Monday Morning Thoughts, Part II – Resistance Standing in the Way of Prosperity


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


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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27 thoughts on “Monday Morning Thoughts, Part II – Resistance Standing in the Way of Prosperity”

  1. PhilColeman

    “Preserving the character,” is a frequent and wearisome phrase found in many public forums to oppose a proposed change from the norm. “Heritage,” is another and still another is, “integrity.” They all have the same intent and meaning, resist any proposed change in the status quo.

    Change is often viewed disturbing, threatening, and uncertain. The natural human inclination is to say no to a proposed change that has an element of personal risk–and any change has a risk factor. The proof is found in the voting patterns on Yes/No measures where there’s invariably one-third of the population who say “no” as a matter of form. If there is a financial implication the negative sentiment is higher.

    The “No on Everything” societal element has an easy task to garner public support. Create a fear factor. Project future scenarios of potential cost increases, traffic congestion, discrimination/favoritism, environmental consequences, and increased wealth to a favored few. Claim with no offering of credible evidence that research and staff reports are flawed, hastily prepared, or biased. Allege that insufficient public notice was given while ignoring the previous public hearings with little or no opposition and having full compliance with all legal notice requirements. A contrarian can quickly cobble together an opposition view using all these tools.

    The irony and hypocrisy with Davis community members are they still embrace the label of being a “progressive community” when, in fact, the progressive measures cited are decades old. The Davis leaders of the past were not intimidated by the naysayers. We’ve since become victimized and paralyzed by a distinct and loud minority of nobodies (“No” bodies).

    1. Alan Miller

      Change is often viewed disturbing, threatening, and uncertain.

      Oh, puleez, PC, you are better than this, repeating this tired old insult.

      “Preserving the character,” is a frequent and wearisome phrase found in many public forums to oppose a proposed change from the norm. “Heritage,” is another and still another is, “integrity.”

      Actually, these three things are all important and values of Davis.  So is building more housing.  Demonizing one “side” doesn’t help talking about the actual correct balance for Davis.  While I agree when applying to the literal NOE peeps, stating that change is inherently good and the above three are inherently bad is way below the usual thoughtful and reasoned essays from PC.

      1. Richard McCann

        Phil is correct–many, many people see change as disturbing, inherently. It is not an observation to be dismissed. It also means that those of us who recognize change is inevitable (not necessarily beneficial) and must be planned for in some fashion need to get to the core of what is so disturbing about change to those many. Then we need to figure out how to craft solutions that are less disturbing.

        And Phil notes one of my pet peeves–the 2/3 vote requirement that gives the “no” side 2 votes to 1 vote for the yes side.

    1. Howard P

      Since you asked David, will you share YOUR reason(s)?

      Mine (and spouse’s) is that we attended school here, met here, married here, and when a job presented (promotion) here, decided we should come back rather than facing BA housing prices… ironically, after the final interview for my job here, that afternoon we found out spouse did not have flu… but rather, we were starting our family.

      No brainer…

      So again Jim, since you asked David, and I have shared mine, will you share your reason?  I seriously doubt you will… you are not anonymous, but you do tend to be a ‘sniper’.  But likely I’ll be gone from here, for at least a month or so, to see if the dire predictions of the other ‘anonymous’ folk come true.  After that, may (or may not) come back with full name…

      It appears that the “other site” focuses on letting each author screen (moderate/control/nix) responses… makes sense, given the frequent fliers’ (authors’) bent.  Something about KMA (and the “K” is not for ‘kick’)…

      Amen for ‘Anonygeddon’, here…

      1. Jim Hoch

        I moved to Davis because I like it the way it is. I did not move here out of some desire to make it “better”.  The schools are “good enough” though I came from a district with much better schools. Being high preforming schools they were not as threatened by parent input as DJU is and instead used parent energy to further importune. There is an old adage in the start-up community that you should recruit “A” talent as they will recruit A+ people to work under them. If you recruit “B” talent they will hire “C” players as competence threatens them. This is the situation DJU is in.

        However there is more to life than schools and Davis offers a safe and high quality life for my kids. The remaining ones are 12 and 13 and they can ride bikes to meet their friends for lunch downtown and go to a movie. This is a level of freedom they would not have in my previous town. They are very happy here and do not want to move anywhere.

        As David knows my kids are bi-racial though unfortunately from the Davis perspective both races are “bad”.  Still they get along and have friends.


        1. Richard McCann

          JIm: “I moved to Davis because I like it the way it is.” But what is the definition of that? Without knowing where you came from, it’s difficult to see how the changes that are needed to accommodate the external changes being imposed on Davis (and seriously, we don’t have control over rising college enrollments) would change what you enjoy about Davis? And what if Davis works for you, but it doesn’t work for a sizable plurality of the rest of the population?

  2. Eric Gelber

    … those who argue that the Davis Based-Buyer’s 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.

    No one is ignoring anything. You seem to be suggesting that, because existing housing policies or the general economies of housing development have the effect of limiting growth and, thus, the availability of housing that is affordable to diverse populations, we should ignore new policy proposals that would allegedly exacerbate the situation. The focus of the pending (or any possible future) litigation is the legality of the DBBP. It will stand or fall on its own merits, not based on whether it will address the exclusionary impact of “the overall construction of the city.”

    1. Howard P

      BTW, in my opinion, the diversity that is being stifled is not racial, but economic… there may well be a correlation, but not a causation… well-funded folk, of any race, will find housing… those of limited means, of any race, may well not.

      We have so many Marie Antoinettes (of either gender) in town, and on this site.  ” Let them…”

      The DBBP proposal was/is BS… as is the “racially biased” counterpoint.  The ‘truth’ is elsewhere… main part of DBBP appears like it was intended to assuage those who want no new folk… failure… those figured out that if Davis folk moved to the new project it would open the doors to the ‘other outsiders’… the ‘unwashed masses’, as it were.  The new “newbies”… they failed too…

  3. Sharla C.

    I believe that some prominent players may be motivated by retaliation or revenge and use the “doing it for the kids” and “protect the character of the community” as a tool to frustrate the efforts of people to improve Davis.

  4. Matt Williams

    I don’t know whether David intended it when he chose the title of this article, but a very large proportion of Davis residents would probably be comfortable with some version of the following statement, “We already have enough prosperity in Davis.  We don’t need more prosperity.”

    1. Howard P

      If you change the “we” to”I” (unless someone wants to use the ‘royal’ form, and in Davis that would be many), and add something along the lines of “I’ve got mine, to ‘perdition’ with others, I couldn’t care less”, I pretty much agree, Matt…

      Perhaps that would be the winning motto for the City… “it’s all about me, unless I choose to be magnanimous“… or something along that line.

  5. Howard P

    Well, because that is your name? Have known two named Merry [why their parents named them that, is beyond me]… but if your parents named you Merry, shouldn’t you BE Merry?

        1. Craig Ross

          Doing economic development isn’t going to turn Davis into Hong Kong or the Silicon Valley any more than lifting a few weights is going to turn you in Mr. Atlas.

  6. Richard McCann

    Amen. Joe Mathews is now the most insightful columnist in California. I don’t always agree with him (e.g., how primaries are run) but he raises good perspectives.

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