By David M. Greenwald
Measure J has sometimes become a rather convenient target for the housing problems in Davis. Leaving aside the fact that housing is an issue statewide, including most places where there is no Measure J limitation, and if we focus on the situation in the city of Davis, there are actually several factors that led to a shortage of housing.
True, Measure J did pass in 2000, the voters voted down Covell Village in 2005 and voted down Wildhorse Ranch in 2009, but the problem goes beyond Measure J.
From 2002 to 2017, the city council did not approve a market rate multi-housing project in the city. That really has very little to do with Measure J, as the majority of multi-family housing projects are infill not peripheral.
Having been in Davis and covering city politics during this time, what seems to have happened is that, after the bitter and divisive battle over Wildhorse Ranch in 2009, we stopped dealing with land use issue for a long time. In 2010 and 2012 and even 2014, the city council campaigns focused on the budget in the midst of the Great Recession, and not land use.
It wasn’t until 2015 with the long range development plan (LRDP) for the university coming up and the university resuming its enrollment growth that the community started focusing again on land use issues.
In one sense that was actually a positive development—from 2004 to 2009 we had several very divisive land use battles and the shift away from land use allowed for a more congenial council to
emerge out of the contentiousness of the 2004 to 2010 period.
The downside is that land use issues really didn’t go away. The Great Recession marked a longer than usual period of a cooling housing market, but once the economy recovered, housing prices increased, and the city of Davis was very slow to react.
It took until 2013 for the council to approve the Cannery on a 3-2 vote, and then it was four more years before they approved Sterling. That was after the voters in 2016 voted down the first Nishi by a narrow margin and a year before the voters approved the second Nishi and WDAAC by large margins.
That brings us to this week. We saw the council on another 3-2 vote approve the University Commons. There was tremendous pushback over the size and scope of the project, and I get that.
But there was also pushback over the fact that this was another student-oriented housing project. Following Sterling, Nishi, Lincoln40 and Davis Live, that marks five student-oriented housing projects.
There are those who argued we needed a broader mix of housing—student housing after all is not our only need. The majority on council granted that concern—they made the structure of housing more conducive to non-students while recognizing that the location of this project will likely make it predominantly student regardless.
But there is a more structural and process-oriented objection here. There is the notion that we live in times of uncertainty (I agree), and that in the wake of the pandemic and economic collapse we ought to wait before planning (I disagree).
There also are those who argue we need a new General Plan (I agree).
Here’s the thing—we are living in times of uncertainty. We saw that the housing demand shrank during the great recession. Right now a lot of students are trying to get out of their leases with in-class school cancelled, at least for the fall and probably longer.
We do need a new General Plan. The city decided to undertake the Core Specific Plan first in the Downtown, and then an update of the General Plan. By all means, we should proceed. In fact, I would go further and say this needs to happen sooner rather than later.
Where I don’t agree is saying we should stop planning for future housing needs and stop new housing construction.
This is exactly what got us into this mess in the first place.
We have a chance, for once, to get ahead of the curve. At the very least we can keep up with rising demand from the university and backfill from past shortfalls.
At worst, if the pandemic proves more lasting and creates a more permanent change in housing demand, we can restructure the student housing. Just as WDAAC has the potential to open up single-family housing in town by providing housing for those wishing to downsize, University Commons at the very worst can create housing across the street from the university and open up other housing —single-family homes and older apartments away from campus.
We have seen what a wait-and-see approach leads to when we stopped building student housing for 15 years. It leads to low vacancy rates, rising rental costs, and students suffering from housing insecurity.
We have a chance to avoid that problem again, simply by taking reasonable steps to address housing.
With that said, it is not clear that there will be another student-oriented housing project any time soon. Plaza 2555 is likely to come back with a revised proposal at some point, moving away from student housing, the Chiles project was workforce housing, URP Mixed Use figures to be workforce housing, Olive Drive figures to be workforce housing and DISC is workforce housing. If the downtown redevelops, that too is most likely to be workforce housing
Reading the tea leaves there, it seems workforce housing is in demand and that demand will be met.
Family housing, though, remains a problem. Some may be freed by up by clearing out mini-dorms. But apartments are expensive for families and not conducive to families with small children, with the lack of yard space and high costs. Measure J, with its challenges for peripheral development, is likely to have the biggest impact on family housing. That is clearly something we will need to address with the next General Plan.
—David M. Greenwald reporting