A point I made earlier this week is that after getting badly beaten on up on various projects over the years, developers have learned to address some of the concerns to which they were vulnerable and mitigate them – things like traffic impacts, affordable housing, and sustainability are easy targets and are also relatively easy to address with modified designs.
On the other side of the ledger, slow-growth activists are often vulnerable to charges like Nimbyism and opposing all growth. So one of their strategies has been to say that they don’t oppose all housing, but rather they oppose the specifics of “this housing” or “this project.” It is not that they are saying “no” to growth and housing, it is that they are saying “not this.”
The term “exclusionary” has figured prominently in the opposition to recent projects. When private housing developments came forward to address student housing needs, Eileen Samitz and others attacked them as “exclusionary mega-dorm proposals” that “are exclusionary by design because they are predominantly four- and five-bedroom apartment suites renting by the bed, with individual bathrooms.”
She argued: “Instead of mega-dorms, any new multi-family housing needs to have an inclusive design that suits all renters — individuals, families or students…”
While the tactic was not necessarily successful, the approach has continued with current proposals.
On Plaza 2555, she called the project “basically a reconstituted mega-dorm” and, speaking of the original project, she accused the developers of “charading as a project for everyone. But it’s clearly designed to target students. Seventy-eight percent of the apartments are 3-4-5 bedroom.”
During the public comment on Tuesday, this continued as a theme – with commenters pushing for workforce housing and housing for families, rather than student housing.
This has made its way into the No on L narrative as well.
Nancy Price during public comment pushed back against WDAAC (West Davis Active Adult Community), arguing “it does nothing to provide the mix of housing so desperately (needed) in this community – workforce housing for single persons, young couples and young families.”
She asked, “Is this the type of housing we need right now?”
Rik Keller in Vanguard guest commentaries has argued that low to moderate income workforce housing has been identified as the primary “internal housing need” in Davis.
While Rik is correct in his comment, that comment does not tell the whole story. The 2014 Housing Element Update for the period of 2013-2021 identifies four housing needs for Davis, including workforce housing (both ownership and rental), student rental housing, affordable housing, and senior housing.
From my perspective, it is hard to argue with the assessment that we need a variety of different kinds of workforce housing. This includes rental housing for young adults entering the workforce – who many in the community are hoping will stick around after graduation at UC Davis to work in new startups, and be hired as labor for high-tech companies we are hoping to attract.
One reason that Dave Nystrom and Jim Gray are proposing a mixed-use workforce housing project at University Research Park is, as Mr. Nystrom pointed out, “one of the challenges (businesses in the park) face is hiring people, because it’s so difficult to find housing in Davis. People I think have an expectation that if they’re going to work in Davis, they’re going to live in Dixon or Woodland or West Sacramento because the housing market is just so tight.”
One of the focuses of mixed use in the downtown core will also be on workforce housing. One key reason for this is the continued housing-jobs imbalance, which creates the situation where a large number of people each day drive from outside of Davis to come to work either at the university or in the community because of lack of available workforce housing.
At the same time, it is hard to argue that is the only critical need. Indeed, the student housing situation worsened to the point where both the city and university had to add roughly 13,000 new beds over the next decade to meet current needs as well as the need generated by enrollment growth.
Furthermore, while we have addressed the needs of new students – assuming the litigation can be resolved – we have not really addressed the need of current and additional employees to live in the community.
Affordable housing is also an issue. The 2014 Housing Element report noted: “The high level of housing demand and limited supply of housing contributes to high housing costs in Davis. As a result of the high housing costs in Davis, approximately 46 percent of all Davis households (7,779 households) experienced some level of excessive housing cost burden in 2010, though renter households experienced a disproportionate share of housing affordability problems.”
The report notes that “with a median home price of $463,500, the Davis for-sale housing market is affordable only to households with above-moderate income levels. Very few for-sale housing options exist for households earning less than $100,000 annually, outside of City inclusionary programs.”
Finally, with a growing senior population, there remains a need for senior housing as well in Davis.
If the experience on the student housing front is any indication, the “not this” strategy is risky. In 2015, Eileen Samitz, in advance of the university’s LRDP, began to point out that the university had failed to provide sufficient student housing on campus. Her goal was to put public pressure on the university to build more housing on campus, in the hope that it would force the university to build more housing while avoiding new housing in town.
She was partly successful. Ms. Samitz was very successful at raising the issue of student housing needs. Following her pressure, the city, the county and other entities pushed for the university to adopt the 100/50 policy which was to provide for 100 percent of enrollment growth with housing on campus, while accommodating half of the overall student population with housing on campus as well.
She almost got it. In the end, the university went to an effective 100/48. They have agreed to add about 9050 beds – it would have taken roughly 10,000 to get to the 50 percent mark. Not bad.
But she failed at another goal – the city approved housing over her objections at Sterling, Lincoln40, and Nishi. So, while she successfully raised the issue of student housing, she failed to get policy makers to follow her policy preferences of housing only on campus rather than in the community. Her push for housing for all likewise fell on deaf ears.
I believe the push against exclusive housing, whether it be student housing or senior housing, is likely not to succeed for a number of reasons.
First of all, controlling what private developers do is tricky. The city has control over gate-keeping – they decide which projects go forward and which projects don’t. But they don’t control what we will call “agenda-setting” here – the choice of the proposals coming forward. Therefore their choice is over “yes” or “no,” and as a result “not this” becomes a risky strategy, because “not this” may be mean they don’t get housing.
Second, as was the case with student housing, you can argue that we need housing for all, but you can’t argue that we don’t need student housing. You can certainly argue that senior housing is not our biggest need – but the community, especially a large number of seniors who vote, may have something else to say.
Third, from my perspective, you cannot address all housing needs in one project. The housing shortfalls in this community are simply too big. So in effect you have a choice: you can pick off one subpopulation of needs to address – or in this case a few subpopulations of needs (market rate senior housing and affordable senior housing) – or you can provide a more diverse project that provides a little bit of housing for everyone.
One reason I favored going strictly after student housing is that it was a true internal need that could be satiated through the creation of more supply. In other words, build market rate housing and you could end up with folks from out of town coming to live here. But UC Berkeley students aren’t going to suddenly live in Davis if you build student housing.
One reason I am less supportive of West Davis Active Adult Community is that it seems much more difficult to offer a focused senior project that really addresses current internal needs.
But the bottom line here is that to address one subsection at a time is not necessarily the wrong strategy. We are going to have to address workforce housing. Areas where that could be addressed would be with the University Research Park and mixed use in the downtown.
That still leaves housing for families and general affordable housing unaddressed. Those are going to be the biggest challenges going forward, because you may not be able to address them strictly through infill as you will student housing and rental workforce housing.
If there’s a point that the No on L people have, it is that the best use for the land occupied by WDAAC would be for family housing, not senior housing. That is where the Davis-based program gains traction with the idea that you can address both senior housing needs on the periphery while freeing up housing internally.
My problem, as I have explained previously: I’m not sure that theory will work and I’m also not sure the program will pass legal muster.
But my final point is that the opponents of WDAAC are engaging in a lot of risky games in trying to defeat the project. I believe their civil rights charges have the possibility of backfiring, and the history of “not this” is that the strategy does not seem to be effective – and to the extent it is effective, that effectiveness is actually setting a new agenda that the opponents cannot control.
Putting workforce housing on the radar, and rightly so, you may not defeat student housing projects or senior housing projects – you may simply pave the way for more projects, this time, that do address workforce housing.
—David M. Greenwald reporting