Plaza 2555’s Unique Housing Proposal Requests an Amendment to Davis’ Affordable Housing Ordinance

By Samantha Hum 

DAVIS — Because Plaza 2555 would not be feasible under the Affordable Housing Ordinance, according to the city of Davis’s municipal code, the city planner proposed an amendment to the ordinance to accommodate for this unique housing proposal.

Plaza 2555 is a proposed housing project in South Davis that, if passed with all its features, would provide space for Yolo Crisis Nursery (YCN) to expand its facilities. However, passing this project as it currently stands would require amending Davis’ Affordable Housing Ordinance, making the affordable housing requirements more flexible to include other services.

YCN is currently a four-bed facility in Davis that provides various services to at-risk children and their families, such as free 24-hour care for young children and “wrap-around” resources and support for parents to resolve their crises. 

On Sept. 21, City of Davis’ Principal Planner Sherri Metzker presented to the Social Services Commission a unique two-part request: a proposed housing project and a request to amend Davis’ affordable housing ordinance in order to approve the proposed project.

The project would be located on Cowell Blvd and Research Park Drive and would include 200 housing units. Five percent, or 10 of these units, would be available as very low income level housing. The project would also include a one acre donation to the YCN for expansion of their facilities. 

Davis’ current affordable housing ordinance requires 15 percent of units in new apartment complexes with 20 or more units to be affordable to low income groups. Under the current ordinance, this proposed project would not be viable. Therefore, the applicant is also proposing an amendment to the ordinance, as stated by Metzker, “to allow the council greater flexibility in considering unique affordable housing proposals.”

Executive director Heather Sleuter and president JoEllen Welsch from YCN made an appearance at the commission meeting to explain why they are in need of space to expand their facilities. 

Sleuter mentioned that 39 percent of families coming to the YCN are from Davis. This percentage is up 19 points from 2018-2019.

Welsch added that YCN is one of only four crisis nurseries in all of California as opposed to Oregon’s 21. She stated, “Of those in California, we are very unique in that we have multiple licenses… in other words, we provide services that no one else does. Not even close.”

A large part of YCN’s role in the current COVID-19 environment is providing childcare for essential workers. Welsch implored the commission, “Can you imagine what we could do if we had a larger nursery? We would’ve been helping more children and more families.”

Both Sleuter and Welsch discussed the nursery’s current lack of space. Sleuter stated that she would like the new facility to include on site therapy and counseling, domestic violence counseling and support, expanded nursery services and supervised visitation.

If YCN is able to expand their facilities in this space, the staff report states this development would be equivalent to approximately 20 dwelling units. With the 10 affordable housing units and the 20 units covered by the land for YCN, the report argues the project would satisfy the ordinance’s 15 percent requirement.

The consideration of very low income residents, as opposed to only low income residents, was also seen by commissioners as an important positive for the project.

However, Commissioner Don Kalman brought up a concern with the proposal, stating, “Nobody could argue that the Yolo Crisis Nursery is not an amazing organization, and they perform an incredibly valuable service, but what I’m most concerned about is the ordinance and the ordinance being changed.”

In agreement, Commissioner Matthew Wise then proposed adding a clause to the end of the ordinance to tighten the language. Wise also mentioned that he would like for some of the affordable housing to be two-bedroom units instead of entirely microunits and one-bedroom units.

Commissioner Bapu Vaitla articulated his support for YCN but had similar concerns about the consistency of the affordable housing policy. He voiced his worry about the consequences of “tweaking the ordinance on a project by project basis,” stating that it “further delays the actual meeting of the unmet need in affordable housing.”

Vaitla also brought up another concern about the concept of making tradeoffs. He said, “As much as the Yolo Crisis Nursery provides in a very clear way to an extremely vulnerable population, it’s just impossible to evaluate tradeoffs between kinds of suffering or difficulties people go through. I think if we were to provide 30 units, that also has a lot of positive benefits on vulnerable populations.”

Vaitla strongly encouraged keeping the ordinance’s language focused on housing if the vote of the commission did happen to go forward. 

Commissioner Georgina Valencia voiced her praise of YCN, saying, “I think it’s a very worthwhile and important endeavor to support that nonprofit. I think one of the things that’s important about affordable housing is bringing various groups together, and trying to find new and different ways to make things happen.” 

Though she also mentioned her discomfort with the City Council’s discretion and ability to make changes to the ordinance, Valencia concluded with, “I still think this a very positive way of getting to affordability, and I applaud the uniqueness and the effort.”

Commissioner Judith Ennis called the proposal “an innovative idea for how we can support a service like Yolo Crisis Nursery.” 

She said, “This is an unbelievably important service in our community, and opportunities to invest in Yolo Crisis Nursery like this just do not come up that often.” 

Ennis also mentioned her reluctance to make the ordinance more flexible, recommended that some microunits be converted to two-bedroom units and suggested requiring the daycare to offer subsidized child care.

Discussion around the language of the ordinance and the doors it will open or close for affordable housing yielded a motion to revise the city’s affordable housing ordinance.

Wise moved to recommend that City Council amend the ordinance so that the total percentage of affordable units provided under alternative rental-housing requirements be changed to include an option of not just housing but other types of “significant benefits of the project to low income households,” and that in (ii) affordable housing “provide for other transitional or supportive housing or related services.” These changes would allow the Plaza 2555 project to be approved because then the donation to YCN would substitute for providing affordable housing.

The commission briefly discussed the complications of the term “housing” and whether YCN would legally fit into that category. Unsure, Wise suggested they keep the term “or related services.” Vaitla, however, was still concerned that the term “services” was too broad.

The motion included a caveat that if the City Attorney ran into legal problems related to the language, that “housing or related” in (ii) be removed for the phrase to just be “services.”

Kalman expressed his dissatisfaction with the affordable housing being only five percent of all units and moved that it be changed to ten percent. However, the motion died after there were no seconds.

The motion to recommend to the City Council to amend the ordinance passed 5-1 with Vaitla voting no and Kalman abstaining.

Wise then moved to recommend approval of the project with three modifications. First, that three of the traditional affordable housing units be two-bedroom units at the same affordability rate; second, that a child care subsidy be included as part of child care efforts; and third, that a deed restriction protects the land in the event that YCN moves or closes down.

The motion passed 6-1 with Vaitla voting no.


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6 Comments

  1. Eric Gelber

    YCN unarguably provides a valuable and needed community service. But affordable housing is a critical need. My concern with the proposal is adding yet another exemption to the requirements for affordable housing. Recent changes to the Affordable Housing Ordinance—e.g., reducing affordable housing percentage requirements, and exempting mixed use and stacked flat condominiums, not to mention the long-standing option of in lieu fees—already weaken or chip away at requirements to develop affordable housing. This proposal would add yet another exemption and has slippery slope written all over it.

  2. Matt Williams

    This situation is very troubling IMO … and it is also symptomatic of two very problematic mindsets that both the developer and planning staff have.

    The dilemma the developers face is in and of itself understandable.  They are trying to bring the costs of building the project down to a level where the monthly recurring revenues exceed the monthly recurring costs by an acceptable (to themselves and their institutional lenders) level.

    ===============

    Unfortunately this is where the first mindset problem appears.  I would much rather see them reduce the size of each unit by 10%, thereby reducing their costs for each unit by the same 10%.  A 10% reduction in size should not result in any reduction in their revenues.  The net result would be an increase in their marginal profit if they kept the number of units the same at 200.

    They also have the possibility of increasing their total revenues by 11% if they take the 10% reduction in square feet per unit and build 22 more units in the freed-up space.

    In both those cases, their ability to bring more affordability into their project would be increased.

    However, neither planning staff nor the developer appear to be able to see that alternative solution.  Former Chair of the Planning Commission, Rob Hofmann understood (and articulated from the dais) that be best rout to “Affordability by Design” is “Affordability by Size.”

    ==============

    The second mindset problem may be planning staff’s alone, but I suspect the developers have it as well.  That mindset manifests itself in this case with staff’s proposal that the special circumstances of this individual project should be addressed by changing the rules that apply to all projects … the ordinance.  For the life of me, I can’t understand why the developer’s special circumstances can not be handled in the provisions of the individual Development Agreement for this individual project.  It’s a puzzlement.

  3. Alan Miller

    Yolo Crisis Nursery is currently a four-bed facility in Davis that provides various services to at-risk children and their families

    I always thought it was a place for recovery for plants that hadn’t been watered by their owners.

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