On Monday night, the Social Services Commission was asked to offer a preliminary assessment of the Nishi affordable housing project. Given the lack of a final project proposal, that was difficult and the consensus of the commission was that they wanted a chance to re-evaluate when the project gets finalized.
Staff, in the meantime, asked for feedback on a number of key questions: Is the proposed number of affordable beds acceptable? Which is preferable: land dedication site or integrated affordable housing? Do they prefer affordable beds or units? Should each category (extremely low, very low and low) count for the same affordable housing credit? And should the applicant waive or subsidize parking fees?
The commission was told by city staff that issues of air quality and the environmental concerns were outside of their purview, but Claire Goldstene, who was joined by others, indicated that she “believes that is the purview of the commission.”
We also got some other answers outside of the immediate purview of affordable housing.
Developer Tim Ruff told the commission: “We have a mega-housing crisis. What you look, at what we are doing here in Davis – we can do it with mini-dorms or we can do it with other larger dorms. I think the best location for a larger dorm-like project would be adjacent to campus.”
He said what is happening in some of the neighborhoods is that houses have at times ten students living in them. “I think (moving) the students closer to campus would free up some of those neighborhood houses and supply, which is a big issue in town.”
Later Mr. Ruff told the commission, in essence, this is not the mega-dorm design of other projects. “We’re looking at two bedroom, one bath units,” he said. “Four bedroom, two bath units.
Commissioner Donald Kalman asked why Mr. Ruff thought providing student housing was the right answer for Davis versus doing other types of housing.
Mr. Ruff responded, “It’s right adjacent to campus.” He said, “We’re not necessarily restricting to students, but the fact that it’s right next to campus… The students won’t need cars… The idea’s to lure students closer to campus and get them out of some of these neighborhoods.”
He offered, “I think that will help loosen up…every percentage you can take off the vacancy rate – two percent, three percent, four percent – each step you go, you are going to put more tools in the hands of the tenant, so that when they come to the landlord they can ask for pretty much (what they need), they can negotiate.
“Right now, that’s not happening at all. It’s the opposite. The landlord has all the cards,” he said. “By increasing supply – and I just think this is a natural spot for students.”
The commission seemed to view this as having the potential for more than just student housing, but, given the proximity to campus, the design, the lack of access onto West Olive, Tim Ruff said, “For all intents and purposes it will draw students and (be) appropriate for students.” He pointed out that they studied apartments around town and even further away, and they found that “some of these apartment complexes are 90 percent student.”
Commissioner Georgina Valencia applauded the developers for trying to find a way to provide students with affordable housing. But she asked, “Have any other university towns done these kind of projects that are being proposed and used an affordable element in them?” She said, “I think it’s a unique idea and a unique way to try to help the student population to offer this kind of housing. I like the concept.”
A big issue that has come up is the fact that Nishi, like Lincoln40, only proposes about 11-12 percent affordable units.
Claire Goldstene said, “I would like to see the number of affordable units increase.” She added, “The calculation of the number of units is based on the Lincoln40 discussion… That troubles me because when the commission discussed that issue we recommended that that percentage be increased. I certainly wouldn’t want Lincoln40’s proposal to become the model of what is an acceptable percentage of affordable units.”
This was a common question by the commission and they seemed eager to increase the number from about 11-12 percent. Part of the question that the city is trying to get at is why they aren’t getting any projects anymore, and the commission has discussed a critical question as to whether 35 percent affordable is simply too high a requirement to actually get anything built.
The city has commissioned Andy Plescia to assess what a reasonable requirement would be. One key point is that, 15 years ago, the city was getting projects that had 35 percent affordable, but in the last 15 years they have not.
The Vanguard learned that this consultant report will come out sometime in January and may help inform future discussions and direction.
Commission Chair Tracy Tomasky summarized the commission’s responses to the questions posed by city staff. She reiterated: “It is important to recommend support for the project because we do not have all the details.” She was concerned that “if it doesn’t come back to us and we talk about things that are important to us and the things we want to see put forward, I wouldn’t want that to be seen as we would approve the project if those conditions (are met) even if we didn’t see it.”
She added, “I also heard, we would favor not limiting (the affordable component) to students.” She said, “That we do not use Lincoln40 as a rubber stamp model.”
She said on the issue of land dedication or immigration, “We would be in favor of integration whenever possible.”
She said, “The beds over units, while there was some mixed discussion on that – I think we would all agree that getting as close to 35 percent as possible is what we want unless there can be shown good cause. We’re in a housing crisis and that’s the very nature of what we’re here to advocate for – is affordable housing.”
She saw as a positive “the variety of the bed-bath variation (which) could be more feasible for families.”
At this point it is unclear if this is going back to the Social Services Commission. The project is on the fast track to get on the June ballot and the council would have to act by early February to do that and this project still needs to go to the Planning Commission.
—David M. Greenwald reporting