By Don Gibson
In this year’s Davis Housing Element Update, Davis can take the progressive step of proactively overcoming systematic class and ethnic inequalities by embracing policies promoted by a relatively new law, Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH).
You might have heard on the presidential campaign trail Trump campaigning against Biden, saying that Democrats and Cory Booker will destroy the nice suburbs if elected. Trump was referring to a specific policy. The Trump Administration in 2018 overturned an Obama administration rule called Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing. In response, the California state legislature passed AB 686 in 2018 to put AFFH rules into state law.
AFFH recognizes that housing policies, on both a local and national level, exacerbated and enforced systematic inequalities. Many of the first housing and zoning laws were explicitly racist in their design, including in Davis, such as the College Park neighborhood.
To overcome generational disparities, AFFH calls for cities, counties, and state agencies to take proactive measures to fix housing inequality around race, national origin, color, ancestry, sex, marital status, disability, religion, and other protected characteristics.
In practice, this means building housing and Affordable housing of all income types in quality places or the “nice suburbs” that Trump was claiming Democrats want to destroy. To overcome this systematic race and class inequality that housing policy perpetuates, making sure housing is built so that all types of people can live in high opportunity areas such as Davis is a crucial proactive step.
Regional governments such as SACOG for the Sacramento-Yolo area now identify cities with “High Opportunity” areas. These census tracks are resource-rich areas, good schools, and access to quality jobs. More housing for diverse income types can open up traditionally exclusive and either explicitly or de facto segregated neighborhoods and cities. The ZIP code you grow up can be the best predictor of successful life outcomes. Opening these areas by having more housing and Affordable housing will help more people and families accumulate good education and jobs.
Many California cities have adopted in restrictive housing policies making housing prices skyrocket, such as Davis and “Progressive” places in the Bay Area like Berkeley & Marin County. However, they are often the highest of “High Opportunity” places, yet only people who already have significant resources can afford to live there.
In our region, Davis is one of the highest “High Opportunity” cities with 90% of Davis identified as High Opportunity with far lower rates in the rest of the region. However, even within this identified area, Davis has a lower relative housing requirement than almost all cities in the area as assigned by SACOG. Furthermore in this latest cycle Davis has doubled the housing requirements but is still behind achieving the very low and low income housing levels in the previous cycle.
Many of Davis’s housing policies have exacerbated racial inequalities by limiting housing development. Davis is the most expensive city, in the region to live in with a medium home price of over $715,000 compared to the $450,000 range in neighboring cities. Additionally, Davis is a far less diverse city when you factor out the UC Davis student community, in comparison to Sacramento-Yolo metro area.
Today because of this new law, cities and local governments are required by the state to show they are Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing in their housing policy programs (Regional Housing Needs Allocation & General Plans). In plans being released across the state (I sit on the committee advising Davis, Housing Element Committee), policies are required to help overcome systematic housing inequality that has been baked into our laws for over a century.
These laws and policies supporting AFFH could include ways to build in high opportunity areas with fewer regulations that prevent new housing from being built. Approaches could include opening up older neighborhoods, some of which, when first built, included racial covenants to prevent Jews and non-Whites from living there, to allow minor increases in density such as allowing a duplex or triplex on a lot designed for a single-family home. Allowing an additional unit would be similar to the historic neighborhoods of Old East Davis and Old North Davis, which already allow two units on a single family lot.
Other ways are to reduce the number of construction requirements like removing parking minimums on new construction which drive up costs and promote dependence on the car. Davis is one of the few cities where ample biking and bus options make this a reasonable choice.
Promoting infill and making it easy to build the missing middle, such as low-rise apartments two or three stories, is a proactive step to promote a greater diversity of housing units. This can be promoted by limiting the number of city approvals needed, which can often kill or significantly reducing a project. Minimizing the number or eliminating the number of public hearings for small projects and reducing development costs and city fees are getting implemented by the City of Sacramento now, arguably one of the nation’s most progressive housing plans.
If there is not a liberalization of infill policy, then greater acceptance of peripheral development becomes the relevant question. Measure J/R/D has been in effect for 20 years now, and no project has broken ground to date. Of the six that made it to the ballot, only two passed and faced hurdles after already meeting the high bar of a Measure J/R/D vote. Nishi property has been caught up by CEQA lawsuits and now almost three years after the election have not broken ground. Although still moving forward, Bretton Woods was caught with issues with the Davis-Based Buyers Program. A program explicitly requested to appeal directly to the Davis voters.
Today in Davis, both infill and peripheral developments are difficult to approve, and Davis now grows even slower than the 1% Growth Cap, growing annually around 0.55% in the last decade. Limited housing growth is the top reason housing prices only continue to increase, displacing residents.
The options moving forward are fundamentally three broad options in the Davis context. 1) Make infill easier to build in Davis by increasing to density in traditionally exclusionary neighborhoods by modifying zone code. 2) make peripheral development more acceptable while recognizing Measure J/R/D is the law of the land, or 3) no significant change in city housing policies, thus increasing housing prices while furthering existing racial & class inequities Davis perpetuates.
Everyone needs housing from students, seniors, workforce, family, university staff, traditionally disadvantaged communities, and more. For Davis to adopt the progressive housing policies that Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing calls for, City policy must either expand the ease of infill options or allow more peripheral growth. If neither happens, Davis will only continue to perpetuate systemic ethnic and class inequalities that national and state housing policy is starting to reverse.
Don Gibson is a recent PhD from UC Davis and a Committee member with the Davis Housing Element Committee.
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