Sunday Commentary: We Have a Chance to Close the Housing Gap

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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


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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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38 thoughts on “Sunday Commentary: We Have a Chance to Close the Housing Gap”

    1. Alan Miller

      Glickum speakum truthum . . . though even better than “Vote No on D” would be an actual campaign to kill the beast, but that crossbow has sailed.  Though, perhaps it’s not too late with a good campaign slogan, such as:  “Vote No on Measure D-umb:   Lower the value of your property — while giving a rental price break to The Pestilence!”.

  1. Alan Miller

    Some may be freed by up by clearing out mini-dorms.

    Newsflash:  many students like living in houses rather than apartments, and are willing to double-up in order to do so, and you can’t stop them.

    1. Ron Oertel

      It is, in fact – a completely unsubstantiated claim (regarding students moving out of single-family housing).

      It’s more likely that the megadorms will house new students, and cause further changes to the neighborhoods surrounding them.

        1. Matt Williams

          As a prediction, it is on shaky ground.  As a projection it is a bit less shaky … but it has no currency.  Your cup of coffee at Peet’s will still cost you what it has always cost you.

        2. Richard McCann

          Matt

          I disagree (and David also has this wrong.) Much of the student rentals are in duplexes scattered around town. Many of those students would prefer to live closer to campus, even if in an apartment. Those students are very likely to move out of what is really our best working/family-oriented housing. And I disagree with Alan that students will continue to live in houses when apartments that are closer to campus become available. Proximity is a strong driver of student rental choices.

    2. Richard McCann

      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.

      I agree with Alan. About half of rentals are classified as “single family” (including duplexes and triplexes) in Davis. We have a relatively low proportion of apartments in our housing stock given the share of rentals.

  2. Frank Reyes

    In regards to family housing, I’ve lived in various Davis apartment complexes through the last 10 years and have seen many families living in various units depending on their space needs. I believe family housing can be accommodated with a blend of apartment complexes and expensive single family homes with emphasis placed on the affordable/denser end of the spectrum.

    Apartment complexes can provide excellent amenities used by a diverse range of residents with a reduced overall resource demand. Having denser residences, whether through major or minor upzoning, next to city parks or with easy access to a greenbelt can provide a vehicle-free path for young children to access these locations which could reduce demand on resource-intensive single family homes and the need for a “yard”.

    However, in regards to Climate Change and promoting fiscal resiliency, providing denser infill projects reduces the environmental footprint of the residents while lowering overall costs for government services. For example, denser units utilize 1 large waste collection location per ~200 residents vs 1 per 3-5 residents in SFHs while making multiple stops to cover the larger geographic footprint of 200 residents. This example can be applied to other residential services such as power, sewage and water infrastructure.

    Approaching the housing topic as a Public Health laboratorian for the past 6 years with jurisdictions of Contra Costa, Marin, Napa, Solano and Yolo Counties in addition to time working with CDPH and CDC I’ve seen multiple presentations highlighting health inequities that SFH development is affiliated with. Disease outbreaks occur more frequently where multiple families crowd into a 2/3 bedroom home. Pre-COVID I’ve seen gastrointestinal, and tuberculosis outbreaks rapidly spread throughout these households forcing residents to miss work. I grow concerned as the effects of Climate Change allow vector-borne diseases to migrate North from the lower latitudes where the environment is becoming more hospitable.

    This isn’t solely the responsibility of the City of Davis to make the necessary lifestyle changes. However, there are thousands of university students who pass on from our community every year who can also carry a favorable view of the changes we implement to wherever they happen to move to next.

  3. Ron Oertel

    DISC is workforce housing.

    DISC (if it is actually approved, and then constructed beyond the early phases which include the 850 units) creates a housing shortage.  Of course, some on the finance and budget commission doubt that it would actually be built beyond those phases, regardless. In fact, all of them believed that was a real concern, as I recall.

    David knows this, already. This is the kind of thing that’s so irritating – when he repeatedly puts out misleading information.

    Says so right in the EIR.  On the order of 2,900 units expected to be absorbed in the city and surrounding communities. (In addition to the 850 units onsite.)

    And that was assuming a certain number of workers occupying each employed unit, which has since been abandoned as an assumption.  (Without looking it up again, I think the assumption was around 1.6 workers per unit.)

    If you want to help address the “housing shortage”, don’t vote for DISC.

    1. David Greenwald Post author

      As I’ve said before I disagree with this assessment. I have explained why I disagree with it. You and I do not agree on this issue.

      So when you say: “David knows this, already. This is the kind of thing that’s so irritating – when he repeatedly puts out misleading information.” You’re failing to acknowledge that this has been discussed and we do not see eye to eye on it.

      1. Ron Oertel

        It’s not a matter of “disagreement” that you have with me. I didn’t “make this up”.

        It’s a matter of you disagreeing with the EIR, the finance and budget commission, and the total illogic of expecting 850 units to accommodate workers for (6,000?) claimed jobs.

        With about 130 of those units subsequently designated as Affordable, which therefore may not even be occupied by workers at the site, at all.  Unless they need 130 janitors.

        Again, it seems that you’re trying to purposefully mislead.

        But, the “good news” is that the proposal doesn’t “pencil out” beyond the stages which include housing.  (Of course, the “fiscal profit” doesn’t pencil out that way, either.)

        But, you’re really undermining your own credibility, when you “disagree” without any logic or evidence behind what’s already been presented and analyzed.

        1. David Greenwald Post author

          “Again, it seems that you’re trying to purposefully mislead.”

          You see this is a personal attack. You complain when other people do it to you. I’ve explained my position already on this. There is nothing misleading about it.

        2. Ron Oertel

          I recall that your position is that the city is going to grow anyway, to accommodate this.

          So, your position is that the extra demand makes no difference, regarding the amount of housing that would be needed?

          And that demand will remain constant/unchanged, whether or not 6,000 claimed jobs are created on the outskirts of town? Really? That’s your honest argument?

          1. David Greenwald Post author

            My position, as explained the last time you asked this exact same question is that the build out time will allow the housing demand to be absorbed into the normal order of development over time. I will also point out that you act as those number are somehow sacrosanct, when in fact if you read the EIR you realize that they based them on assumptions of average transportation and work-live arrangements. The EIR is an estimate to estimate the environmental impact. It basically is someone’s educated guess. You’re worried that the project will not provide enough housing and therefore will lead to more development, I think the ramp up of jobs will be slow enough that we can absord it into existing planning. The EIR doesn’t weigh in on that issue, btw.

        3. Ron Oertel

          My position, as explained the last time you asked this exact same question is that the build out time will allow the housing demand to be absorbed into the normal order of development over time.

          Your position is that the city is going to grow anyway, to accommodate this.  And that the extra demand resulting from 6,000 claimed new jobs makes no difference, regarding additional housing demand resulting from the development.

          Do you see why I question your honesty? Again, it’s noted right in the EIR!

          I will also point out that you act as those number are somehow sacrosanct, when in fact if you read the EIR you realize that they based them on assumptions of average transportation and work-live arrangements. The EIR is an estimate to estimate the environmental impact.

          True.  I believe they’ve now abandoned their previous claims regarding 1.6 workers in each unit.  Meaning that they aren’t making ANY firm claims, regarding the number of those 6,000 workers who would occupy 850 units (130 of which are certainly not going to be occupied by high-wage workers, regardless).

          Meaning that the additional demand for 2,900 off-site units is likely an under-estimate.

    1. Bill Marshall

      How’s this for a slogan… “D must Die!” (think Boris Badinov:  “Moose and squirrel must die!”)

      J was not Justified… there were/are alternate mechanisms… R was just a Repeat… D is Dumb governance… still are viable alternate mechanisms.

  4. Tia Will

    David

    “Where I don’t agree is saying we should stop planning for future housing needs and stop new housing construction.”

    I haven’t seen anyone saying that we should “stop planning”. I see this as a strawman argument. I have probably been the most vocal about not choosing to build more large scale designed deliberately for mainly (or only) students because of the known current effects of the pandemic, which I believe is going to last longer than our rosy hopes would predict.

    That in no way means we should not plan. I believe we should be considering affordable housing designed for many different situations including the very low income, singles, couples, families, and of course, students. What I do not favor are projects designed to meet only one group’s needs. IMO, it is a shame that both Sterling and the Lincoln 40, because of their locations were approved before consideration of the mall replacement, which is obviously in a better location. This is what I mean about developers, city staff, and council’s tendency not to be either proactive or visionary, but to be forever solving yesterday’s problems.

    You have maintained several times that we can always go back and repurpose previously built student dorms. Wouldn’t it be more efficient to assess needs prospectively rather than to have to “repurpose”?

    1. Ron Oertel

      You have maintained several times that we can always go back and repurpose previously built student dorms.

      That’s another political argument that David floated.  I don’t think it fooled anyone. At least, I hope not.

      For example, reconfiguring 4-bedroom units (each with its own bathroom) into an “affordable” (normal) apartment unit is not feasible, especially when the paint isn’t even dry from constructing it in the first place.

    2. David Greenwald Post author

      “You have maintained several times that we can always go back and repurpose previously built student dorms. Wouldn’t it be more efficient to assess needs prospectively rather than to have to “repurpose”?”

      For instance, there are apartments along F St that right now are primarily student housing, but could shift to other users if the economy changes. Also the mini-dorms could be freed up either for new ownership or family rentals. That’s what I mean.

    3. Alan Miller

      it is a shame that both Sterling and the Lincoln 40, because of their locations were approved before consideration of the mall replacement, which is obviously in a better location. This is what I mean about developers, city staff, and council’s tendency not to be either proactive or visionary, but to be forever solving yesterday’s problems.

      “Truer Words”, TW, truer words . . .

      Although, not much we can do about the order in which developers bring projects to the City.  That is beyond what is possible when “planning”.

      1. Ron Oertel

        That’s what the word “no” is for.  Pretty simple, really.

        And heading-off the problems (e.g., with UCD, or a development proposal which will create similar problems) before they occur.

        Just requires a little backbone.

      2. David Greenwald Post author

        Not sure why someone would object to the Lincoln40 location. Sterling is a bit further from campus but benefitted from the first mover advantage.

        1. Ron Oertel

          I realize this question was not directed to me, but the first thing I would have done is to ensure that a bicycle/pedestrian overpass (or underpass) was in place, to cross Richards, on the route to campus.

          And not necessarily to the train station, though even that may be years away.)

          Ah, the wonders of SACOG funding.

          And actually, there’s a similar problem with University Commons, regarding crossing that street to campus.

          Or, you can just put student housing on campus in the first place, and avoid all the taxpayer-funded “Rube Goldberg infrastucture”.

        2. Bill Marshall

          Sterling is a bit further from campus but benefitted from the first mover advantage.

          Actually, in my view, Sterling benefitted from a decrepit facility (and the Families First use was despicable in how they ‘treated’ clients), but mainly from being within very short walking distance from two or three of Unitrans’ most used transit lines… primarily the A-line…

          Sterling is at the edge of my neighborhood… I pass it pretty much every time  I take Fifth St… I do not find it unattractive… given its previous site use, I find it aesthetically, functionally, and morally superior to the previous use at the site.

          Families First staff (in their 20’s) would tackle a client (on the bike/ped path), bloody his nose, sit on him while smoking cigarettes, and challenge me when I asked what the f&*% are you doing?…  I called DPD… that bad!  I have, in the course of business been on the site… it may have looked OK from the outside… but there was “rot” within… literally and figuratively.

        3. Alan Miller

          > the first mover advantage.> The what?

          > Game theory concept

          Not being obtuse here . . . I don’t have any idea what that means.  Is that like white chess piece moves first kind of thing?  (which I’ve heard is now considered racist)

          Still not sure why the developers of Sterling would get an advantage . . . am I just missing the obvious, they applied first?  Doesn’t the ‘best’ project, by city criteria, win the project when it’s publicly owned land, not the first to apply?

          1. David Greenwald Post author

            Seriously Alan, is your Google broken?

            “In game theory, a player enjoys a first-mover advantage if he achieves a higher payoff by turning the game into a sequential one with him being the first mover, provided of course that the game can be changed in the first place.”

            The analogy doesn’t completely apply here, but in this case, by being the first proposal during a student housing shortage, they had a huge advantage even though their location wasn’t nearly as ideal other proposals. The fact that they went first rather than fifth was huge.

    4. Richard McCann

      This is what I mean about developers, city staff, and council’s tendency not to be either proactive or visionary, but to be forever solving yesterday’s problems.

      This reflects a significant problem right now in this city. We are lacking a visionary approach. Too much of the City management is risk averse at the moment, which has led to our current problems. We need a strong statement from the new City Council and strong direction to the City manager (or a new one if he’s not willing to push forward.)

      1. Bill Marshall

        This reflects a significant problem right now in this city.

        We are lacking a visionary approach.

        Too much of the City management is risk averse at the moment, which has led to our current problems.

        Actually been going on for over 20 years now… John Meyer tried that, from staff up, and was shut down by entrenched staff and the electeds… was there, saw that, have the t-shirt…

        Certain ‘progressives’ on CC were heavily responsible… responding to vocal members of the ‘community’…

        Two thoughts:

        We have met the enemy and it is us…

        When you’re up to your arse in alligators, it’s hard to remember that the mission is to drain the swamp…

        It does not ‘pay’ to be visionary in the City… if you look at the # of early retirements of key staff ~ 2010-2012, they were those frustrated with lack of ability to be ‘visionary’, particularly with the CC leadership, and then the ‘hitman’ the CC selected as CM, led by Mr Krovosa… picking a dude who helped lead Stockton and then Manteca to severe problems…

        The problem is the CC, who want to be all things to all people… vote carefully in November…

         

  5. Ron Oertel

     Sterling is a bit further from campus but benefitted from the first mover advantage.

    Sterling “benefited” from a council that doesn’t know how to say “no”.  Two of whom are seeking re-election.

    But in all fairness, that applies to most of them (recent past, present, and future).

    Some of these council meetings should last about 5 minutes – long enough to say no.

    1. Ron Oertel

      I got cut-off, prematurely.

      Tried to add that it was pointed out (to the council, at the time) that a traditional apartment building would have been more appropriate at the Families First site.  That suggestion was disregarded by the council.

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