By David M. Greenwald
Listening to the housing discussion on Wednesday was a reminder that the housing issue, while diminished during times of COVID, is probably coming back—especially if the projections for the fall are correct, of full return to campus and record high enrollment.
We operated this year with just 6000 students on campus and 1800 in residence halls. But the word was that, by this fall, they will be at design capacity. Even with some new student housing coming on line both on and off campus, that figures to create a very different housing market in town.
Of course, for the most part, through the LRDP (Long Range Development Plan) and the campus commitment to nearly 10,000 new beds over the next planning cycle and the city approval of roughly 4000 beds in town, although student housing will probably not achieve the vacancy rate of five percent, it will not be at the student housing crisis level of less than one-half of one-percent either.
The big issue going forward for the city still figures to be housing, but that housing will probably shift away from student housing—which was the immediate concern for the period of 2015 to 2020—to more general housing needs, specifically affordable housing, family housing, and workforce housing.
The city has embarked on the Housing Element Update for the period of 2021 to 2029. The RHNA (Regional Housing Needs Allocation) numbers for Davis are a total of 2075 units, with 930 of those units being needed as lower income.
Meeting those kinds of numbers in this community is likely to create a lot of challenges, and while at some point the issue of the Housing Element will get to places like the Planning Commission and the Council, one thing I worry about is that the community has not really engaged in a discussion on housing needs—once again.
That means when proposals do come down, there is likely to be shock and anger.
But as I have pointed out a few times here, I am not sure how we get to those numbers. I’m not sure where we get over 900 units of affordable housing—we are talking about six affordable housing projects the size of the one at WDAAC (West Davis Active Adult Community), over eight years.
I am not sure even where market rate housing is going.
To illustrate this problem, we can look at the 2008 Housing Element Report. They listed 37 “sites” for potential housing. Several of those have now been either developed or approved. But many of the ones that have not been approved are “pie in the sky” predictions or largely out of our hands.
For example, while the city has approved such sites as Grande, Verona, Willowbank, Willow Creek, Nishi, and Cannery, many of the top 10 locations are unrealistic—DJUSD Headquarters, downtown, PG&E, Transit Corridor, Corp Yards, Civic Center Fields, for example.
Of those, there was an active discussion on the DJUSD Headquarters about five years ago that seemed to fall off the radar for whatever reason.
Of the peripheral sites listed here—Signature, Wildhorse Ranch, Nugget Fields, Covell Village, the Northwest Quadrant, Stonegate (west of) and Oeste Ranch—none seem particularly likely at this point in the time. Only a portion of the NW Quadrant has a property owner actively even in consideration, it would seem.
So where is our housing coming from in the next eight years?
Infill? There are certainly a scattering of sites in town, as we have noted in our discussion of vacant commercially zoned properties. Most of them are small. None of them are going to carve out a big chunk of either 1000-plus market rate or 900-plus affordable sites.
The downtown? This is probably the one area where I think the city can reasonably grow. Everyone is aware that the downtown is relatively low density, with much of it at single-level or two-story buildings.
There are several problems, however. Without RDA (Redevelopment Agency) money, the fiscal impediments to redevelopment in the downtown are immense. Even with the ability to build out workforce housing on the upper floors—and that is fiscally dubious at this point—building large scale affordable in the downtown is going to be near impossible.
Densification? There will be limited opportunities for redevelopment around town that leads to more density, but not at the rate needed to meet the next round of RHNA numbers and certainly not in eight years.
Peripheral? We can look at a map and the difficulty there. Even if we didn’t have to pass all of the proposals through a Measure J vote, which we do, can we get two or three larger peripheral proposals approved in the next eight years with enough affordable housing to meet those numbers? Probably not.
Even without the RHNA requirements and potential of the state to exact some form of sanction for failure to meet those numbers, housing would be a problem. We continue to see families priced out of Davis, a shrinking family household demographic with strain on schools and overall community balance—to say nothing about affordability.
Some of this we can probably manage, but the limited engagement on these issues remains a matter of concern. As we did in 2008, we can create spots on a map and list potential sites, but if they are not likely to be developed any time in the next few decades, let alone the next eight years, what’s the point? Other than an academic exercise.
Yes, we need to approve the Downtown Plan, the Housing Element, and hopefully update the General Plan. Some time in there, however, we need to be realistic about what we want this community to be in the next 30 years—because the decisions we make today will have long-reaching consequences.
—David M. Greenwald reporting
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