There was a good discussion at the Social Services Commission on Affordable Housing. Affordable Housing is in no danger of going away in Davis anytime soon. Not with the rising costs of housing and concern about how families, teachers, and others can afford to live in Davis.
In the most recent Measure R campaign for WDAAC (West Davis Active Adult Community), Affordable Housing played a vital role. Many believe that the 150 Affordable Housing units were a key reason the measure cruised to victory. The opposition’s complaint was not that there was too much, but rather that there were not enough units.
On Tuesday, the commissioners reluctantly conceded that, in these days of post-RDA (Redevelopment Agency funding), 35 percent was out of the question. The problem going forward is that 15 percent might be too high as well. As Greg Rowe, a planning commissioner speaking as a private citizen, put it during a public comment, “The 35 percent goal is not feasible without RDA.”
He went so far as to say that “15 percent is going to be really hard to achieve unless it’s a student rent” and that the Interim Ordinance number of 5-5-5 “may not work.”
While the discussion was good, there were several points that were raised that I simply disagree with. The continued pushback against student housing is disappointing. The city faced a real crisis with the student housing shortfall, but for the most part we have probably run our course with strictly student-oriented housing, or so-called mega-dorms with large numbers of rooms, private bathrooms, and bed rentals.
For the commission, they saw affordable housing by the bed or bedroom as a perpetuation of the problem of mega-dorm designs.
Eileen Samitz, a chief opponent of such housing, said during public comment, “We are not producing housing that is applicable to our workforce and families, which is our desperate need.”
It is hard to disagree that we need housing for workforce and families, but, as we saw later on Monday, there are such housing projects coming forward. But to pretend like we didn’t need student housing was an exercise in folly.
Claire Goldstene stated, “I don’t like it and I don’t like the kinds of projects that it had encouraged in Davis. We see a lot of that.” She said, “I think having this in the ordinance has promoted – along with other factors – has promoted a certain orientation in housing proposals that has come to the city.”
Meanwhile, Commissioner Donald Kalman had the classic line: “We have too many bathrooms.”
But here’s my problem and it was echoed by Georgina Valencia – if we eliminate by-the-bed or bedroom affordability as the commission recommended by a 3-1 vote, one result will likely mean that we simply no longer have student affordable housing.
Without affordability by the bed or bedroom, Nishi probably goes the Sterling route with a land dedication site. There is nothing wrong with land dedication in my view, but that would have precluded affordable housing for students – just like Sterling does not have affordable housing for students.
Lincoln40 without affordability by the bedroom would have simply gone the in-lieu route. Ironically, the commission expressed their preference for on-site, integrated affordable units, but then pushed forward on opposition to by-the-bed affordability – which would effectively preclude such affordable housing in future projects and effectively preclude student affordable housing.
My second objection was the unanimous support for eliminating the vertical mixed-use exemption.
Toward this end, Commissioner Georgina Valencia does make some good points here.
She stated, “I think any exemption from affordable housing is a bad exemption.”
From her perspective, “If there’s going to be residential, there has to be some requirement for affordable.”
The problem is – how is that going to be financed? The Plescia & Co. and BAE reports, both on Affordable Housing, and the fiscal analysis for the downtown question whether such development is fiscally viable – even without affordable housing requirements.
They conclude that “under current economic conditions – the Downtown Core Mixed-Use and Large Urban Mixed-Use are unlikely to be feasible, even without inclusion of any affordable housing requirements.” They continue: “The inclusion of on-site affordable housing obligations under the standard requirement renders all development scenarios infeasible.”
The irony is that the one way that apartment developments have made affordable housing work has been with the bed rental and not with unit rentals.
While I think the commissioners have a point that the heavy future emphasis on mixed-use and redevelopment means we might have to re-think this exemption, the removal of it flies in the face of probably four economic studies in the last two years, all of which basically conclude the same thing – that with the high cost of construction, our demand for things like sustainability, and other impact fees, we have pushed such development to the margins of viability.
Chuck Cunningham basically admitted that their margin is actually far below the recommended return on investment, and that is for a standard apartment complex.
Where I think the commission did well is, even though I think they ignore these fiscal realities in moving against bed affordability and against the vertical mixed-use exemption, they also recognize that if this community wants affordability, we cannot simply put it on the demonized developer class.
Georgina Valencia argued, “We have to start looking at creative and affordable ways to do affordable housing.” She would add, “It’s not just the responsibility of the developer – it’s a responsibility of the community as a whole.”
At another point, she also defended the notion that developers might make money on these projects. So, while I was dismayed that the commission seemed to ignore the fiscal analysis on the hardships of affordable housing, they did push the notion that if we are going to move forward, this can’t all be on the backs of the developers.
Part of the problem with putting it all on developers is that if they don’t have a fiscal incentive to develop, we get no new affordable housing. The other problem is that we end up passing costs onto the renters.
But I think the commission did well here looking at creative solutions, subsidies, and the possibility again of taxes and other funding streams as potential solutions.
Punting on affordable housing was never an option for this commission and it is not an option at the state level either. The question is going to be how we can cobble together resources to make it practical. Can we consider a parcel tax? Will state money start kicking in? Will a Governor Gavin Newsom look at reinstating the tax increment?
One point that was not raised by the Social Services Commission is that, under Measure R, strictly affordable housing projects are exempt from the voting requirements. Why not look at extending that exemption and allowing projects that are part market rate but a large part affordable to be exempt – that might make it far more practical to see larger dedication sites on the periphery. It is at least something to consider.
In conclusion, I think the commission was mistaken to go after by- the-bed affordable housing, I don’t know how we get vertical mixed-use to be viable without a lot of other changes, but at least the commission is seemingly willing to start looking outside of the box.
—David M. Greenwald reporting