Monday Morning Thoughts: Thoughts on Housing and Growth in Davis

Here we are at the end of September 2019 and the council has not wanted to have an engagement on Measure R or the future of housing growth in Davis.  It seems a bit odd if you ask me.  In fact, I’m a bit troubled by it.

I can see some of you saying, that’s because you want to push for growth.  Grow, grow, grow.  That’s all you’re about.  In the pockets of developers.

On the contrary, if we want good planning, I think we should probably consider a few things concurrently – and we haven’t.  For one thing, the downtown plan seems to have ground close to a halt.  That’s a factor.  For another thing, it seems a Measure R vote is going to go in front of a General Plan discussion, which frankly makes little sense.

And then there are state demands that are not quite that clear yet, except that the RHNA (Regional Housing Needs Assessment) number appears to be nearly double what it was from 2013-2021.

How we deal with this stuff, isolated from a discussion of a Measure R renewal, doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Finally, let me bring another factor into play here – how much can we even grow on the periphery?  I’ve made this point before – arguing that there does not appear to be another project on the periphery after the passage of WDAAC (West Davis Active Adult Community).  Since then I have heard some rumblings of two possible projects that are still a ways out.

But looking at the open space map, which is a few years old, it gives us a sense of where things can go – and right now it appears that we have pretty limited possibilities of growth on the periphery.

Right now we have the proposal for the Aggie Research Campus, that would take away that open square to the east of Mace and takes us to the conservation easement.  That means that, realistically, along the East Covell/Mace Corridor there are three spots – Wildhorse Ranch, Shriner’s and Signature.

To the east of town, there really isn’t a possibility of development between easements and athletics fields.  As you go south, you have El Macero, you have easements and the county line that pretty much locks in the city in that direction.

Moving west, you have the county line as well as UC Davis.

It doesn’t show up on the map, but I am told immediately west of town are new easements that lock in the city on the west.  And that leaves the Northwest Quadrant which is also relatively constrained – and some of that land is not even developable, due to flood control measures.  You then have the land that would have been Covell Village.

Realistically, that is more than enough land to incorporate the next few decades worth of projected growth.  But the danger of rapid growth over-running Davis seems far-fetched and not a real concern anymore.

While the open space acquisition program did not result in the kind of land and growth control that may have been envisioned, in the long run it figures to constrain Davis growth enough that the fears which were in place in 2000 are probably not going to happen.

The problem that Davis may face at some point is the inability to grow any further.   That’s realistically not going to be a problem in this RHNA cycle.

And while we are looking at mixed-use development in the downtown, realistically the financials there do not seem to pencil out either.  It seems like the only realistic chance for that type of development would be if redevelopment re-emerges and increment tax money can help subsidize the development in the downtown.

The question I have – if that is the case – is does Measure R, as we understand it now, really make a lot of sense? One problem with Measure R is it takes us away from the General Plan, master planning for the city.

Instead, we approach development project by project.  We have seen this really over the last two decades.  We had Covell Village.  That lost.  We had Wildhorse Ranch.  That lost.  We had Nishi.  That lost.  We had a different version of Nishi, that won.  We had WDAAC, that won.

What if, instead of piecemeal development, project by project, we had the following.  If the city had a hard cap on growth, you get 2075 units between 2021 and 2029.  These are the areas that we can develop.  We can’t go over 2075  in terms of size.

The advantage of that approach is it gives the community more certainty in terms of number of housing units, it still limits growth, it allows the council and developers to find the best plan for a given space, but at the end of the time period, we know that we will not have any faster growth than what’s already laid out.

There are two downsides to that approach.  One is that the voters would no longer have a say over the type and form of the developments.  But we can debate over whether that is a good or bad thing.  Do you prefer Nishi 1 or Nishi 2?  The voters voted down Nishi 1 but a lot of people argue that Nishi 1 was better.  Not everyone, obviously, but some did.

Or you can argue that WDAAC was what was able to pass a vote, but maybe not the best project for what Davis needed.  Again, that is a debatable point.

My point is that it is not immediately clear that Measure R, in terms of type and quality of projects, is the superior selection mechanism.

The other disadvantage is this: you might cap growth through my proposed method, but you probably get more growth this way than the Measure R process.  That’s a tougher question.  The argument for that viewpoint is that by opening up development, you ensure that the floor is the ceiling, whereas before there was always a ceiling, but no floor.

On the other hand, it would throw infill and peripheral growth into the same pot, and probably give more of an advantage to peripheral growth due to cost and near-neighbor impacts.

Realistically though, both sides of the growth divide (as though there were only two sides) need to recognize that Davis is largely built out.  There are probably a few more developable areas over the next few decades on the periphery, but realistically this is probably similar to what Davis will look like in 2050 – whereas the period from 1970 to 2000 marked huge changes for the city.

Measure R made a lot of sense in the 2000 environment of rapid growth and much more wide-open possibilities.  A more planning intensive approach appears to make more sense now, though it is unlikely that Measure R will change much, at least in the next ten years.

—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

    Measure R is consistent with the long-term land use policy direction in Davis as established in the General Plan, the Right To Farm Ordinance and other adopted policies. Let’s look at what Measure R actually states in the “Purpose” and “Findings” sections:
    a)    Purpose.
    (1)    The purpose of this article is to establish a mechanism for direct citizen participation in land use decisions affecting city policies for compact urban form, agricultural land preservation and an adequate housing supply to meet internal city needs, by providing the people of the City of Davis the right to vote, without having to evoke referenda, on general plan land use map amendments that would convert any agricultural, open space, or urban reserve lands, as designated on the land use map of the City of Davis general plan, dated August 1, 1999, to an urban or urban reserve land use designation and on any development proposal on the Covell Center or Nishi properties.
    (2)    The purpose of this article is to ensure that the purposes and principles set forth in the City of Davis general plan relating to voter approval, land use, affordable housing, open space, agricultural preservation and conservation are fully considered by establishing an expanded land use entitlement process for proposed conversion of properties to urban use that are designated or in agricultural or open space use. This action recognizes that continued conversion of agricultural lands to meet urban needs is neither inevitable nor necessary, and that any land use decision affecting such properties shall be subject to a public vote.
    (b)    Findings. The city council and the voters of the city hereby incorporate all of the recitals set forth above and, in addition, find that:
    (1)    The protection of existing agricultural and open space lands, natural habitats and reserves surrounding the City of Davis, and within the Davis planning area, is of critical importance to the present and future residents of the City of Davis. Agriculture has been and remains a major contributor to the local and regional economy, directly and indirectly creating employment for many people, and providing valuable food crops distributed worldwide.
    (2)    Continued urban encroachment into agricultural and open space lands, natural habitats and reserves impairs agriculture and threatens the public health, safety, and welfare by causing increased traffic congestion, associated air pollution, and potential adverse impacts to the quantity and quality of available water resources. Continued urban encroachment into agricultural lands also requires significant new public infrastructure and facilities and places additional stresses on existing public infrastructure and facilities.
    (3)    The unique character of the City of Davis and the quality of life enjoyed by city residents depend on the protection of agricultural, open space lands, and natural habitats and reserves on its periphery. The protection of such lands aids the continued viability of agriculture, defines urban/rural boundary, and brings mental and physical benefits from the broad vistas at the urban edge onto open space and agricultural lands. It also contributes to the protection of wildlife including rare, endangered, or threatened species, environmentally sensitive areas, and irreplaceable natural resources.
    (4)    The general plan contains policies for compact urban form, and protection of agricultural lands from urban development including a policy that prohibits new urban development on open space and agricultural lands. The general plan further calls for the use of all available mechanisms to preserve open space and agricultural lands and provides for the implementation of growth management systems.
    (5)    The city has actively promoted both the preservation of agricultural lands and habitat and the availability of affordable housing within the city through the existing policies in the city’s general plan and the city’s implementing activities, including, but not limited to, the right to farm ordinance, the city’s acquisition of open space, agricultural lands and habitat, the city’s participation in the agricultural lands stewardship program, the city’s affordable housing ordinance, the redevelopment plan and the redevelopment pass-through agreement and other city programs and policies designed to promote agricultural preservation and/or affordable housing.
    (6)    This citizens’ right to vote on future use of open space and agricultural lands ordinance implements the general plan and is consistent with the city’s adopted general plan and furthers and implements the policies of the general plan. The city finds that this ordinance will provide for a balance between the preservation of agricultural lands and open space and the housing needs of the city. (Ord. 2008 § 3, 2000; Ord. 2350 § 3, 2010)

    1. Ron Glick

      “direct citizen participation in land use decisions”

      But only for those who can vote. Those that are not citizens, the international students, grad students and post docs are excluded. Those same people who pay lots of exorbitant rent are excluded from the process.

        1. Matt Williams

          Craig, one of the conundrums that Davis and many other similar communities face is that the people who you are referring to are frequently in a position where they are not able to come up with the necessary down payment and closing costs for purchasing their housing and/or without sufficient income to cover the monthly mortgage payments even if they are able to come up with the down money and closing costs.

          As a result building additional housing often doesn’t help your “excluded people” but rather it helps affluent people from other areas who see Davis as a more desirable place to retire than their current place of residence.  We have seen that scenario play out at The Cannery.

      1. Rik Keller

        Richard: while developer spending on campaigns is obscene and it massively distorts the democratic process, dropping a few hundred thousand in an election is a mere pittance in their overall development costs.

        1. Bill Marshall

          Your absolutely right Rik… developers, after so many 100 k $’s to process their applications, should not spend one cent on a Measure J/R vote… truly obscenemassively distorts the democratic process, as you say… even though they have gone thru all the EIR, staff, PC, whatever Commissions, CC, review, they should be banned from spending anything in a Measure J/R vote after all that… you pretty much nailed that issue… thank you for that!

          And who built your residence?  Might it have been a developer?  Nah… never coulda/shoulda have happened, pre J/R… your wisdom should be followed…

        2. Bill Marshall

          Oh, and since my 8:27 post pretty much ‘agreed’ with Rik, it should not be considered a ‘personal attack’… but I’ll give odds that the ‘moderation’ and/or Rik will deem it as such.


    1. Rik Keller

      Ron G.: you have gone on and on about getting rid of Measure R, but you have never stated what specifically in the “Findings” section you are against. You have a chance now to be really clear about what exactly in the fundamental tenets of Davis’ long term planning policy framework you oppose.

      1. Ron Glick

        I think I did in my 7:14 reply to you above Rik. Of course that is only one of my objections but it is fundamental that many people who are effected by Measure R don’t get to vote on Measure R projects. Also people who live on campus, where many advocates of Measure R have argued we should be housing more students, don’t get to vote. People who work at UCD but don’t live in Davis don’t get to vote on Measure R projects. People who live outside the city but inside Davis’ “sphere of influence” don’t get to vote.

        Rik, with all due respect, I think you have done yeoman’s work on Davis’ history of exclusionary housing policy but somehow I think you fail to see that Measure R is simply the next generation and extension of those policies.

        1. Bill Marshall

          Craig… a few problems with your question, two of which involve the word “better”… an ‘eye of the beholder’, squishy term.  Some bad (my opinion only) projects died a natural death… folk don’t seem to remember the REAL initial Nishi proposal, that actually got an approved Tentative Map… it was a “dog” (my opinion) and never came to fruition… pre-Measure J/R.  Wildhorse was subject to a “citizen referendum” opposing it… the measure failed, so we have Wildhorse…

          Gets down to what “better” means to folk… I sure can’t think of universally held facts/opinions of what that means…

        2. Rik Keller

          Ron G.: you continue make a number of statements about Measure R that are you don’t back up with any documentation and which are untrue.

          Measure R has strong provisions built in for affordable housing  in fact, such development is excluded from Measure R restrictions. You will also find that across the region, those communities that have had the most freewheeling growth have had some of the highest rate of housing price increases and are—based on SACOG data in the draft RHNA allocation itself—some of the most exclusionary communities based on the percentage  of low-income households that they accommodate.

          Your additional argument that Measure R should be killed because people commuting in from Elk Grove of whatever can’t vote on local development projects is ludicrous on its face.

          Again: if you are against Measure R, start from the beginning and go into some detail about the specific findings and purposes that it sets forth (all of which are compatible and consistent with the broader land use policy framework in Davis) that you are specifically against.


        3. Rik Keller

          Ron G.: I agree with you that piecemeal planning is problematic.  However, jurisdictions that do not have a mechanism in place like that set forth in Measure R have similar problems with piecemeal planning (and in many cases, much more so).

          Your argument actually points to the need for even stringer land use planning management policies. And, locally, it points to our City Council not taking a stronger management/vetting role in the process, preferring instead to merely “punt” issues to the voters.

        4. Bill Marshall

          Again: if you are for Measure J/R, start from the beginning (new referendumand go into some detail about the specific findings and purposes to set forth (all of which are compatible and consistent with the broader land use policy framework in Davis) that you are specifically for.

          If valid, should have no problem getting it on the ballot, W/O CC putting it on ballot for renewal, on their own, should pass by a wide margin.  If that’s what the citizens/voters desire.

  2. Rik Keller

    The Vanguard has repeatedly made the statement that the new draft RHNA for Davis is “almost double” the figure for the previous round, implying that it will put much more development pressure on Davis. However, to place this draft RHNA allocation figure in context for Davis: the 2,075 unit allocation over the 7.5-year planning period is equivalent to a compound annual growth rate of 0.99% per year over the current estimated number of housing units in Davis of 26,932 (2019 CA DOF Table E-5 estimate).
    In other words, Measure R–with a soft 1% growth cap that includes exemptions for affordable units and others–does not represent an outright barrier or constraint to meeting this.
    It is problematic though that the types of development projects that the Vanguard has pushed—including Nishi and WDAAC—have minimal provisions for affordable housing (below 10% each after the sleight-of-hard of by-the bed and studios counting as units is removed (stuff that won’t fly in the face of State HCD scrutiny)) , while consuming large amounts of land on the periphery.

  3. Bill Marshall

    I take a different tack… the CC should take no action on either eliminating (except by lapse of time, the default built into it) or extending Measure J/R.

    If it is so important, let whatever version of it be brought to a citizens’ referendum, where the citizens can vote on it.

    The bar for qualifying a citizens initiative is pretty low.

    This has the advantage of focusing the CC on other issues, on the rest of what they are charged to do.

      1. Bill Marshall

        If Mr Keller quoted the entire measure, I see no reason to support your thought.

        It is what it is, under the provisions of Measure R, in toto.  Neither ‘right’, nor ‘wrong’.  Just is.

        If the governing ordinance is silent to that (the requirement to put it up to affirmation, with or without modification/change), then I opine that it should come up as a new initiative.  I don’t believe the ordinance came on stone tablets from a mount in the middle east.

        If the measure requires the CC to put it on the ballot, so be it.  Am not advocating ‘civil disobedience’, per se.

        Your question might best be answered by others, with specific cites.

  4. Don Shor

    Highest probability is that the council will simply put Measure R on the ballot without any major modifications. Had Nishi and WDAAC not passed, I think there’d be more debate. I also think it will pass by a comfortable margin.

    1. Bill Marshall

      Probability, yes… think that is what they will likely choose to do… “choice”, not “requirement”… Mr Ross asked about “requirement”… I answered as to that… you appear to be ‘deflecting’ to some degree, Don… unless you can cite a “requirement”… avoiding political heat is not, in and of itself, a statutory “requirement”… I stand by what I wrote, and opined.

      I still opine that the CC should “do nothing”, unless required by law.  I’ll not vote for any CC member who intends to/takes an action to do anything other than having it come up as new Citizens’ initiative, not initiated by the CC.  My opinion, my right.  My position.  And there is no one I need to justify that to.  I speak for myself, and do not expect to change anyone else’s opinions. They dare not concoct untruths saying I’m “wrong” unless they cite existing law.  I’ll work to expose untruths.

  5. Ron Oertel

    I recall that one of the factors that SACOG considers (when assigning RHNA requirements) is the number of local jobs. 

    So, for those who really want to (try) to tear open Davis’ borders or pursue overly-dense infill (during the next RHNA cycle), MRIC/ARC is custom-made for doing so.  I recall that the EIR notes that it won’t even provide sufficient housing for its own workers.

  6. Ron Oertel

    There doesn’t seem to be any discussion (inaccurate, or otherwise) regarding how pending (or already-approved, but unbuilt) developments might help to address RHNA requirements.

    1. Rik Keller

      Ron O.: I did state as part of one previous comment that the recent projects that have been approved with minimal affordability requirements will make it more difficult for Davis to demonstrate that it has adequate capacity to provide for the lower-income RHNA numbers  in its upcoming  Housing Element Update.

      A simplified summary of what what is done in the inventory portion of a Housing Element Update (I’ve written dozens of these for communities across California) is to set a particular date and 1) tally up the approved/entitled developments and developments under construction, and account for the total units to be built and affordable units. [caveat #1: You can’t count single beds/bedrooms as whole units—there are standard conversion rates];  2) tally up the development capacity of vacant land in different residential zoning categories [the State has certain criteria for what land you can count as fulfilling low-Income needs. This is based on density]; and then 3) if necessary, rezone land to meet any shortfall in capacity.

      Whereas, say, 20 acres of vacant land zoned for multifamily housing at 30 units/acre could be inventoried  as having the potential for 600 affordable units, once  that parcel has an approved development in place, you are only allowed to inventory it based on actual affordability levels. So, if only 60 units (at 2.5 bedrooms per unit) will actually be affordable to low-income households, that’s all you get “credit” for.

      One problem: the sleight-of-hand used to deceive Davis voters about the number of affordable units proposed for Nishi and WDAAC is not going to pass muster for State review. Therefore, there will be much less “credit” provided for affordable units in these developments. And they have locked up a huge amount of developable land that could have been developed at much higher affordability levels.

      You can see the cycle this begets: developments targeted to upper-income groups with a pittance provided for lower-income groups  take away the land inventory potential, creating the need for more land to be designated for higher-density residential uses, which—if affordability requirements are weak—will in turn not actually provide affordable units. Rinse and repeat.


  7. Ron Oertel

    Thanks, Rik.  Yes – I see that point.

    But, I was just wondering how many units (at least within the market-rate RHNA category requirements) have already been approved (but not built), which might help meet those requirements.

    Same question might apply regarding pending (but not yet “approved”) projects – which might conceivably be changed to include more Affordable units.

    As a side note, perhaps we should now consider “thanking” those who have initiated legal actions, which have (at a minimum) delayed some developments to the point that they can now be “counted” toward meeting the upcoming round of RHNA requirements.

    I don’t recall if Nishi was being challenged, regarding Affordable housing.



    1. Rik Keller

      Ron O.:

      For the purposes of the Housing Element Update for a jurisdiction there will be a cut-off or inventory date, and the status of a particular parcel will be determined as of that date. So, if a development hasn’t been approved, that parcel will usually be inventoried for its development capacity based on average density assumptions for that type of zoning in the jurisdiction. You can imagine scenarios where this could either “help” or “hurt” a  jurisdiction in terms of demonstrating that they have sufficient land capacity.

      The California Dept. of Housing and Community Development (HCD) goes through the inventory very stringently and–unlike local election campaigns where developers get away with claiming that affordable studio units should count as equivalent dwelling units (EDUs) balanced against market rate 3-bedroom units (WDAAC sleight-of-hand) or that an affordable “bed” in a two-bed room that rents out in total for more than market rate should count as affordable (Nishi sleight-of-hand)–they will see right through accounting gimmicks and shenanigans.

  8. Ron Glick

    “Your additional argument that Measure R should be killed because people commuting in from Elk Grove of whatever can’t vote on local development projects is ludicrous on its face.”

    Yes it was the least defensible point in an entire series of points as to why Measure R’s promise of direct democracy isn’t really direct democracy for the entire community. Yet it is the one point you choose to address by taking it to an extreme example without addressing any of my other more defensible concerns about basing housing decisions on exclusionary voting policies. Why would it be a surprise that stakeholders not allowed to vote in a Measure R vote would not have their views represented?

    But since you raised Elk Grove Rik, I would point out that a place that has gone in the total opposite direction from Davis on housing policy is more diverse and has less expensive housing costs. I’m not advocating that we adopt what Elk Grove has done but I think that there is likely a sweet spot somewhere in between the two regional extremes on housing policy that results in a better outcome in housing policy while mitigating the impacts that a growing population inevitably brings..

    1. Ron Oertel

      A large number of Davis residents, for example, work in Sacramento.  But, they’re not allowed to vote there.

      A large number are employed by UCD, but have no say regarding what occurs there (e.g., regarding housing on campus for students or staff).

      It might be better if Davis residents had a say regarding what’s approved in surrounding communities.  But, they don’t.

      1. Ron Glick

        You are raising essentially the same argument Rik did, one I readily admit is my least defensible, without addressing my other concerns about why Measure R isn’t really  direct democracy.

      2. Ron Oertel

        “It might be better if Davis residents had a say regarding what’s approved in surrounding communities.”

        And, the truly unfortunate part is that residents of surrounding communities don’t even (realistically) have a say regarding what’s approved in their own communities.

  9. Rik Keller

    Ron G.: regarding Elk Grove…
    According to SAGOG data in the draft RHNA document, Yolo County jurisdictions have a higher share of existing lower-income households than the “regional parity target” of 42.5%:
    – Davis: 46%
    – West Sacramento: 50%
    – Winters: 43%
    – Woodland: 47%
    So with “regional parity” goals of the RHNA (“Jurisdictions with a higher than average proportion of lower income households receive a downward adjustment of lower income RHNA units”), they have been assigned less of a relative responsibility in the RHNA  to plan for these households than other jurisdictions like Roseville (32% existing share of lower-income units), Folsom (22%), and Elk Grove (30%).
    Yes, despite the build-baby-build mantra, high growth areas such as Elk Grove and others have seen housing price increase rates among the highest in the region AND they have some of the lowest percentages of lower-income households in the region, and as a consequence are being required by SACOG to plan for a larger share of lower-income households than places like Davis.

    1. Ron Glick

      How are those percentages generated? Are they based on the same median income? What is the price /square foot in Elk Grove versus Davis? A quick look at Elk Grove prices are in the 200/square foot range. In Davis they are around twice that amount.

      What time frame for increased prices? It makes a difference when you start.

  10. Jim Frame

    Measure R produces imperfect outcomes for many of the reasons cited, but in my opinion those outcomes are less imperfect than those that were generated previously, when developers had only to convince 3 CC members of their project’s merit instead of a majority of those casting ballots.  I strongly support renewal as written.

    1. Mark West

      “imperfect outcomes”

      It is fascinating the lengths some will go to justify exclusionary housing policy (or otherwise try to ignore it). Imperfect indeed! The CC should refuse to put Measure R on the ballot due to the disproportionate impact on populations in need of appropriate housing.

      1. Rik Keller

        Mark West:  you make some bold claims there. It will be fascinating to see if you provide any evidence to support them. Based on past performance: we could be waiting awhile. Maybe in the meantime you could tell us some fables about the wonderful inclusivity of the free market?



  11. Jim Frame

    Measure R has no practical bearing on the supply of inclusionary housing.  As others have cited, the Davis housing market is too attractive to high-value buyers to entice private investors to build low- or even moderate-income housing except as low-unit-count addenda to their McMansion projects required by existing ordinances.  The charge that support of exclusionary housing is a significant motivator for Measure R proponents is spurious and insulting.

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