by David M. Greenwald
The faith leaders write: that they are disappointment at the council 3-2 vote on the University Commons project, noting, “While we are encouraged by Brixmor’s increase from 0% to 5% affordable housing at the 80% median income for Yolo County, we also contend that this is not enough.”
In their brief letter they make several points.
First, “While the specific decision regarding the University Commons is the spark to this conversation, the housing crisis in Davis and across our state does not begin and end with this decision.”
Second, “The ongoing problem of housing insecurity affects many Davis residents—students and families alike—from accessibility to affordability. This lack of affordable housing is not an isolated issue but has cascading consequences, leading to greater food insecurity, negative physical and mental health outcomes, decreased academic performance, and increased risk of other harms.”
And third, in response to our premium newsletter (have you signed up yet) earlier this week, they noted I wrote “that demanding more from our city leaders with regard to affordable housing is equivalent to ‘squeezing blood out of a turnip’ – after all, 5% has already been committed.”
To that they respond: “However, we offer an alternative narrative. Can we imagine a city guided by moral imagination, where we privilege the voices and experience of all Davis residents over the profit margins of developers and corporations? Let us live into the hope of a future where affordable housing is more than a compromise, but a testament to a city committed to inclusivity and equality.”
First of all, I think it’s important to understand what is going on here policy-wise. Vertical mixed-use has been exempt from affordable requirements for a reason. The financing is difficult to achieve. However, the council did not want such projects to go without an affordable component, so they put in a five percent requirement.
University Commons preceded that update for the Affordable Housing Ordinance, nevertheless they not only added a low income component—five percent—but also a middle income requirement, another five percent. In essence, the affordable housing component is now 10 percent—26 units.
Second, looking at this project in isolation is probably a mistake. We have now seen projects like Sterling’s affordable housing site, Creekside, West Davis Active Adult Community, Lincoln40, and Nishi add immensely to the city’s affordable housing stock. Add to that the potential of another 150 units at DISC and the city has moved forward a huge commitment to affordable housing.
That fact is lost in the brief letter.
Further, they have done this with two tremendous challenges for building affordable housing. First, the high cost of construction. Second, the loss of redevelopment funding.
It is in that light where my comment about “squeezing blood out of a turnip” needs to be understood.
The faith leaders offer us no solution in terms of financing. They offer us no recognition about the challenges of high costs of construction. They offer no appreciation that this goes doubly for vertical mixed use.
My comment was fully: “While I completely agree with the faith leaders we need more affordable housing in this community – but you can’t squeeze blood out of turnip and in particular ten percent of zero is zero. Meaning that if you end up trying to push too far, you end up with no housing built and thus no affordable.”
This is the dilemma here.
Will Arnold in November 2018 put it well.
“Fifteen percent is not feasible,” he said. But, then again, “zero percent is unacceptable.”
On the other hand, “35 percent of nothing, is nothing. So if the thing doesn’t get built because we’ve put an onerous requirement on there, then no one gets to live there… So that’s the balancing act that we have in front of us.”
That is what I was getting at here. We can push for more affordable housing on a project by project basis—that’s fine. But putting too high a requirement on it means that housing does not get built. And if housing does not get built, we end up with no affordable housing.
So the faith leaders conclude, “Here’s what we’re asking: that the City Council pause and allow time to reconsider their vote before moving any further with this project due to the unaffordability of the rental of beds or units, including the ‘affordable units.’”
The problem here is that the council has been discussing these issues for years now, while the faith leaders have just now entered the discussion.
My own view about a way forward is three-fold.
First, while a lot of people are complaining about the unaffordability of this housing, the reality is that, to a large extent, the market will ultimately dictate cost. New and higher end housing will be more expensive. But there are of course tradeoffs—the ability to not drive, for instance, saves gas, maintenance, parking and other costs associated with vehicles.
Further the biggest driver of costs for the Davis market is scarcity, and by creating extra capacity, we are reducing the upward thrust of the market on costs.
Last year, too many students were housing insecure. Many lived in their vehicles and on couches. Many more overcrowded existing housing. If we can somehow get to five percent vacancy, it is a game changer.
Second, on affordable housing there are two longer term solutions. One thing that the faith leaders may want to look at is the creation of a faith-based non-profit that can leverage funding to help purchase land and build affordable housing. We’ve seen that affordable housing developers like Neighborhood Partners and Mutual Housing can raise money through grants and other means to fund even large scale affordable housing projects.
Finally, the recession will make this more difficult in the short-term, but the reformulation of RDA and incremental tax funding of affordable housing projects is another way forward. The faith leaders would need to help mobilize our community to lobby the state to do this.
In the end, they can push and push and push and try to get the developers to go from 26 subsidized units to 39, or they can help work to make it possible to have funding streams that in the big picture are much more impactful.
—David M. Greenwald reporting