Commentary: Should Davis Pursue More Greenfield Development in the Current Housing Element Cycle?

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By David M. Greenwald

Davis, CA – Yesterday’s column focused on the thoughts of law professor Chris Elmendorf and his critique of the Davis Housing Element Draft.  He charges that the Davis draft provides an excellent example of how cities abuse the housing element law.

One issue that really stands out, however, is this comment: “Most projects are infill projects that require a General Plan Amendment and zoning amendment.”  The city explains, “This is largely a result of the nature of the built-out community, as opposed to a community with a large supply of undeveloped greenfield land that can be more comprehensively planned.”

There are a number of problems with this analysis, one of which of course being that this limitation is self-inflicted.  As Elmendorf points out, “Since when does ‘the nature’ of a single-family neighborhood prevent a city from planning for anything else?”

Then he goes on to claim—I think spuriously at best, “The City has experienced steady development of both residential and non-residential uses, indicating the need for a General Plan Amendment and/or zoning amendment that does not constrain development.”

The city really hasn’t had steady development.  They did not design, approve, or build a market rate student multi-family housing unit between 2002 and 2017, and only this academic year did Sterling actually come on line.  The city has also not approved a peripheral housing development between 2000 and 2018 and still hasn’t broken ground or built a single unit.

But I think the critical issue is that the city is largely relying on previously approved units to fill its Housing Element.  It is eschewing even looking at peripheral development.

A few comments from the Draft Housing Element are illuminating here.

The draft notes: “The City also published the Public Review Draft of the DDSP [Davis Downtown Specific Plan] in Fall 2019. If approved, the plan would allow for as many as 1,000 new residential units of varying sizes and unit types in the downtown area and reduce demand for greenfield development at the edges of the city. Work on the DDSP is continuing into 2021.”

They add, “In 2019, the City published the public review draft of the DDSP, which would allow for intensification of residential development in the downtown area, as well as adaptive reuse of existing buildings without the need for development of greenfield areas. One component of the plan includes a form based code and would allow for a variety of housing types, such as mixed use housing over retail or commercial, rowhouses, townhouses, and accessory dwelling units.”

But this presents a problem.  The fiscal analysis shows the problematic nature of relying on such development, because it is not clear that dense infill in the downtown area will actually be fiscally viable.

This is the problem we have raised time and time again.  The city is running out of open infill sites.  They will increasingly have to rely on some form of redevelopment, either in the downtown or elsewhere.  And they appear to be completely punting on peripheral or greenfield development—by design.

They might be able to get away with it in the 2021 to 2028 Housing Element cycle.  But even doing that, the city falls shy on the low income requirements.

But the city is effectively punting on this cycle by doing this and puts off the tough questions until 2028—when it is unlikely any of the current staff or council will have to deal with the much harder issues.

The city’s ordinance, of course, advantages infill over peripheral as well.  But we have still not dealt with the problem of dwindling infill supply at this point.  In theory the DDSP can expand that range, but not if it’s not fiscally feasible—which it appears to not be.

By ordinance the city sets the “an annual average growth guideline of one percent.”  It also requires the control of peripheral growth.  “Strictly control peripheral units (i.e. units in annexed areas) to a maximum of 60 percent of the one percent growth guideline per year.”  Meanwhile, “Manage infill units within the one percent growth guideline per year. Infill may constitute 40 percent of the total units in a year if peripheral units constitute 60 percent and infill units may constitute 100 percent of the total units in a year if peripheral units constitute zero percent.”

Not addressed by anyone—the possibility that at some point there will be minimal numbers of infill units.

So what should the city do here?  That’s going to be a big question going forward.  But I don’t think they should punt on peripheral development in this housing cycle.  Whether they want to annex a swath of land which would necessitate a vote, or go project by project, there should be at least some greenfield development proposed in the housing element.

And, yes, we have Measure J and that will mean that there will be votes.  But at some point this issue is going to come to a head, because the city won’t be able to plan appropriate amounts of housing without considering greenfield development.

One commenter noted, “California lost population last year – first time in its entire history.”

There is a problem with that statement.  A big reason for the decline in population is due to the cost and lack of availability of housing.

His response: “You say that like it’s a bad thing.  That’s actually the way our system is designed.”

Which tells you the exact thinking here.

Besides, as Don Shor pointed out, an article in CNN said that “population growth remains strong in the interior counties of the Sacramento Valley, the Central Valley and the Inland Empire, while coastal and northern counties saw population losses, according to the report.”

And “the report indicated experts anticipated annual growth would resume this year.”

Bottom line, the population growth does not appear to be a get-out-of-jail-free card, and the city should not punt on tough issues that it doesn’t want to have to grapple with.

—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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10 thoughts on “Commentary: Should Davis Pursue More Greenfield Development in the Current Housing Element Cycle?”

  1. Ron Oertel

    Besides, as Don Shor pointed out, an article in CNN said that “population growth remains strong in the interior counties of the Sacramento Valley, the Central Valley and the Inland Empire, while coastal and northern counties saw population losses, according to the report.”

    Using this logic, RHNA requirements should be applied “in reverse”, in the areas experiencing population decline.  And yet, those cities still have RHNA requirements – and many of them cannot expand their boundaries, for various reasons

    Here’s some other interesting information:

    Birthrates have been declining for years, but the current sharp drop in birthrates attributed to the Pandemic was just beginning to show up at the end of 2020.

    Domestic net out-migration has been the rule for many years, with more people leaving California for other states than coming to California from other states. This trend has accelerated in recent years, and further accelerated in 2020, though the report does not shed light on it.

    While the state lost 182,083 people in 2020, a net 99,917 housing units of all types were added – 103,073 new housing units, the most since 2008, minus demolition of old units, according to the California Department of Finance.

    The average housing unit in California is occupied by 2.7 people. So, 100,000 housing units adds room for 270,000 people, even as 182,000 people have left. Think about that for a moment.

    https://wolfstreet.com/2021/05/09/california-housing-market-first-ever-population-drop-meets-biggest-home-construction-boom-since-2008/

    By the way, Measure D already allows peripheral expansion without voter approval, as follows:

    Section 41.01.030 Exemptions:

    E. After notice and hearing as required by State law and after compliance with the
    California Environmental Quality Act, the City Council may, without a vote of the electorate of
    the City, approve residential development on land designated Agriculture, Agriculture Reserve or
    Urban Reserve if the City Council finds that all of the following circumstances exist:

      I. The approval is necessary and required to meet the City’s legal fair share housing
    requirement ;

    2. There is no other land already designated for urban use that can accommodate the
    City’s legal fair share housing requirement and/or redevelopment pnsG through agreement gnw<th
    rate; and

    3. Not more than five acres per year in total area is designated under this exemption
    for residential development. Additional acreage may be designated under this exemption if the
    City Council finds that the acreage is necessary to meet the City’s legal fair share obligation based
    on maximum multifamily densities.

    Any proposal approved under this subsection shall be required to have all housing
    units permanently affordable to persons or families of moderate, low and very low income.
    The intent of this exemption is to provide sufficient land for housing to
    accommodate moderate, low and very low-income housing as may be necessary over time.

    1. Richard_McCann

      Redwood City is doing just fine hitting its RHNA goals (and exceeding) and also hitting affordable housing targets. Davis has given lip service to implementing the Redwood plan–we need to actually take this on.

      https://www.sfchronicle.com/local/article/Redwood-City-is-exceeding-its-new-housing-goals-16161106.php

      “You say that like it’s a bad thing.  That’s actually the way our system is designed.”

      Knowing that is Ron O, I find this statement especially ironic because when I point out how markets work, with prices going down as supply goes up, as our system is designed, he denies this reality. Picking and choosing what parts of the market one likes and claiming only that part works doesn’t mean that the other dynamics don’t work.

      The fiscal analysis shows the problematic nature of relying on such development, because it is not clear that dense infill in the downtown area will actually be fiscally viable.

      I don’t remember seeing a fiscal (i.e., net government revenues and expenditures) analysis in the Downtown Plan. I did see a financial analysis for real estate development that cited problems, but that’s a more manageable problem of how to create incentives for development. Again, Redwood City faces an even more difficult environment and induces redevelopment successfully.

      1. Ron Oertel

        Knowing that is Ron O, I find this statement especially ironic because when I point out how markets work, with prices going down as supply goes up, as our system is designed, he denies this reality. Picking and choosing what parts of the market one likes and claiming only that part works doesn’t mean that the other dynamics don’t work.

        Folks like you don’t even understand what “supply” and “demand” means.

        For example, both of those terms are not AT ALL limited to what occurs within the boundaries of Davis.  It would also include what occurs regarding jobs, salaries and HOUSING in places like Woodland, Sacramento, Winters, etc.

        Nor does it include factors such as other factors such as interest rates, cost of materials and construction, changes in lifestyle brought about by telecommuting, etc. 

        These are factors which influence PRICE, which then directly impacts DEMAND.

        And when there’s a discrepancy between communities (as in the case of the Bay Area, vs. the Sacramento region), then the “boundaries” of supply/demand increase even further.

        Are you sure that you claim to have economic expertise?  Because it repeatedly seems like you have the opposite.

         

  2. Alan Miller

    That’s actually the way our system is designed.”

     

    Which tells you the exact thinking here.

    The “thinking” that the market responds to the need.  Oh, the horror.

    Better than the “need” for perpetual growth to enable a broken civic model.

    There are a number of problems with this analysis, one of which of course being that this limitation is self-inflicted.

    There is hope for you yet.  May 2021 is Measure JeRkeD awareness month.

    As Elmendorf points out, “Since when does ‘the nature’ of a single-family neighborhood prevent a city from planning for anything else?”

    Anything else?  I don’t think that’s an honest statement.  The question is, what is appropriate?  Of course, the open secret is the City “wants” to do this in ‘opportunity zones’ and other areas once designated as ‘blighted’ for the BS ‘redevelopment zones’.  And what no one will openly admit is that Willow Bank and North Davis Farms and Stonegate Lake and Lake Alhambra Estates, ETC. are never going to receive any infill – because social justice is a lie.  The Davis rich will always have their enclaves, and those who are just making it here will be made to feel guilty for being “white” or “Asian” and owning land!  and therefore “give it up” and allow a Trackside next to your house!  Ha Ha F¨cking Ha!  Meanwhile, the Davis rich have their enclaves and laugh at you 😐

    Does it really make sense that an “opportunity zone” and a “historic neighborhood” overlap?  Whose bright idea was that?

  3. Ron Oertel

    Yolo County’s population decreased by 1.7% from January 2020 to January 2021, according to population estimates released from the Department of Finance on Friday.

    Here’s an interesting paragraph:

    The city of Winters saw a significant increase in its population over the last year, going from 7,257 to 7,618, an increase of 5% likely caused by an increase in housing available within the city. Winters ranked third in the largest percentage increase of single-family housing, seeing an increase of about 7.5%, and ranking fifth in total housing growth, with 6.1%.

    Who knew that building more houses (even in a county with a decreasing population) could result in an increasing population?  Actually, that’s sort of similar to the plot of “Field of Dreams”, isn’t it? 🙂

    https://www.dailydemocrat.com/2021/05/10/yolo-county-population-decreases-along-with-state/?utm_email=A542645F9455A5E23554D4F55D&g2i_eui=XdSA58aqeYbpnyDrC64SQQ%3d%3d&g2i_source=newsletter&utm_source=listrak&utm_medium=email&utm_term=https%3a%2f%2fwww.dailydemocrat.com%2f2021%2f05%2f10%2fyolo-county-population-decreases-along-with-state%2f&utm_campaign=norcal-woodland-morning-report&utm_content=automated

    1. Don Shor

      The biggest factor in California’s temporary population decline is the drop in immigrant population. COVID and the contraction of the economy disproportionately impacted industries heavily served by immigrant workers.
      California’s immigrant population dropped by 642,200, a decline of 6.2%, in 2020.
      Our state’s population has, for several years, been a balance between in-migration from other countries vs out-migration to other states. The out-migration has continued but the immigration has stopped. As those industries rebound, they will need workers. There are already serious problems finding workers in ag, landscaping, construction, and trucking industries.
      The housing needs allocations are 8-year cycles. They would have no reason to believe that the impact of the pandemic and subsequent recession would continue for the full 8-year cycle. Economists are projecting significant economic expansion as activities get back to normal. A one-year dip isn’t something that would be factored into a multi-year planning cycle.
      As the jobs come back, so will the workers, particularly with a change in immigration policies.

      1. Ron Oertel

        . . . particularly with a change in immigration policies

        Personally, I think that Biden and Democrats may end up paying a political price, for the changes that they’re making (and which are still in flux).

        In any case, are you suggesting that a peripheral development is going to be more affordable for these folks, than The Cannery, for example?

        Here’s what I’d suggest, for the “build-to-affordability” believers (e.g., in regard to peripheral developments).  In the baseline features, include the actual sales price for the completed units.  And then, ask them how they’re going to ensure that these units aren’t primarily purchased by Bay Area residents, who are looking to cash-in on the houses that they own there.  Thereby failing to meet “internal needs”.  (In your case, be sure to include the cost of yards that are larger than those at The Cannery, for example – since you claim that the relative lack of yard space discourages families.)

        And despite what the Vanguard previously claimed, it appears that new on-campus housing is actually cheaper than new student housing in the city (e.g., at Sterling).  For example, this appears to be about half the price of Sterling:

        https://solatwestvillage.com/floorplans/#doubleup-content

        Switching back to the RHNA requirements, a lack of population growth appears to be permanent in coastal areas (as folks move to cheaper environs in less-expensive areas), so the RHNA requirements should logically be “reduced” in those locales.  And yet, they are not.  Maybe that’s something to ask state officials about -at least, for anyone ignorant enough to believe in what they’re attempting in the first place.

        Again, the article below notes a significant increase in construction of new housing units (not seen in well-over a decade), with a simultaneous DROP in state population growth! Gee, when did that last occur? 🙂

        https://wolfstreet.com/2021/05/09/california-housing-market-first-ever-population-drop-meets-biggest-home-construction-boom-since-2008/

        1. Ron Oertel

          In the baseline features, include the actual sales price for the completed units.  

          Darn it, I forgot to mention inclusion of the CFDs that they’ll stick the new homeowners with, as well.  Rather than including that in the price of the house in the first place. Thereby ensuring that homeowners have to pay “interest” on that, as well.

          In other words, a complete listing of all expected parcel, property taxes and fees, and their respective expected increases over time, in addition to the projected sales price for each unit. (Annual required payments for CFDs can also increase.)

          They already know this (within a range) when they propose a development in the first place.  Otherwise, they wouldn’t even propose it. So, it shouldn’t be too hard for them to share that information.

          Then, you’ll know exactly how “affordable” a given proposal will be.

    2. Richard_McCann

      The population of Winters increased because PG&E builts its gas safety training center there, and new housing was built in response to the new PG&E facility. It’s not a case of a “Field of Dreams”. Phoenix, Las Vegas and Stockton learned the hard way that doesn’t work in the Great Recession.

  4. Keith Y Echols

    I think the author seems to think that zoning is somehow magical.  That they have the power of the mystical amulet of Sur-Vey last held by a city councilman named Mike LaMere:

    “Behold!” LaMere said, holding aloft the solid-gold amulet, which is emblazoned with the Ever-Evaluating Eye of Surr-Vey, Lord Of Demarcation, He Who Measures And Assesses. “With this sigil, the power of zoning comes. Through me, the power of zoning flows! All will behold my power, and I shall bow to no man when designating matter-of-right developments for major retail and office spaces to a maximum lot occupancy of 75 percent for residential use!”

    LaMere credited the amulet with the overnight renovation of the Monroe County Public Library, and the recent redesignation of a Southern Rochester area from “commercial” to “single-family residential use for detached and semi-detached structures.” Many Rochester citizens believe the amulet is responsible for the fully stocked ocean aquarium that materialized in the city center Sunday, and the gleaming new Friendly’s restaurant that rose serenely over the banks of the Genesee River late Monday afternoon.

    It seems like just saying the words “infill”, “higher density”, “mixed-use” and “sustainable” will magically create projects that the market actually desires and will BUY.  But there’s no thought to if the market will support these magical ideas.  There’s also usually little thought to how the local community is tied to it’s surrounding communities in terms of housing, commercial and economic development.

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