By David M. Greenwald
Rich Rifkin’s latest column is probably worthy of discussion—he says “Measure D” and the “D is for ‘disaster.’” I would argue that the D might be better characterized as being for lack of good data.
For about the last two years I have been frustrated by the city’s unwillingness to do a deep dive into Measure J. Other than Mayor Gloria Partida’s critical comments, the council itself has adopted the attitude such that I might have been concerned about Measure J, but the community passed the last two projects, so I’m less so.
For me that glosses over the impact. We have no studies on the overall impact. No second level data analysis. And no plan for how the city plans to meet housing and growth demands into the future.
This week, for instance, there were some comments about the regional historic price comparison. It shows a 20-year snapshot of the growth of housing costs. At one view, Davis is seen to have a lower annual growth in housing costs than surrounding areas.
But data are tricky. There is a reason why robust statistical analysis rarely relies on a simple bivariate chart graphed over time. Instead, if I were a researcher I would use a multivariate time-series regression analysis to examine this problem.
There are several problems here that we are not going to resolve. First, we haven’t isolated variables. We are only taking in one factor—Measure J or not Measure J, and we are not analyzing the totality of the circumstances impacting housing prices. Second, we have not considered whether rate of growth is even the best explanatory variable.
One thing that stands out in the data—Davis started out in January 2001 with more expensive housing than any of the comparable cities. Davis ends the period with an even greater cost differential than other comparable cities. To cite an easy example, Davis’ homes were $125K more expensive in 2001 than Woodland’s and now they are more than $300K more expensive. So even though Woodland technically had a larger growth rate, Davis expanded the differential in actual dollars.
The same is true comparing Davis to the state of California. The growth rate in the state’s housing costs was larger than for Davis. But in 2001, Davis’ housing was around $70,000 more than average, now it’s $150,000 more. So it’s not like housing costs are closing the gap on Davis at the state or regional level. None of the comparable points actually closed the gap on Davis, despite their all having a faster annual growth rate.
So is the growth rate more important than the actual growth? That’s what the supporters of Measure D want us to believe.
Growth rate is a function not just of cost increase, but also the starting point. The lower the starting point, the higher the rate of growth for relatively smaller increases.
But the truth is far more tricky. Davis before Measure J was enacted was more expensive. Housing costs have gone way up across the board over the last 20 years. We know a big driver in cost inflation is scarcity—not just at a local level but at a regional level. One of the drivers of scarcity in Davis is constrained supply.
Let’s pick a different example. Gas prices. We know there are state, regional and local impacts on gas. If you attempt to fill up in a small, more isolated town, you will pay more than you would in areas where there are plenty of supply. But you also pay more in big cities like San Francisco. There are also factors that cause the price of gas to fluctuate on a regional and even national level. The places where there are naturally higher costs for gas will rise and fall with these tides—they’ll always be more expensive at the high and low ebbs—but their percentage increase is probably going to be lower than for cheaper gas. That doesn’t mean that scarcity isn’t impacting them, it simply means that there is a baseline cost for that scarcity that doesn’t rise and fall with external factors.
We may be seeing something like that with housing—but again we lack the analysis to tease out the effects, and we are painting too simplistic a picture by simply looking at a few variables.
Looking at these data I am not prepared to say that Measure J is “causing” Davis’ cost increases—in fact, I would argue on the contrary that is way too simplistic an analysis. But I also don’t believe you can rule it out. There is likely a “Davis premium” that exists over and above constrained supply. But teasing out these effects requires much more robust statistical analysis than anyone has really attempted to employ.
Bottom line here: We need a more robust analysis and the city has to this point refused to provide it.
That gets me back to Rich Rifkin’s columns.
He wants to argue that Measure D (the renewal of Measure J) will lead to an increase in GHG emissions, more automobile traffic, less economic fairness, reduced student housing, exacerbation of systemic racism, a Davis less affordable for families, a threat to the viability of schools, etc.
Rifkin argues: “On its face, Measure D seems like an innocuous way for ordinary citizens to have their say on growth in Davis.”
Instead, he argues, “It’s not that simple in effect. The reality is that Measure D will be disastrous. In its guise as Measure J/R, it has been injurious to our environment, renters, students, lower-income minorities, diversity, families with young children, public infrastructure and municipal planning.
“No large housing developments have ever been approved by voters in Davis in the Measure J/R era,” he writes. “As a result, Davis housing has become much less affordable.”
But wait, the data. Rich Rifkin is making the exact same mistake as the folks supporting Measure J. We lack good data. We lack robust data analysis. And without having it, we are not going to make informed decisions.
—David M. Greenwald reporting
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