Sunday Commentary: Workforce Housing and the Politics of “Not This”

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

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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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  1. Rik Keller

    Workforce housing is identified as the “primary” internal housing need in the City of Davis General Plan.* There were a bunch of studies done to support this going back to 2002. This is not a new invention or ploy by “slow growth activists” or however you want to spin this.

    If anything, that need is “more primary” now it has been ignored in favor of other types of projects, and policy initiatives to address it like the City of Davis Middle Income Ordinance have been killed by big money special interest groups like the Chamber of Commerce backed by a coalition of developers.

    It is strange that this article doesn’t get into this important history about what the City of Davis’ land use policies actually say.

    And there is a large irony in the fact that the same project developers for WDAAC who are trying to use a broad and nebulous definition of “internal housing need” applied to Measure R that apparently means whatever they want it to mean for a particular project—in this case a project that consists primarily of senior-only, market-rate, upper-income, suburban-sprawl style housing—and have also instituted a specific discriminatory program, were also involved in efforts to kill one of the main policies in Davis that actually addressed the primary internal housing need in Davis

    *“The phrase “internal housing need” had a specific meaning in City of Davis policy and legislative history starting around 2002 and leading up through the General Plan Update in 2007 and to the adoption of Measure R in 2010.”



    1. Craig Ross

      You say that phrase has a specific meaning starting around 2002, I’m not sure you’re correct, but the bigger issue that you have is that it doesn’t have a fixed meaning going forward.  If you reading the 2013-2021 Housing Element Update and the section on Housing Needs Assessment (referenced in this article), you’ll see a whole range of needs.  So why are you fixing a meaning to a 2002 document that has now been updated?

  2. Tia Will

    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.”

    I don’t see this as a strategy, but rather a recognition of reality. Not all projects are created equal. It seems to me a matter of necessity, not “strategy” to judge each project on its own merits. As humans, we do this in every aspect of our lives whether choosing what food to buy, what friends to hang out with, what clothing to wear, what movie to see, our life’s partner. Now individual evaluation and preference  is a “strategy” when it comes to housing projects? I am not seeing it.

     But they don’t control what we will call “agenda-setting” here “

    Here is where I see a major waste of time, needlessly adversarial posturing, and excessive costs. These could be largely avoided if a more collaborative approach were to be taken in the first place, long before vast amounts of time, energy and money have been put into a proposal. I would suggest instead of our usual go all in on a win/ lose strategy, if all were given a voice in the “agenda setting” instead of just waiting for the developers to decide on whatever they want to build and then voting up or down, we would save in costs not only for the developers but also for the city in planning, vetting, defensive posturing up to and including legal costs. What I am arguing for is no project devoid of long term planning.

    you cannot address all housing needs in one project.  The housing shortfalls in this community are simply too big”

    I respectfully disagree. I do not believe that the numeric shortfall in housing means that we cannot address needs for all groups in one project. Take a small example. If you have 100 people to house, does it really matter the age, employment status, gender, or personal relationships? At the end of the day, you still need roofs over 100 heads. You can decide to isolate by some characteristic, or you can choose to “mix it up”. You will always find some who prefer to live with a certain limited population and some, like myself who prefer diversity.

    While I agree with you that students are a special case for the reason that you stated combined with the relatively rapid turn over of 3-4 years for most students as compared with perhaps a lifetime commitment for workers, their family members and retirees. Thus my support for the student projects both on campus and in town. However, I do not support other forms of deliberate social segregation regardless of the feature ( age, religion, employment, race, sexual or gender preference or  identification) regardless of whether the outcome is intentional or incidental.

  3. Eric Gelber

    The term “exclusionary” has figured prominently in the opposition to recent projects.

    It’s important to distinguish between housing that is “exclusionary by design” and housing that is exclusionary by rule. So-called mega-dorms target students, and are likely to be rented primarily by students, but they don’t prohibit non-students from renting if it meets there needs.

    WDAAC is different. It  not only consists of housing designed to meet the needs of seniors, it actually prohibits purchases by non-seniors (including families with children) or by people deemed to be outsiders. So, unlike housing designed to appeal to a particular demographic, WDAAC would explicitly and intentionally discriminate against others who may have similar housing needs. All housing developments need not and cannot meet all identified needs—but it’s not necessary nor good policy to build segregated and restricted housing to address targeted housing needs—particularly if an exclusionary policy (like the Davis Based Buyers’ Program) will have a disparate impact on a protected class.

    1. Craig Ross

      Worth pointing out that with the 80/20 rule, there will probably be more non-seniors at WDAAC than non-students at Lincoln40.  Ayso important to note that senior housing is completely legal.

      1. Eric Gelber

        Seniors are eligible to purchase up to 100% of the homes. Non-seniors can be turned away when the 20% quota is reached. I’ve pointed out many times that age-restricted housing is legal. That doesn’t make it good policy.

  4. Jeff M

    There are pros and cons with the approach of building housing for particular consumer demographics vs new development that tries to be all things to all people.   It seems to me that what the supporters of the latter are demanding is what we used to call a Planned Unit Development.

    Wikipedia definition:

    As a building development, it is a designed grouping of both varied and compatible land uses, such as housing, recreation, commercial centers, and industrial parks, all within one contained development or subdivision.

    With respect to the housing element, a PUD type project would tend to include a variety of different types of housing.

    The more modern NIMBY-combating approach is Smart-Growth Development.

    From Wikipedia:

    Smart growth principles are directed at developing sustainable communities that provide a greater range of transportation and housing choices and prioritize infill and redevelopment in existing communities rather than development of “greenfield” farmland or natural lands.

    Here is my perspective on this stuff.

    First, PUD projects are typically very large… several hundred acres.  They are also generally built outside city limits with a buffer or else eventually connected.   The reason they are large and disconnected from the existing municipality is the required economies of scale.  Basically the development project will not pencil out if too small and too constrained by the objecting rage of the change-averse neighbor.   The WDAAC project is way too small by comparison.  It is also constrained by the demands of every development activist in Davis that thinks he/she was born with an inalienable right to have a seat at the development design table.

    I can see from the posting done on this topic that most of the thoughtful opposition to WDAAC are really pushing for Smart-Growth development.  I get the attraction, but I think it is a pipe dream.  It is a pipe dream because multi-use developments on too small of a parcel do not pencil out for a developer.  It is a pipe-dream because infill, as we see from projects like Trackside, Sterling and others, is a mess of NIMBY opposition.

    One way to look at WDAAC is that it is a smaller single-use component of a long-term PUD that will happen over the next 50 years.   It does not meet a large variety of housing needs, but it meets one critical housing need while, with the Davis Buyers Program, it also serves to free housing in the city that can meet other needs.  It is not perfect for those wanting all needs filled, but those same people would never go for a 300-400 acre PUD in one bite.

    The rational opposition is demonstrating the epitome of the pursuit of perfection being the enemy of the good.  We all set up the stage with our objections and policies and then complain about the show not being to our liking.  We need to realize that our choices are two: to accept the show as it is, or to accept that the show will no longer go on.

  5. Tia Will

    the development project will not pencil out”

    This might be an accurate statement. Or it might not be. Part of the problem in assessing value is that one of the deciding groups, whether the City Council, or in the case of Measure R is blinded to a major piece of information. There is no way to differentiate “pencilling out” meaning that the project could not be done at a profit, from “penciling out” meaning the developers simply want more profit even though the project could be financed and completed with less.

    I think most businessmen would agree that better decisions for both sides of a negotiation are only possible when each side is in possession of all of the relevant information, not just that which one side decides to disclose. Without this, the process is rigged in favor of the party with full information. The other side must then rely on estimation and guess work, and is often called out for having done so.

    1. Richard McCann


      The truth is that most of the new development occurring in Davis is coming from local developers, not from outside companies. This is a strong indicator that the Davis market is seen by outside companies as already delivering such low returns that other markets are more attractive. (Most of the local developers appear to be pursuing special interest projects for different reasons and economic returns are not the sole driving factor.) Both David G and Mark West made the single most important point: neither the City nor its citizens can dictate to a developer whether to propose a new development and what is the general structure of that development. Developers will only go so far in making changes (even Nishi 2.0 had its limits in changing from 1.0, and there still was strong opposition)  before walking away. And in a squeezed housing market, walking away is worse than not getting perfect.

      While in theory opponents should have been selective in opposing new projects, the fact is that that the group as a whole has opposed every project without fail. Somehow not a single project has provided enough merit. It has become the old story of “bring me a stone; oh, not that stone, bring me another stone…”

      Housing projects will generally focus on one or a couple of needs simply due to economies of scale. Totally mixed demographic projects are a fantasy. Even the Cannery which will be a large neighborhood in the end is straining to meet a wide range of demographics (and I’m not sure how it is meeting student housing demand, or seniors.) Accept that each project is going to have its target demographics. And also accept that housing that is currently used for one purpose can transition to another purpose, such as the old family housing stock near UCD that has become student rental housing.

      We need a dose of realism about how the real estate development industry works rather than fantasies about how we wished it worked. Then we need to figure out how to start discussions with developers early on (which requires intelligence gathering by City staff–which also should happen with economic development) to work on ATTRACTING the kind of developments that we think target our housing needs. Waiting for a developer to reach out to the community and expecting them to radically change their proposal after they’ve already started financing discussions to way too late. We will never get what we need if we continue to try to dictate housing development by only being reactive to what we are presented.

      1. Rik Keller

        Richard McCann stated “While in theory opponents should have been selective in opposing new projects, the fact is that that the group as a whole has opposed every project without fail.”

        What a ridiculous statement. You might as well be saying, “supporters of individual projects as a whole have supported every single project proposal without fail.”

        Meaningless propaganda unconnected to reality. True to form.

  6. Mark West

    “There is no way to differentiate “pencilling out” meaning that the project could not be done at a profit, from “penciling out” meaning the developers simply want more profit even though the project could be financed and completed with less.”

    There is no need to differentiate because they are functionally the same. It is the developer’s money that is at risk and so they get to decide what is an appropriate return on their investment, not you. We cannot force developers to build projects that do not make financial sense to them. That in part is why some projects that are approved are never actually built.

    1. Tia Will


      I realize that is true of the system we have been using. However, I would like to point out a regional example of how that may not prove optimal.

      Just south of Elk Grove, on the 99 freeway is a mall on which construction was started, but never completed. It sits there on land adjacent to the freeway as shells of buildings. Yes, it is the developers money that is at risk. But it is the cities time and the potential loss of land value and /or a potentially more successful project should a project be started and not completed or have the equivalent of a bait and switch like some aspects of the Cannery.

      When a project is put up for approval, both the developer and the community are taking a risk. But only the developer has the full information regarding some of the risks involved.

    2. Rik Keller

      Tia: I could tell you interesting stories about that project.

      I produced economic analyses back in 1998 (at that point it was the Lent Ranch Mall project under consideration by the County of Sacramento) that showed that the project’s projections were highly inflated and that the location could not support the planned commercial uses.

      When Elk Grove incorporated, the City stupidly pushed it forward. It ended up morphing a few times and eventually became the sad rusting monument to hubris and bad planning you see today.




  7. Jeff M

    I think most businessmen would agree that better decisions for both sides of a negotiation are only possible when each side is in possession of all of the relevant information, not just that which one side decides to disclose. Without this, the process is rigged in favor of the party with full information. The other side must then rely on estimation and guess work, and is often called out for having done so.

    Primary negotiations leverage goes to those with the capital to invest and/or abilities that can be traded for capital.  These are the producers… people willing to put their money and labor on the line to create something tangible and new that would otherwise have no chance of being created.

    The voters in this case are looters and moochers.  They want particular benefits and amenities derived from the money and labor investments of others.  The looters have a relationship with the moochers as the moochers lack bureaucratic power and thus are dependent on that power.  The looters acquire the power and then exploit it as their leverage.

    One of the primary problems with looter leverage is that it tends to over-estimate its power to direct capital and labor.  In fact, it is simply the belief that it can direct that causes it to be ineffective at negotiations.  The most successful negotiations of bureaucratic looter power is one that recognizes the lesser leverage and compensates in some way: either by bringing capital to the table, or otherwise encouraging and attracting the other party to move more in the desired direction of the looter.   A simplified explanation of this is carrot vs stick.

    Measure R is 100% a stick.  It is meant to beat a developer into submission for spending more to give the looters and moochers more of what the looters and moochers want.  It sets up an adversarial relationship from the moment a project is conceived.   But more importantly, it overplays the actual leverage owned by the looter and moocher population.

    Capital expects a return, and if it cannot get a strong enough return, capital goes elsewhere where it can get a better return.  This is the fundamental point lost on the looters and moochers.   They have an inflated sense of power and purpose that fails to understand the people with money to invest are free to invest how they see fit.

    From a larger ideological perspective, this is why the looters and moochers start pushing for collectivism… their building frustration over their inability to direct capital causes them toward more confiscation of capital and eventually confiscation of property and business… and this then leads to the running out of other people’s money and total system collapse.

    This is the part you and others don’t get, and also appear to not want to accept.  In a capitalist system, capital has freedom and hence power.  With respect to development projects, you cannot direct money you don’t own.  You can only try to encourage capital investment to satisfy as many looter and moocher wants as possible.

  8. Tia Will

    I find your producer/ looter perspective not only counter productive but also offensive. I do not buy into this construct and will not engage. Courtesy post only.

    1. Jeff M

      The “looters” are proponents of high taxation, big labor, government ownership, government spending, government planning, regulation, and redistribution.   (California and Davis liberals to a T)

      “Moochers” are unable to produce value themselves, who demand others’ earnings on behalf of the needy, but resent the talented upon whom they depend, and appeal to “moral right” while enabling the “lawful” seizure by governments.  (Obama’s “you didn’t build that”, “they are not paying their fair share”)

      Money is not the tool of the moochers, who claim it by tears, or the looters who take it by force. Money is made possible only by those that produce.

      And along with this we need to add the “hypersensitivity authority”… those that don’t have any material arguments against the former and use word sensitivity claims to deflect and ignore its  inconvenient validity.

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