My View: Affordable Housing Works, but We Do Need to Build It

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The debate over housing figures to define much of the next seven months before the council election, which is likely to include another go-round on Nishi.  We have seen the rental market, tight as it is at a 0.2 percent vacancy rate, generate a number of new housing proposals.

As we have shown in previous articles, the vast majority of rental housing is currently occupied by students while much of the new housing demand is coming from students as well.  Moreover, the shortage of rental housing is hurting not only students – many of whom have to triple up in rooms designed for one, couch surf, and even live in their cars – but it is also hurting families seeking single-family housing and pushing more and more students into single-family homes that could go to the families who are now being pushed out.

In my view then, as a member of family that rents in Davis, by providing predominantly student housing, not only is the city addressing by far the biggest need, it actually helps address what appears to be others’ concern by opening up single-family homes to families again.

But something I realized this week is that, while people can complain about affordable housing or, more precisely, the lack of affordable housing in Davis, the affordable housing we have is actually working.  I live in a group of nine affordable townhouses in a nice neighborhood in south Davis.  Contrary perhaps to the perception of affordable housing, where we live the people are making somewhere between 80 and 120 percent of median income.

These are people making what in many communities would be a good living, but because of the high cost of housing here, would otherwise be priced out of Davis.  And here we have nine townhouses where professional families live, and all of them have school-aged kids.  That is an example of a program working by design.

The problem is, of course, one of funding affordable housing and then finding locations in which to place it.  Both are huge challenges.

There are a lot of questions about funding.  Some have pointed out that the current thrust of developers looking at four- and five-bedroom apartments ends up both shorting the city on impact fees and shorting the affordable housing program because the contribution is based on the number of units rather than the number of rooms.

At the recent workshop on affordable housing, the council was considering whether the city should be determining requirements for rental housing based on the number of units or the number of rooms.  At first glance this would seem a no-brainer.

As Mayor Pro Tem Brett Lee put it, there is a mismatch “between fees being based on front doors versus bedrooms.” He said he wanted to see the impact fees being based upon bedrooms.

“I’d also like to see density based upon bedrooms,” he said. He said it should not be how many units per acre but rather how many bedrooms per acre that is the key indicator of density. “I think it
just is a more sensible policy to track the number of bedrooms.”

Councilmember Rochelle Swanson said, “I agree that number of rooms and not number of units is the appropriate number we should be looking at.”

But she also had a word of caution, noting that “35 percent of zero is still zero.”  By that she meant that if the units are not built because we have made the burdens so high for developers, there will be no affordable housing.  This is a key point that I will return to shortly.

Indeed, one developer warned that one reason that we are “only seeing student housing project proposals” is “because that’s what Davis policies dictate.”  Alternatives to this model, they argue, are “financially impossible because the policies we have in place result in a developer loss.

“There are some special circumstances where a for sale project or a govt. subsidized project will work, but those are the exception, not the rule,” they told me.

The bottom line is that city fees and development costs are lower for student housing than for non-student housing, while the revenue for that housing per square foot of land is higher.

“Student housing is much more efficient. It’s simple math. That the city doesn’t grasp this simple notion is extremely frustrating,” the developer told me.

One critic writes that “another reason to be concerned about the megadorm proposals, which essentially shortchange the Affordable housing program…”

There is of course an irony to the argument that the city is short-changing affordable housing through building larger student housing apartments – and that is that these same individuals argue that student housing should primarily be built on campus.  If they build the student housing on campus, we end up again with 35 percent of zero being zero.

Moreover, if the developer is correct, then the city fees make it more difficult to build other sorts of housing and, if they impose those fees on student rentals, once again we end up with 35 percent of zero being zero.

The bottom line is that, through the current system, at least we are getting some on-site affordable housing in the case of Sterling and at least we are getting some in-lieu fees to fund other projects around town.

The city council is going to look into the possibility of doing more, the state is creating a new fund for affordable housing, but nothing figures to replace the $2 million annual revenue stream under the previous RDA (Redevelopment Agency).

Finally, earlier this week, I questioned whether apartments were the best way to provide housing for families.  The point I made is that, from my perspective, the location where most of these apartment projects are going seem more conducive to either student housing, or young workforce housing, than housing for families – which I think are better off in projects integrated into neighborhoods rather than living by campus.

There was an interesting pushback that was fundamentally inaccurate: “While you have had the advantage of having a high enough salary to move up from renting an apartment to renting a house now, not everyone can do that. Single mothers and lower income families do not have the privilege you have, so you have no right to discard their needs.”

Actually I don’t have that advantage at all.  I am fortunate to have applied for and qualified for the city affordable housing program.  As I argued, affordable housing works.  The problem we have – as people on a wait list will tell – is that we don’t have enough of it.

A three-bedroom affordable apartment in Davis might run you a little over $1200 a month.  At market rate, the average rent in Davis is $1344 for a one-bedroom, $1700 for a two-bedroom, and $2330 for a three-bedroom.

So when you are talking about apartment rentals and new apartments in Davis, a family moving into a two- or three-bedroom apartment is going to be paying at least $1800 to $2400 a month just for rental.  I can tell you, that doesn’t work very well for someone even making as much as $70,000 a year.  Students can afford it because they add bodies and split the rent.  Families really can’t.

You end up in a situation where you are living in a dense apartment with no yard that you really can’t afford, or you can go to another town where you can rent a home for less and it becomes a no-brainer.

The reality, as Councilmember Rochelle Swanson warns, is that Davis is becoming two communities – one of students under the age of 25 and the other of seniors over the age of 65.  What we are losing is the middle, the families, the kids.  If that is what we want, then we should continue as we are going.  If we want to change that, then we have to find a way to get more housing that is actually affordable for families.

In my view and from my experience, affordable housing works – we just have to find a way to build more of it.

—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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48 thoughts on “My View: Affordable Housing Works, but We Do Need to Build It”

  1. Ron

    From article:  “The debate over housing figures to define much of the next seven months before the council election, which is likely to include another go-round on Nishi.”

    Just wondering – are you predicting that the council (and subsequently, voters), are just going to pretend that Dr. Cahill’s latest warnings simply didn’t occur?   (That’s one strategy, I guess.)

    1. Don Shor

      are you predicting that the council (and subsequently, voters), are just going to pretend that Dr. Cahill’s latest warnings simply didn’t occur?

      I expect that the council and the voters will weigh his risk analysis to the degree they are able, and that the opinions of other experts will also be considered.

      1. Matt Williams

        Don’s response to the quoted statement mirrors my thoughts as well.  None of the Council members have the specific scientific training needed to make a definitive decision about Dr. Cahill’s warnings by themselves.  They will also be disinclined to make a decision based on a single information source.  They will no doubt attempt to triangulate the issue with multiple expert opinions, and weigh those opinions as a group. Pretending that the warnings don’t exist is not a viable option.

        1. Ron

          Matt:  “They will no doubt attempt to triangulate the issue with multiple expert opinions, and weigh those opinions as a group.”

          Perhaps none of whom will actually perform the study recommended by Dr. Cahill.  (But, we can now see the “strategy”, at least.)

        2. Robb Davis

          Dr. Cahill, in his letter to the Enterprise last week, offered to share all relevant studies with whoever requested them.  He provided his email.  I have requested them but he has not yet responded to my request.  While waiting, I have been conducting my own research of relevant literature on the subject.  I take his concerns seriously and always have.

           

          It is important to evaluate the literature in terms of what it indicates about causality and absolute risk to populations living at the site.  For example, a study might indicate that proximity to a freeway increases the risk of mortality related to heart disease by XX%, but if heart disease is expected to be limited due to the age of the population that finding might not be relevant to Nishi.

           

          Many of the studies are environmental in nature and discuss associations.  The associations indicate relative risk estimates related to fine particulate matter for various adverse health outcomes. For example, one recent European study (from Rome) showed relative risk estimates for living in proximity to a freeway.  Living within 50 meters of a freeway, as compared to living more than 250 meters away, was associated with an 8% increase in death from heart disease (95% confidence interval was 3-13% as I recall).  This is an important finding but we must analyze it in relation to what this means for a resident of Nishi. The first thing to note is that the data used only assessed mortality as an outcome and did not measure it in people under 30 years of age.

           

          These types of studies, by their very nature, typically do not assess how mitigation measures might change risks. They can and sometimes do control for other known personal factors but they do not include intervention factors that could change risks (they do not use experimental designs (which would be hard to do) to introduce interventions that could be put into place). These studies examine different health outcomes in relation to different variables such as particulate matter quantity, proxmity to source, dispersion, etc. I will take the time to review them to understand the health outcomes with an eye to translating relative risk into estimates of absolute risk for people living at Nishi (i.e. number of increased negative health outcomes per 1000 people living there over a given period of time).

           

          That is my responsibility and I will take it seriously.  Anyone who wants to send me peer-reviewed articles that examine health outcomes related to exposure to vehicle-emitted fine particulate matter can send them to rdavis@cityofdavis.org.  I plan to review these and seek input to quantify likely outcomes for future Nishi residents with a qualified epidemiologist.

        3. Howard P

          David… any chance the supporting documents from Cahill can be put on an accessible website for any/all to see?

          Perhaps that’s why Dr Cahill hasn’t sent them to Robb… if he did, on Robb’s City e-mail, it becomes “a public document”.  Given the half-baked discussions to date, I think having it accessible to all would be a good thing…

        4. Ron

          Robb;  “I plan to review these and seek input to quantify likely outcomes for future Nishi residents with a qualified epidemiologist.”

          Your statement seems to indicate that you’ve already concluded that there will be future Nishi residents.  Perhaps “tipping your hand”, regarding your probable conclusions concerning air quality?

          Are you going to ignore Dr. Cahill’s statement that additional study is needed?  (From what I recall, measurements were not actually taken AT the site, for example.)

        5. Howard P

          Ron, “snotty-time” ends at 2:30 PM on Saturdays.  “Troll-time” starts at 4:00 PM.  Not sure if you are too late or too early… [“bon mot” time is from 2:30 to 4:00]

          That was a damn cheap shot at Robb!

          He’s an ‘honest broker’… unlike some…

        6. Robb Davis

          No Ron.  I have not made any decision.  As a public health professional, I weigh the evidence and work to suspend conclusions before I have analyzed the data.

          Unlike you, I have not decided on Nishi.

          I should have said “potential Nishi residents.”

          If you know ANYTHING about how I go about making decisions you must know that I enter the community chambers with an open mind, waiting to hear from my colleagues and the public before making a final decision.

        7. Ron

          Robb:  If I’m not mistaken, you concluded (the first time) that there wasn’t a problem at Nishi.

          I’ll ask the question again:

          Are you going to ignore Dr. Cahill’s statement that additional study is needed?  (From what I recall, measurements were not actually taken AT the site, for example.)

           

        8. Robb Davis

          I have not concluded that yet.  Dr. Cahill is not an epidemiologist.  I want to examine his concerns based on published studies first.  That is what we do in public health.  Before we proceed to further studies (which have a cost), we review extant studies to assess whether further study is necessary.

          Because you are not a public health specialist you may not grasp the importance of reviewing existing studies before launching new ones, but it is how we operate.

          Accountants may be different but this is how we operate.

        9. Ron

          Robb:

          It seems to me that there’s two parts to this:

          1)  Studies to determine the extent of the problem, on-site.  (Dr. Cahill’s area of expertise, and one in which he is recommending further exploration.)  Again, the measurements apparently weren’t even made, on-site.

          2)  Analysis of the results, in terms of the impact on human health.  (Essentially, what you’re referring to, after adequate measurements have been taken.)

          Not sure what good it does to “skip” to step 2, without doing step 1.

          P.S.  Despite what you’ve stated, I haven’t arrived at any “conclusion”. But, it seems that you’re already ignoring what was recommended.

           

  2. Ron

    From article:  “In my view then, as a member of family that rents in Davis, by providing predominantly student housing, not only is the city addressing by far the biggest need, it actually helps address what appears to be others’ concern by opening up single-family homes to families again.”

    As just mentioned in your other article, this is a theory, probably without much basis in reality.  Single-family rental homes that are very near UCD are likely to remain less-expensive (and offer greater flexibility) for students.  (That is, unless student housing is subsidized, on-campus.)

    Eventually, some of the older homes near UCD will be demolished and replaced with higher-density, more expensive housing.  This will benefit current owners, at least financially.

    An example is the “B” street development, which is replacing two small, older cottages.

    1. Don Shor

      As just mentioned in your other article, this is a theory, probably without much basis in reality. Single-family rental homes that are very near UCD are likely to remain less-expensive (and offer greater flexibility) for students.

      The impact of the current rental housing shortage extends way past the neighborhoods that are very near UCD.

    2. David Greenwald Post author

      “Single-family rental homes that are very near UCD are likely to remain less-expensive (and offer greater flexibility) for students.”

      Single-family rental homes that are very near UCD are likely to remain student rentals. But the market for other rental properties starts to change and the incentive to convert single family homes to mini-dorms and rentals is greatly reduced in a market where there is a flood of new rental housing.

      1. Ron

        One of the reasons that some are advocating for on-campus housing (which could then free up the proposed sites for a greater range of populations. That is, if one assumes that all of these sites should be converted from their current zoning – e.g., commercial zoning).

        In any case, there doesn’t seem to be much danger of mass conversion of single-family housing for student rentals, in areas that are farther away from UCD. I don’t expect that will change, regardless.

        And again, some (but not all) owners of single-family dwellings (near UCD) are probably happy to help meet the demand. An inevitable change, over time.

  3. Ron

    From article:  “If they build the student housing on campus, we end up again with 35 percent of zero being zero.”

    This is a false argument, to the point of being laughable.  (The underlying assumption being that “no housing will be built” in the city, unless the city agrees to approve housing that’s exclusively designed for students.) Sounds like something straight out of a developer’s mouth.

  4. Ron

    From article:  “As Mayor Pro Tem Brett Lee put it, there is a mismatch “between fees being based on front doors versus bedrooms.” He said he wanted to see the impact fees being based upon bedrooms.”

    Actually, fees should be based upon the number of planned occupants (“beds”, not “bedrooms”).  Developers provide this information to the city, up-front.

    1. David Greenwald Post author

      Your comment is impractical since the number of bedrooms is a known quantity, the number of occupants may not be known at the time that the fees are paid (at construction).

      1. Ron

        David:  Megadorms developers disclose the number of planned beds to the city, up-front.  (Including the number of rooms that are designed to be double-occupied.) That is a reasonable basis to use.

        On a related note, it’s unfortunate that long-term costs to the city are expected to exceed property tax revenues, from megadorms.

        1. David Greenwald

          Ok.  But the part of my discussion that you’re ignoring is the part where I’m discussing the effect of the city’s impact policy on incentivizing rent by bed designs. And the problem may be that it is not cost-effective to have more standard sized apartments (three rooms or less) due to the high fees.

        2. Ron

          Well, if you ask the developers, I’m pretty sure that they’ll say it “doesn’t pencil out”.  (Perhaps similar to Paso Fino, where it was apparently stated that the proposal wasn’t feasible, unless the city-owned greenbelt was sacrificed.  At least, that’s what I recall – as I wasn’t paying close attention, at that time.)

          In any case, it’s interesting that you seem to be stating that the fees are “too high” for standard-sized units, rather than “too low” for multi-bedroom units.

  5. Ron

    From article:  “One critic writes that “another reason to be concerned about the megadorm proposals, which essentially shortchange the Affordable housing program…”

    Finally, a fact-based statement, based upon the structure of the Affordable housing program (which incentivizes multi-bedroom units, for developers). 

    Not that it matters, but I wonder who noted this?

      1. Ron

        That is simply not true.  The Affordable housing program is based upon the number of units, not size of the units.  Fewer, but larger units = less contribution to the Affordable housing program. (Ironically, the same program that you advocate for, in this article.)

        1. David Greenwald

          My point is that these so called mega-dorms generate more affordable housing for the city than would be under your preferred alternative, on-campus housing.  On-campus housing generates no affordable housing for the city.

        2. Ron

          Again, you’re presenting a false argument in which your underlying assumption is that housing (e.g., traditional apartments) will not be built in the city, if student housing is built on campus.  That argument implies that there’s no demand for housing, without that created by UCD.

          As a side note, the lack of Affordable housing requirements on campus, combined with no-cost land, no property taxes, and opportunities for UCD to subsidize and control costs to students can facilitate lower-cost housing on campus for students, compared to similar proposals within the city.

        3. Ron

          You haven’t provided any evidence.

          I think I can see your point, though:

          By approving whatever comes forward, you might enable developments to be built more quickly, regardless of the impact on the city.  And, those advocating for more Affordable housing in the quickest possible manner may get it sooner by supporting megadorms (even if it’s a lesser total amount of Affordable housing).

          Sacrificing quantity, for speed.

          In the larger picture, Affordable housing is a rather small benefit for a few, in contrast to what these megadorm developments would do to the city. And, you’re advocating to reduce that benefit even further, for the sake of expediency.

      2. Eileen Samitz

        David,

        The quote “another reason to be concerned about the mega-dorm proposals, which essentially shortchange the Affordable housing program…” is advocating for rental housing designed inclusively so that it can be rented by anyone, not exclusively designed mega-dorms specifically for students.  I know what this quote was saying, since it is my statement, and I have spelled out (several times) exactly how mega-dorms do short-change the City out of affordable housing. There is nothing disingenuous it. I am simply stating the facts. The problem is, since you support mega-dorms no matter what the detrimental impacts on the City, these facts are inconvenient for your position of supporting mega-dorms.  Another fact is that mega-dorms are exclusionary by design since they are designed specifically for students, and they do not help provide rental housing for non-students like our families and local workers.

        However, what is disingenuous, is a number of your “spin” attempts:

        First, is your desperate attempt to advocate for mega-dorms claiming they produce affordable housing. Well that isn’t happening at Lincoln40 is it? Lincoln40 does not want to build ANY affordable housing and, instead, want pay in-lieu fees.

        Second, even more disingenuous is your attempt to declare that anyone with children (i.e. families) have no desire or need for rental apartment housing. In your (erroneous) opinion, you claim families only want to rent houses. But as I have pointed out before David, not all families can afford to rent a house like you can. Single parents in particular, typically cannot afford to rent a house. So, it is pretty unfair of you David to cavalierly discard the need for apartments by families with lower incomes than you.

        Third, it is also disingenuous for you to try to make the claim that developers “can’t make traditional apartments pencil-out”. But then you defend the developer claim they can make mega-dorms pencil-out. That is nothing but pure malarkey, because the reality is that there is new State funding coming forward for more affordable housing (recently announced). Furthermore, the truth about mega-dorms is what they are really about is mega-profits for the developers.  The simple math is that the developers get to rake in enormous profits into the future with the enormous number of 4- and 5- bedroom suites which they rent-by-the-bed. Meanwhile, the City gets enormous impacts on its infrastructure and City services, while the mega-dorm developers make a fortune. This mega-dorm rent by the bed scenario is of no use or help to non-students.

        So, the bottom line is that the City building so many mega-dorms is just bad planning, because it does not serve the needs of our families and workers and these mega-apartments with the excessive number of bathrooms bring enormous impact on our infrastructure particularly water and waste water. This is a major issue because the mega-dorm residents would not be charged for water by usage, but instead will be charged a flat fee for a bedroom rate regardless of how much water used.

        What the City does need is more traditional 1-,2- and 3- bedroom apartments that can be rented by all, including students and non-students.

  6. Greg Rowe

    David makes a number of interesting points, particularly with regard to how local government policies and requirements can contribute to higher cost housing.  During the early 1980s, I worked as a government relations specialist for the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce. One of the committees I managed dealt with local housing issues. The farsighted chairman of the housing committee led an effort to convince the City of Cincinnati to authorize construction of a few pilot project homes with reduced requirements for parameters like minimum setbacks, lot sizes, etc. The idea was to demonstrate how a more affordable home could be built if a few government requirements were relaxed. The pilot program was just getting underway when I moved back to CA, so I don’t know the outcome.

    The housing affordability problem is far from local; it is increasingly a national problem. I’ve been doing some reading about the situation elsewhere, and came across an interesting article about a recent panel discussion on this subject in Bend, OR.  The comments by the Deschutes Community Development Director are worth quoting from the article. He first provided a good definition of affordable or workforce housing:  if you were to leave the workforce or change jobs, could the person who replaces you in that job afford the place in which you lived?  I think that’s a useful and pragmatic definition.

    Along the lines of David’s concerns, the community development director went on to say: “Decision makers need to review every vote or decision and question whether a particular position will increase or decrease the cost of housing.”

    Another Bend panel discussion member contrasted the housing affordability efforts in Seattle versus Portland. He believes that Portland’s development community failed because it ignored complaints about housing affordability, prompting the city to instead impose “…an extremely complex and expensive regulatory scheme in an attempt to promote affordability by requiring new developments to restrict a significant number of new units to those below 80% of the median family income.”  He went on to say that in contrast, “… Seattle’s development community worked collaboratively with the community, with the result being a package of development incentives (such as increased height) that are designed to economically offset the affordable housing requirements.”

    Another article about Bend emphasized that because the city is growing so rapidly (net growth of 7 people per day), the only way to conserve the city’s surrounding natural landscape will be to de-emphasize traditional suburban development and zoning that mandates separation of land uses and to start building up (i.e., densification), as well as focusing on new development that promotes reduced vehicle use by integrating residential development with other land uses.

     

  7. Howard P

    Suggestion, David…

    Perhaps a better title for the article would have been,

    “My View: Affordable Housing Works, but We Do Need to Build It it needs to be built”

    The best “we” (assuming you mean the citizens of Davis) can do is to allow, support AH.  “We” are not in a position to ‘build it’.

    Don’t mean to strain at gnats, but there is a very large nuance there.  The City does not (and should not) have a great track record in “building” AH.

  8. Howard P

    So, Ron, if the measurements were not taken on site, perhaps you can share where they were taken, and how those locations are reasonably different? Or do you even know?

    Where on the site and how many measurement points should be used for an additional study… one at the centroid of the site?  10 scattered randomly? 100?  1000?  For how long… three months, six months, one year, two years, five years, 100 years? The scientific basis for whatever answer you give?

     

      1. Howard P

        Until I see cogent, science and/or fact based answers to all of my questions, I see absolutely no need for additional studies.

        Was neutral before, but given the ‘opposition’ so-called “arguments”, am leaning heavily in favor a a vote sooner than later, and voting YES!

      2. Ron

        Yes.

        Again, I don’t have a personal “opinion/conclusion” regarding air quality at the site.  For me (personally), the latest letter from Dr. Cahill more firmly established the need to conduct a proper study, and then to analyze the results.

         

        1. Ron

          Howard:  To clarify, I was answering “yes” to your question to me.

          Now, I’ll ask you that same question:

          “If it (study) met the CONCRETE suggestions in that cite, would you accept the results, sight unseen?”

           

        2. Howard P

          Yes, as to data,

          two calibrated continuous nine-stage DRUM samplers, EPA-approved for our study in Detroit, including an ultrafine stage, for a five-week study, mid-December to late January.

          … if the sampling spots are representative of the Nishi site, and not ‘cherry-picked’ for worst-case scenarios.

          Not as to the health implications of that data… Dr Cahill is not a SME as to that.  Other qualified folk would need to weigh in on that.

          Now, who pays?  You and opponents/questioners?  The City? The developer?

          Please try to be honest… at best, based on your cite, there can not be a meaningful vote in June, if the study comes first, if Cahill does it.  I believe adequate study and analysis has been performed… there is still no indication that others will accept the study proposed (some have said at least a full year)… there is no indication that AQ is the “issue” (more like a “what-if” strawman argument)… please be honest.

      3. Howard P

        BTW… Solano Park housing was pretty much just as close for ~ 50 years… never heard of cancer or other ‘bad health’ clusters associated with that…

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