In the Chronicle this week, Joe Mathews writes: “Resistance to development stands in way of prosperity.” He argues that, as a New Year’s resolution, the “best thing you could do is swear off this phrase – ‘We want to protect the character of the community.’”
It’s an interesting point, indeed the rallying cry of people in Davis – perhaps even our political raison d’être.
As he writes: “The expressed desire to defend community character is a staple of California conversations. It’s routinely aimed at developers, planners or anyone with a big, transformational vision.”
But, he argues, it’s killing us. He writes that “in a state struggling to keep up with changes in housing, economy and environment, there may be no more damaging set of words.”
I know I have just committed the Davis version of blasphemy. But I think Mr. Mathews has some points that we ought to consider as we start moving forward with our planning.
I find it especially insightful (and probably inciting), given that one of the biggest political battles was over the phrase “taking care of our own” and the “Davis Based Buyers Program,” about which one side argued that the policy would restrict housing for people of color, while many others argued that current policies do that by themselves.
Here is what Joe Mathews has to say.
He write that “in another, perverse sense, ‘protect the character of our community’ is the phrase that unites us all. It can be used to oppose anything: more housing, more renewable energy, more immigrants. It is used by poor people protesting gentrification that might bring richer people to their neighborhoods, and it’s used by rich people worried that affordable housing or homeless services might bring poorer people to their neighborhoods. It’s been used to throttle projects that promote sprawl and driving, and those that promote density and transit.”
He argues, “The defense of community character is a lousy argument in normal times, because neither character nor community is static.”
However, “in difficult times like our own, the ‘protect-community-character’ argument verges on treason to California and its ideals.”
For Joe Mathews, right now, California faces two huge challenges. The first is “to catch up on meeting the state’s existing needs.” These are things like infrastructure, transportation and housing.
The thing about housing is that it is really controlled at the local level, “where ‘the character of the community’ argument is strongest.” He argues, in this respect, “The results have meant disaster for the state. California housing costs 2½ times the national average, and the state has the country’s longest and unhealthiest commutes.”
The second threat is that of climate change, which “will require transformation in how and where we live, which by definition will change community character. And the state needs to invest on an enormous scale in transit so that we drive less and burn fewer fossil fuels. No responsible community in California should stay the same in such a time.”
He argues that “change in California communities is long overdue. For 40 years now, since the passage of Proposition 13, California has prioritized community stability — holding down property taxes to benefit existing homeowners and businesses — at the expense of schools, health care, business development and local services. It’s time for that era to end.”
In order to do that, he argues, it “will require that we stop singing the praises of community character and start realizing that it’s really the anthem of California’s religion of obstruction.”
He calls them “victimizers, not victims.”
There are two compelling points that Mr. Mathews makes. The first is one that we have focused on heavily here – existing policies have made California unaffordable to wide segments of the population. As we see in the other column, that has led to a net outflow of lower income residents and a net inflow of well-educated, higher income residents.
The second and perhaps more fundamentally thing, something we have not discussed, is the reality of climate change, and whether we pursue mitigation or adaptation is going to fundamentally and permanently alter the nature of our communities – we really have not discussed either in this community or on these pages what that looks like.
I think we need to go back to the pending litigation over the Davis-Based Buyers Program. What we have here is an interesting debate for a number of reasons, but I think most fundamentally it is this – those who argue that the Davis Based-Buyers Program (DBBP) is exclusive and is designed to keep people of color out – or has that effect – are ignoring the fact that the overall construction of the city performs that very purpose.
It does so in a lot of ways – from the growth control policies, to the fact that the high cost of development, construction, and added regulations has made it so that larger housing units are economically advantageous while smaller more affordable (small “a”) units are economically disadvantageous.
The result is that we had an odd political dynamic at play during the election – those primarily opposing the project were folks that oppose a whole variety of projects. They argued that the DBBP and, in fact, the entire WDAAC (West Davis Active Adult Community) was exclusionary housing policy, while ignoring that the entire Davis slow growth housing policies are in exclusionary policies – even if they are not explicitly so.
As Joe Mathews might put it, they commit the “crime of shutting off their communities from change, and putting big problems onto the younger, poorer, more diverse generations of Californians.” But even more so, they lock Davis out from younger, poorer and more diverse Californians in general.
The very thing that the DBBP was accused of is precisely what has been occurring in our community – de facto at least, if not explicit, mandate.
—David M. Greenwald reporting