We like to think of ourselves in Davis as progressives. When I first started writing the Vanguard, 12 years ago last Monday, I viewed Davis as a disconnect – politically liberal, willing to support liberal policies and politicians nationally, but below that surface, I talked about what I called “the dark underbelly.”
Upper middle class citizens willing to bury their heads in the sand or turn a blind eye to the injustices below the surface in their own community. At the time, I was thinking of issues of race, crime, and policing – but I could have been writing about housing, which I would argue is tied neatly to all of those issues.
Interestingly enough, I see a community that has greatly transformed on many of these issues since those dark days of 2006. The 2017 Picnic Day incident paved the way for a new generation of activists and new reforms to the police department that resulted, interestingly enough, in a system very similar to one that was outright rejected by the council and many in the community in 2006.
This city overwhelmingly voted for the first African American president and California’s first woman of color as senator, and now we have elected a Latina woman who will become the first Latina Mayor of Davis in two years.
Where we have not made as much progress is on the issue of housing. A few years ago a friend of mine challenged me by stating that I am willing to speak out for social justice on a number of important fronts, but what about housing?
The left in Davis, for the most part, has viewed their legacy as one of environmental stewardship. They view of tantamount importance the value of the preservation of open space and agricultural land in the areas surrounding Davis.
When I began what would become my life’s work in 2006, we had been coming off a period of rapid growth in population and housing. Covell Village had just, in reaction, been resoundingly defeated in the first ever Measure J vote and we were about to enter the worst recession and housing market collapse post-World War II.
But the pendulum has swung too far – and not just in Davis. Across the state, housing has emerged as one of the biggest and most pressing needs. Attending an affordable housing tour of Sacramento, I see that we think of housing issues as being results of developers and capitalism, but we need to really think of housing issues as social justice problems.
The people who get hurt when we have housing shortfalls are the poor and vulnerable.
My views on student housing in Davis started to change when I began meeting with students and student groups and realized the extent of the problem that students face in this community. As the university has grown, and the lack of housing both on and off campus has not kept up, the pressures on students have increased.
We had no way to measure how impacted students were – and how vulnerable they are to housing shortages is frankly shocking, or should be. But I believe this is not just a student housing problem, it is problem of a community that has failed to understand the impacts their policies on growth will have on future generations, starting with college students and continuing to working families and others.
This morning, in his column in the local paper, Jonathan London writes: “Housing poverty is measured by paying more than 30 percent of household income on housing.
“Think about it: less than 70 percent of your monthly income would be available for food, utilities, transportation, education, social and health services, and other essentials. How would you survive? In some neighborhoods in Davis, there are as many as 60 percent of households that are living in such conditions,” he writes.
He then puts it into terms of a family of four with an income of $31,000 per year. That family would “have to pay nearly two-thirds of its monthly salary to rent a two bedroom apartment. This is partly due to the astoundingly low vacancy rate of less than 1 percent (compared to the California average of 3.3 percent) that lead to sky rocketing rents (more than $1,800 for a two-bedroom apartment.)”
This is part of why I have argued that market rate multifamily housing is not a solution for housing for families in Davis.
Mr. London points out that, in the face of the housing crisis, “there is some agreement on the problem, but heated debate over the solutions.”
I agree with him – there is some agreement on the problem, but heated debate over the solutions. He concludes: “Consider this: We just passed several measures to fund our schools, parks and roads — all social goods essential to a healthy and vibrant community. Why should we view affordable housing as any less of a public benefit? When housing is affordable for all, we all thrive.”
The problem that I see is how to get there. I think we have to begin this discussion by clearly identifying the problem. The problem itself is multilayered and complicated. In short, we do not have enough housing and the housing that we do have is too expensive – partly because we do not have enough of it, but also because economic incentives drive us to build bigger homes on available parcels.
We need to look at market-based affordability as one part of the solution, but that is not going to get us all the way there.
The second part of the problem is that we lack the funding mechanisms to build new affordable housing. This was driven home time and time again even in Sacramento. The loss of redevelopment monies has been devastating. Mr. London laments the fact that the “city councils have not been as strong as they should have been in holding the developers to account” but also doesn’t explore the realities of financing subsidized affordable housing.
My belief is that, in order to solve this problem, we have to understand it – and we need a community conversation in order for more citizens to understand the nature of the problem before we figure out the best way to solve it.
In the coming weeks, I hope to lay out a plan by which to do that.
—David M. Greenwald reporting