My View: Is It Time to Rethink How Our Land Use Policies Intersect with Our Purported Values?

In June of 2016, Davis voters narrowly voted for Bernie Sanders who received 54.5 percent of the vote against Hillary Clinton’s 45 percent.  By November, the Davis voters overwhelmingly rejected the man who would become the next president with just 11.5 percent voting for Trump – a number that was lower than either John McCain or Mitt Romney had previously received in the city of Davis.

But, while Davis’ national politics are overwhelmingly progressive – our land use policies conflict with our expressed national views.

Last fall, the Obama White House put out a “white paper” that indicated that antiquated land-use regulations are responsible for not only holding back economic growth, but also increasing housing costs and inequality.

“Significant barriers to new housing development can cause working families to be pushed out of the job markets with the best opportunities for them, or prevent them from moving to regions with higher-paying jobs and stronger career tracks. Excessive barriers to housing development result in increasing drag on national economic growth and exacerbate income inequality,” the report stated.

This week, David Brooks added fuel to the fire, linking these policies at least implicitly to the rise of Trumpism in his column, “How We Are Ruining America.”

The main drift of the article is that the college-educated class has taken a number of steps to ensure that their kids retain their privileged status.

What is of particular interest to me is research he cites from the Brookings Institution that details “some of the structural ways the well educated rig the system.

“The most important is residential zoning restrictions,” Mr. Brooks writes. “Well-educated people tend to live in places like Portland, New York and San Francisco that have housing and construction rules that keep the poor and less educated away from places with good schools and good job opportunities.”

He continues, “These rules have a devastating effect on economic growth nationwide. Research by economists Chang-Tai Hsieh and Enrico Moretti suggests that zoning restrictions in the nation’s 220 top metro areas lowered aggregate U.S. growth by more than 50 percent from 1964 to 2009. The restrictions also have a crucial role in widening inequality. An analysis by Jonathan Rothwell finds that if the most restrictive cities became like the least restrictive, the inequality between different neighborhoods would be cut in half.”

Long time readers of the Vanguard will note that the Vanguard has often pointed to the fact that Davis has a progressive veneer on national issues.  But scratch beneath the surface and you will find some surprising developments.  We first saw this a decade ago on the police issue, where otherwise very liberal white, well-educated, upper middle class residents rejected a call from the Human Relations Commission for more police oversight.

When the Picnic Day incident occurred this year, people were quick to jump on the point that the conflict between police and citizens occurred with out-of-town people, outsiders if you will.

This year, when the Acme Theatre Company received a Thong Hy Huynh award, one of the high schools students receiving the award talked about “the implicit recognition of how much further we have to go.” He talked about areas where the city has progressed, but that “we cover up tragedies with flowers.”

Colin Walsh noted that he was in school when Thong Hy Huynh was murdered in 1983.  “Growing up in Davis as a white person, the issue of race was always something I had to self-evaluate and think about.”  He said, “It was not an easy place for people of color growing up here.”

We saw this, this week, as well.

One commenter this week, a Latino who grew up in Davis, stated, “The problem of racism is not unique to the police or limited to potential cases of excessive force – after the Picnic Day violence occurred, there was a palpable sense that I felt in the community of vindication for many people as the kids who fought the police were one by one revealed to be out of towners.”

He said he grew up in Davis and attended school at DJUSD, and “I still never felt entirely like a normal Davis kid because of my heritage. I’m still not sure I belong here. All my friends of color that I grew up with here with me who I’ve talked to a lot about this – most even all feel the same way.”

Samantha Chiang, representing ASUCD, made similar comments. She addressed her unprepared remarks to Mayor Robb Davis, who she said has “been an incredible ally to students.” She said, “I believe that the rhetoric at hand is deeply problematic that there’s a need to create a safe space for everyone. Particularly people whose opinions may not be consistent with the majority. That comes at the price of students of color and people of color.

“The majority is voicing the opinion that people of color matter,” she said as her voice began to shake. “That our lives matter. That we are being treated poorly in Davis – because of systemic issues that it is not safe here for us.

“I can’t walk out of my skin – brown and black folks can’t walk out of their skin – but people can change their opinions. People can realize that our lives matter.”

What David Brooks is arguing, however, is that the impact of our zoning policies not only cuts the less privileged out of our community, creating a largely white and upper middle class community, but ends up perhaps damaging our national ideals as well.

While we are not the size of Portland, New York and San Francisco, the impact of our zoning policies, our land use restrictions may well protect the aspects of the community that we have come to love.

At the same time, we are becoming a walled-off city, keeping the poor and people of color out and protecting the unique character of Davis for the privileged.

As someone who has generally supported Davis land use policies, I chose to live in Davis despite the cost of living and the reality of not owning a home, because I prefer the small town atmosphere, the good schools, and the engaged citizenry.  Nevertheless, I have long been troubled by the darker underbelly of Davis and now I am troubled by the disconnect between our land use policies and our national political viewpoint.

It is something we need to think about as we begin to re-think Davis in the coming months and years.

What does this community want to be and how might its privilege be contributing to the national problems that we see?

After all, the majority of Davis voted for Bernie Sanders who fought hard against the increased inequality, and yet here we are living in a walled-off city of relative privilege.  Is there not a disconnect here?

—David M. Greenwald reporting


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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  1. Ron

    From article:  “Is there not a disconnect here?”

    Yes – there’s a disconnect in logic, within the article.  All kinds of unrelated concerns (including racism, the picnic day incident, the presidential election, etc.), mashed together. I call “b.s.” 🙂

      1. Ron

        Already mentioned – those concepts don’t mix, regarding land use policies.  (Especially since Davis has a relatively robust Affordable housing program to help those who need it.)

        Now, if you want to talk about a community such as Granite Bay, then some of your concepts might apply (at least from my impression). Davis is not Granite Bay.


        1. Jim Hoch

          add disaffected youth, after all if some kids say there they don’t feel like they belong then there must be something terribly wrong with the society

          “Every city seems to have its floating population of disaffected youth — school dropouts, occasional workers, drug users, skateboarders, hooligans, street people. How much of a problem is this? What are its dimensions? What are the social causes that influence the size and nature of this population in Detroit, Manchester, Cologne, or Novosibirsk? And are there social programs that can significantly diminish the number of young people who wind up in this category?”

          Now there are a number of land use reforms we can implement to increase the comfort of some elements of the population. For example we could allow people to park on their lawns or use them to store non-functional automobiles.

        2. David Greenwald

          Ron: in what way are they incompatible?  If you exclude people using zoning then you create the situation where you create a walled off population

        3. Ron

          David:  “If you exclude people using zoning then you create the situation where you create a walled off population.”

          Perhaps you could explain your idea, in consideration of the city’s relatively robust Affordable housing program (as already mentioned). In any case, I’d suggest that it has little to do with Bernie Sanders, Trump, racism, the picnic day incident, or “Bigfoot”.




        4. Alan Miller

          we could allow people to park on their lawns or use them to store non-functional automobiles.

          I’m all for that.  Damn Davis elitists and their auto-free lawns!

        5. Howard P

          Davis’ Affordable Housing program is far from robust… again, you know not of which you speak… unless words/rhetoric count as ‘robust’… if so, you are quite right… if you are talking units on the ground, kept fully affordable, you are SO wrong!

        6. Ron


          If you’re going to make statements like that, then back it up with facts/examples.

          If I feel like engaging in your nonsense again, I can probably research the Affordable housing units which already exist, or are imminently-planned.  (And then, we can argue if the program is truly “robust”.) But frankly, I’m not too interested in “proving” any points to a troll.

          And, if you think that the Affordable housing program “should” be more robust, then say so (along with suggested improvements). (Probably a better choice, than trying to “prove” me wrong.)

  2. Roberta Millstein

    Bernie is very strong on environmental issues.  Someone who was particularly concerned about environmental issues would be concerned about increased traffic, increased drain on limited water resources, loss of open space, impact on endangered/threatened species of increased development, etc.  Yes, there needs to be dense housing in some areas.  I am all for it.  But there is a question of how much and where.  And it’s not clear to me that all areas need to be extremely dense or should be extremely dense.

    I also think that any discussion of home prices in Davis cannot be separated from home prices elsewhere in the region, where “region” must include the Silicon Valley/Bay Area.  As prices become increasingly outrageous there, it has a ripple effect throughout the region.  What we can do on our own to change that is pretty limited, IMO.

  3. Leanna Sweha

    zoning restrictions in the nation’s 220 top metro areas lowered aggregate U.S. growth by more than 50 percent from 1964 to 2009

    The motivation to preserve property value will only lead to less restictions and less abuse of laws like CEQA when people fully understand statistics like the above.

    1. Jim Hoch

      There is a reason economics is referred to as the “dismal science” and by any standard is not a “science” at all. You could just as easily say that our GDP has been negatively affected by the reduced spending on coal power plants or that drunk driving laws reduce expenditure on auto body repair and new car purchases. Note that every public stadium financing plan comes with economics research showing how much it will additional tax revenue it will generate.

      A proctologist with a flashlight can show you where economics research comes from.

  4. Todd Edelman

    Northern California Megaregion (Silicon to Sac Supercounty) bans parking minimums, implements restrictive parking maximums, drastically-cuts prices on Capitol Corridor for youth and low-income persons, prioritizes safe streets for all ages in all modes, creates a default for 15 mph max. neighborhood speed limit and priority rather than stop-based intersections, mandates four-story minimum for new builds within two blocks of a transit stop or station…. increases taxes and fees with the intent of internalizing the cost of private transport and has victory in US Supreme Court which allows communities along polluted highways to toll them, smart-paving the way for the communities to pay for primarily noise-related pollution mitigation.

    1. Alan Miller

      Pardon, TE, was the above a dream, a hallucination, a reality,  a utopian ideal, a fantasy, the thought patterns of an overfed, long-haired leaping gnome, or “other”.

      Context, please!

      PS.  Appreciate the brevity, man.

  5. Roberta Millstein

    If we’re going to consider the “intersection” of our different values, consider people who advocate for a large business (“innovation”) tech park on the periphery at the same time that they advocate for low-income housing.  Sometimes these folks also think that a business park would benefit low-income residents by saving them from having to pay increased taxes because of the $$ that the business park would supposedly bring to the city.  Meanwhile, bringing all those high-paying jobs to Davis would mean increased pressure on an already limited housing supply and increasingly high home prices and increased costs for pretty much everything in town.  Again, just take a look at what is happening in Silicon Valley/Bay Area.  All boats are not getting floated.

    1. Roberta Millstein

      I guess it’s more interesting to try to put out others’ supposed inconsistencies than to try to examine one’s own.

      The truth here is that there is no free lunch, no easy answer, no way to get everything we need.  We’re always all balancing competing values.

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