fairly robust will remain in place due to the high levels of demand even if you add additional marginal housing.

        1. Roberta Millstein

          Ron, agreed, the effects lasted well beyond 2008.

          David, you’re missing the point.  You’re blaming the lack of housing on poor planning and overlooking the fact that there was little being built during the recession.

          1. Don Shor

            Ron, agreed, the effects lasted well beyond 2008.

            Not much past about 2011 in Woodland, Dixon, West Sacramento, Sacramento, Vacaville, or any other part of the regional housing market.

        2. Ron

          Roberta:  That’s correct.

          I understand that developers also couldn’t get easily get loans during that time, to fund new housing developments (including apartment complexes).

          It should be noted that the vacancy rate in surrounding communities also impacts the vacancy rate in Davis. (I recall recent articles which state that the vacancy rate is around 2%, in Sacramento. Despite the lack of “growth controls”.) The lingering impacts of the recession are still having an impact, since construction will lag recovery.

        3. Ron

          Developers will then perhaps over-respond (over-build), as they did prior to the last recession.  (Hoping to get developments built and sold before the next downturn occurs.) Thereby repeating the cycle, once again.

          Another housing downturn is inevitable, and (based upon previous market cycles) is about due.

          1. David Greenwald Post author

            That’s probably true, that’s why we have a city council and land use restrictions in place. Another housing downturn is inevitable, but that doesn’t mean the solution is to artificially create a housing shortage in the mean time. Besides, most of what we need is rental housing. That demand is not going to disappear.

      3. Don Shor

        Am I the only one who remembers that a mere 9 years ago we had a huge recession and nothing was getting built because nothing would get sold?

        Sure. That doesn’t explain the complete paucity of housing construction before and since then. Here’s the Bay Area. Our housing market has followed the same pattern. Supply in our area is being provided by Woodland, Dixon, and West Sacramento.
        http://davismerchants.org/vanguard/Case-Shiller_Simpl-Percentages.jpg

        1. Ron

          Don:  Unlike the Bay Area, Davis is surrounded by communities that have the ability (and unfortunately, the willingness) to sacrifice vast amounts of farmland for housing developments.

      4. Tia Will

        Roberta

        You are certainly not alone. And I would caution our current “grow as fast as we can advocates” that we may well be facing another recession given policies that some are trying to enact. I am so tired of the boom and bust cycles that we seem to have meekly accepted as “the way things are” as opposed to the predictable outcome of a one sided view of some kind of mythical “free market” that will right all societal wrongs instead of our own flawed creation that we could change with adoption of short, mid, and long term planning.

        1. David Greenwald Post author

          You called foul on me on the issue of densification, but you just clearly misstated the position of most people on here, there are very few if any “grow as fast as we can advocates” on the Vanguard.

    1. Todd Edelman

      My syntax deserves a sin tax: I meant to say that good regional planning integrates job creation, community preservation and construction of suitable housing.

  2. Don Shor

    “Single family homes in some Davis neighborhoods are nearing the end of their useful life, so it might make economic sense to densify

    They are densifying. They are renting out garages, adding granny flats, and remodeling to add bedrooms. Some of them might be called “mini-dorms” if one wanted to use fancy rhetoric. It’s happening in every neighborhood near campus and some not near campus.

  3. Tia Will

    I do happen to agree that the demand for housing will likely always exist in Davis, that simply building housing may not improve affordability as it would in other markets, and that we might not be able to reasonably exhaust demand without blowing up our city to the point where we have destroyed the small town feel and charm of Davis.”

    Then wherein lies the argument since this is what the vast majority of “slow growth” or “smart growth” advocates are saying ?

    We saw exactly this issue with Trackside.  The neighbors had a legitimate point there too, but the bigger issue was always going to be dicey – and that is how do you push density when the neighbors are always going to fight density?”

    This is patently untrue and I don’t know how many times I have to say it. The OEDNA did not oppose densification. We favor densification and infill. Any housing at all on site would have represented densification and infill since there is none there now. What we opposed was making unnecessary exceptions to the zoning and design guidelines.

    David, I know that you know this is not true, not just from conversations with me, but from conversations with many in the neighborhood and yet you continue to peddle this blatant untruth. Frankly I find this both disingenuous and disgusting.

     

    1. David Greenwald

      Tia – The neighbors did oppose densification at the level that was proposed by the developer. The fact that the neighbors Supported a lower level of densification  does not disprove my point that densification is going to be difficult.  I am not trying to misrepresent the views of  The neighbors here, I am trying to make a different point.

  4. Tia Will

    David

    at the level that was proposed by the developer”

    Agree with this. Too bad that wasn’t what you said in the initial article. Since when is what the developer proposes the definition of densification ?  Please don’t forget that they initially proposed six stories. Does that meant that the developer is now against densification because the new proposal is only 4 stories ?

    1. David Greenwald

      No, my period again is that densification is going to be a challenge. Your point is that last densification will be less of a challenge. I agree with that point, but it’s not the point that I was trying to make.

      1. Tia Will

        David

        A point that one is trying to make is only as good as the supporting evidence that you provide. You made a statement that was blatantly false about the position of OEDNA and now are saying that all you wanted to do was to “make a point”. Do you think that your readers will not read the whole article ?  Do you think that some will not buy into the false narrative of ( in your exact words):

        “We saw exactly this issue with Trackside.  The neighbors had a legitimate point there too, but the bigger issue was always going to be dicey – and that is how do you push density when the neighbors are always going to fight density?”

        So again. This was not “exactly this issue”. The OEDNA neighbors were not fighting density, only density outside the existing zoning and design guidelines, which is not what you said.

         

        1. David Greenwald

          I don’t think my statement was incorrect and in fact if you look at “the bigger issue” – I am really going outside of just Trackside-neighbors to the more general issue of pushing density.

  5. Alan Miller

    We saw exactly this issue with Trackside . . . how do you push density when the neighbors are always going to fight density?

    This is a lie and you know it.  Our neighborhood was quite willing to go for a very large building on that site, and you know it, and the developers know it and the City Council knows it.  But the developers claimed, after they bought the land, knowing it wasn’t zoned for a building of that size, that they needed an even larger building to “pencil out”.  The City Council just said to developers, “Come on in, don’t worry about the zoning . . . we will fight the neighborhoods, change the zoning, and we will win.”  Lucas’ speech at midnight after the Trackside was pretty much this plus a list of projects the neighborhoods opposed and the City approved and were built.

    The solution is to work with the neighborhoods to densify.  The traditional neighborhoods surrounding downtown did this years ago, but the City keeps breaking the promise and the agreements before having the community discussions, when it suites them.  Meanwhile, those in the neighborhood still have to follow the design guidelines — until the next big developer steps in and another exception is made followed by another three-year-plus fight.  Great f-ing system.

  6. Tia Will

    David

    there are very few if any “grow as fast as we can advocates” on the Vanguard.”

    I misstated nothing. As a matter of fact, I said nothing at all about the majority of people on the Vanguard.  It doesn’t matter how many “grow as fast as we can advocates” are on the Vanguard. What matters is how many are on the City Council. A highly relevant point given that we are approaching City Council elections.

        1. Todd Edelman

          I am an “eliminate the parking minimum, internalize the cost of driving, set up safer-for-all car parking, implement a school bus program, quickly fortify the transit, walking and cycling network and thus make the land safer for children and elders” advocate! Apply for membership anytime at 1-800-I-LIKE-IT.

        2. David Greenwald

          Keith: I don’t believe there is even one who believes we should grow as fast as possible.  I think there are some who are very concerned with the lack of affordable housing and student housing in town and are likely to approve most projects for the foreseeable future.  But I don’t think there is even one vote on council to eliminate Measure R – and that includes the two councilmembers who are not seeking reelection and therefore aren’t worried about facing the voters.

        3. Alan Miller

          KO, TE’s post is relevant in that I agree with him absolutely IN THEORY, and disagree with him absolutely IN REALITY.  Moving to this makes for a much more livable and safe world.  However, we live in an auto society, and parking minimums don’t create safer infrastructure, they are doable as part of making all the infrastructure changes.  Unfortunately, when you have the tail wagging the dog, you end up with giveaways to developers followed by further deteriorating parking conditions.  Moving from parking minimums to parking maximums without first creating and investing in a vastly different transportation paradigm is INSANE.

        4. Todd Edelman

          Alan: Seriously? How ’bout if “quickly fortify the transit, walking and cycling network” moved to the beginning of this process? In fact that’s what I meant — or to be a little gracious about the order of my list – it’s certainly nothing I would intentionally-consider as something to implement only after all those other measures. I’ve mentioned a proper balance of “carrots and sticks” several times in different forums over the past few days, and in my statement in support of my selection to the BTSSC I am quite clear about the need to create a car-like experience in mobility replacement.

      1. Tia Will

        David

        “Is anyone on the council a “grow as fast as we can advocate”?”

        Are you joking ? Rochelle made that statement in those exact words in her campaign for city council. She stated it, she ran on it, and she has been a staunch advocate for it. Can you tell me of any project during her time on the CC council that she has not either supported or voted for ?  There may be some, but if so, they are not coming to mind for me.

        Also, how about Lucas’ litany of projects that were opposed by neighbors but which he pointed out proudly had been passed. Lucas also may have opposed projects, but none come to mind for me. Do you know of any ?

         

    1. Keith O

       A highly relevant point given that we are approaching City Council elections.

      Good point and I want to nail down every candidate on where they stand on all aspects of housing.  Hopefully we aren’t presented with a bunch of vague wiggle room answers as candidates often do.

      1. Tia Will

        Keith

        Agreement on all aspects of housing is not critical to me. But I will not support nor vote for any candidate who will not make a firm statement on what their criteria will be when assessing projects. I also will not support any candidate who will not make a firm statement on how they view collaborative vs adversarial design of projects.

  7. Tia Will

    David

    I don’t think there is even one vote on council to eliminate Measure R “

    I do not believe that is the sole criteria that should be considered when deciding whether a council member believes “growing as fast as we can”. I am happy to take Councilmembers Swanson and Frerichs at their own words and would point out that Councilmember Arnold seems to hold similar attitudes from his own statements.

    1. David Greenwald

      Tia: You really can’t grow as fast as we can if Measure R effectively eliminates peripheral development which for the most part precludes additional large developments.  So people like Mark West and Jim Gray, would be people who I would put into the category as grow as fast as we can.  People like Rochelle, Lucas, and Will would be people who see the need for housing but would favor keeping Measure R and its restrictions on housing.

      1. Howard P

        Well, if you have a mechanism in place that effectively says you can’t grow, zero growth is “growing as fast as you can”… think it’s called a tautology…

        1. Mark West

          I believe in representative democracy so view Measure R as bad policy, but I accept it as the voters will. It would be less cumbersome and far less expensive for the community, however, if we separated the decision for annexation from that of project entitlement.

          I do not have any qualms about the City declaring a hard border beyond which we won’t expand over the next 25-50 year period. Blocking expansion, however, does not relieve the City of the obligation to provide appropriate housing for all residents, it just means that we need to do so by growing taller and utilizing the land we have more efficiently.

        2. Alan Miller

          The grow as fast as you can position is to remove the Measure R barrier.

          The position depends on whether one owns land in the core or on the periphery.

      2. Mark West

        There is a big difference between ‘grow as fast as we can,’ which I have never advocated, and ‘creating appropriate housing for all residents’ which is one of the central tenets of my advocacy. When it comes to land use and urban design, I think my position is closer to that of Robb Davis than anyone else you have named.

         

      3. Tia Will

        David

        I was quoting Rochelle’s own words during the campaign. I didn’t make up the phrase. She used it. I do not feel that it is up to me to decide whether or not that includes Measure R since she did not specify. I doubt that you know either unless you have specifically discussed it with them. But that is not what I said. I said nothing it all about Measure R. It was you who chose to draw the line there.

        1. Alan Miller

          I’ve talked to all of them about Measure R – they all support it.

          Of course they all (say they) do, they are politicians.  The voters overwhelmingly support it.

  8. Tia Will

    Howard

    if you have a mechanism in place that effectively says you can’t grow, zero growth is “growing as fast as you can”… think it’s called a tautology…”

    Not if you have a work around which is how I see “planning by exception” in order to densify. That is what we are currently experiencing.

    1. Howard P

      So, in addition to zero expansion, densification is “growing as fast as you can”… got it

      We need a referendum process to stop that clear violation of the people’s will… propose it be labelled Measure N, and should require a 2/3 vote (3/5 is clearly not enough for you)[maybe 90% of neighbors?] of ALL voters (not just elected representatives) for any zoning change.  Got it.

      Don’t agree with the concept, but ‘get’ where you appear to be coming from…

      1. Tia Will

        Howard

        densification is “growing as fast as you can”… got it”

        No. As is often the case when you cherry pick ( to be kind) my words, you do not “get it”. I do not artificially define being for or against Measure R as being the intent of Rochelle’s words “grow as fast as we can”. What I think is more pertinent is to examine her voting record ( aka what she does as opposed to what she says – true for every council member by the way). Can anyone name a growth project that she has not voted for during her tenure on the council ?

        As I have said repeatedly, I believe that Rochelle has been true to that statement that she made while campaigning. She was honest and she has done exactly what she campaigned on. I admire her honesty and her standing by her beliefs even though I disagree.

         

    1. Tia Will

      Hi Sean,

      Given Mark West’s disclaimer of that position, I doubt there currently are any who post on a regular basis. I am not sure how that even became part of the discussion since David introduced it apparently in response to a comment that I had not made or that he had misinterpreted.

       

      1. Mark West

        Dr. Will: “I am not sure how that even became part of the discussion since David introduced it apparently in response to a comment that I had not made”

         

        “Grow as fast as we can…” is one of Tia’s most common pejoratives used in a passive-aggressive attempt to smear those she disagrees with. She has attempted to attribute the belief to me on several occasions, though never accurately.

        1. Howard P

          Tia is not at all alone in that pejorative… and that indeed, is what it is… most developers don’t even want that… it reduces the price they can get per sq/ft.  It is a canard.

          Interestingly, the opposite, “no growth” is considered a “pejorative/canard” to those charged with it.  Same folk who use the one, completely reject the other as untrue.  Go figure.  Perhaps the truth and good sense lies between the two extremes?  Nah, that would be too boring… we have to let the extremists have their day/month/year/decade… only the extremists speak truth, even when they are diametrically opposed… got it…

  9. Tia Will

    David

    I’d be interested to see the context btw of her statement”

    Well, the Vanguard is where I read it, so all you have to do is go back to the archives near the time of her campaign to find it.

    1. David Greenwald

      So he noted that the housing market kept going up and up and up and that it wasn’t sustainable.  It finally collapsed (or more to the point slowed way down) when the national virtually collapsed.  But the economy recovered and the rates are now at an all-time high.  So what exactly is the lesson you’re hoping to construe from this?  And also what is the logic in not providing rental housing that people need based on the lessons of the worst recession since the Great Depression?

      1. Ron

        David:  “So what exactly is the lesson you’re hoping to construe from this?”

        As Yogi Berra once apparently said, “it’s deja vu, all over again”?

        I’ve said nothing beyond that.

        1. Ron

          Just noting that (in general) today’s “crisis” can quickly turn around and become a “crisis” in the opposite direction.  (Thought that was pretty obvious, actually.)

          Actually, corrections are not always a crisis. It can provide some relief, for some folks. And, reduce pressure to overbuild, in general.

        2. David Greenwald

          I don’t think that’s what happened.

          To me what this shows is that there was actually nothing unsustainable about the system locally, there was a tremendous exogenous shock that had nothing to do with the local system but had a huge impact on it.

          It didn’t turn around – it temporarily thwarted the problem because no one had any money.  But once the money came back, the system resumed.

          So no, it didn’t reverse itself.

        3. Ron

          David:

          I’m not sure of your point.  The housing market collapsed, and prices were slashed.  It impacted Davis, as well.

          Interestingly enough, there apparently wasn’t a “housing shortage” during the downturn, even though the population hasn’t increased that much since then. (Even though there were thousands of unoccupied houses across the region that couldn’t be sold, even at a heavy discount.)

          Where was the big “housing shortage” at that time? Especially since there were no spikes in population, thereafter. The same folks noting today’s “housing shortage” were already living somewhere. (However, I realize that “new households” are being formed, from existing populations as well.)

          1. David Greenwald Post author

            The housing market collapsed due to an exogenous shock to the system and then rebounded. That is my point.

      1. Keith O

        It’s going to be interesting Ron.  Most people will no longer itemize with the standard deduction going to $24,000 for a married couple.  So people will no longer deduct school and city parcel taxes and will feel the full burden of such taxes.  Will this hurt the chances of these types of taxes passing in the future?

        1. Ron

          Keith:  I hadn’t thought of that.

          In general, it seems like there’s always some unexpected ramifications, when policies/laws are significantly changed.

          Regarding the Republican tax plan proposal, I do like the simplicity of increasing the standard deduction, and eliminating some itemized deductions.

        2. Keith O

           I do like the simplicity of increasing the standard deduction, and eliminating some itemized deductions.

          I don’t, the standard deduction did get raised but you lost your personal deductions so the net result is not much change.  The problem is most homeowners will no longer itemize because they can’t pass the $24000 threshold especially with the SALT exclusion.  Overall the GOP tax package does a lot of harm to California.

          WTTNCWASR.

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