This year was – or at least should be – a game changer in terms of the perception of Davis. Prior to this year, the belief was that it would be hard if not impossible to get housing projects approved by the voters. However, in the span of six months, the voters not only approved two projects, they did so overwhelmingly.
Nishi passed by a 60-40 margin, with WDAAC approved by a 57-43 margin, pending the counting of the final absentee ballots.
Housing needs remain large in this community, but, as I have written previously, I really do not see another peripheral housing development on the horizon for the next decade. That could change quickly, but that is the assessment for right now.
However, the need for economic development remains acute and we have an opportunity to address that in the near future. While University Research Park and Sierra Energy promise to the fill the needs of the close-in research and development center that was defeated at Nishi in 2016, we still have the need for a large scale project – two million- plus square feet on the periphery.
MRIC (Mace Ranch Innovation Center) has already done the legwork, it has a certified EIR, it only needs to get jump-started. And I think we need to stop trying to micro-manage the innovation parks – the reason that two of them have failed is largely that housing was taken off the table.
This will be controversial, but I believe we should re-think housing at the MRIC site.
There are several reasons that are both community-related and practical.
First, if you look at innovation centers across the region, they have workforce housing. In fact, we need workforce housing anyway. So why are we trying to build something that adds tens of thousands of jobs during a housing crisis, while not providing places for the employees to live?
Look no further than our own University Research Park where we see the need to put housing with jobs at work.
As Project Manager Dave Nystrom told the Vanguard, as they are now proposing their own mixed-use workforce housing project, “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.”
Second, it is also good environmental policy. We would be adding over two million square feet of commercial space and perhaps employing tens of thousands of people. We want them to commute here from Elk Grove? Really? We already have a huge work/live imbalance, why exacerbate it.
Third, the opposition to the recent project and the opposition to student housing has argued the need for workforce housing. In fact, the need for workforce housing has been raised by a number of people in the community.
During the Measure L campaign, Rik Keller argued that the phrase “internal housing need” as “used in City of Davis policy framework, documents, and studies actually refers primarily to low and moderate income workforce housing, and indeed that category is the only one specifically mentioned and for which specific policies have been crafted to meet the need.”
He called workforce housing “so central to the Council’s conception of the city’s internal housing needs…”
Nancy Price, in a public comment criticizing Measure L, argued that “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.”
It is difficult 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 – that 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.
So why are we going to add to the workforce without adding a place for them to live?
When housing came up as a possibility for MRIC in the past, there was pushback. Some argued that the housing would simply be taken up by students since there was no way to restrict the housing to employees.
That’s actually not true. The companies could purchase the housing and then sublease to their employees. MRIC was not inclined to take that approach when we spoke to them several years ago, but it’s one possibility.
Another possibility is to make the leasing period March to March – which would effectively preclude students who would need to occupy in September and vacate at the end of the school year.
The third possibility is to simply take the approach of Jim Gray with the mixed-use project at the University Research Park.
Mr. Gray responded, “If this ends up with some students living in it, it will end up with some students living in it.” He explained, “We’re trying through design, through deliberate marketing, through management practices to attract professionals and workers. We don’t think that you need to impose all kinds of government restrictions and standards.”
He added, “We’re going to let the market respond. I know that that’s a little different in Davis, but it’s been tried and true throughout the region as well as in the community in the past. We believe that because of the location, and the effort we’re going to make, that we’re going to have a good mix of residents… our targeted market is workforce.
“We’re not doing dormitories. We’re not doing four bedroom units,” he said.
As a fourth point, the other objection to housing was the notion of bait and switch. It has been now nearly five years since these things were proposed – maybe it is time to re-examine them and figure out if we can make this work. What we are doing isn’t getting us a project to the Planning Commission and the Council that can be sent to the voters.
It is therefore time to do something different.
At this point we can either can bury this project. Or we can also understand that coming out of the housing collapse five years ago, things have now changed.
Finally, from a practical level, it was assumed that housing would kill a Measure R project. That was again in 2013 when we had come off two dramatic defeats for housing projects and everyone thought housing was going to lose every time it was put forward by the voters.
But once again, things have changed. The voters just voted to pass two projects – why would we think this is the poison pill? As I said, what we are doing isn’t getting us projects, so let us change our approach.
In the past I have equivocated on this issue. I realized from a planning standpoint and an environment one that putting housing with jobs is the right approach. I also recognized that the financing worked better with housing to anchor the commercial.
However, from a practical level, there was enough pushback to believe that, politically, housing might kill the project in a vote before the people.
But the project is already dead. So let us look at a new approach. At this point, all that can happen is that a project could come forward and lose. How can we argue that we need workforce housing and then turn down a project that offers that housing on location with the jobs it generates?
In short – we need commercial development, we need the tax revenue and we need workforce housing. It’s time to reconsider MRIC with housing.
—David M. Greenwald reporting