By Jake Berman
When I moved to Davis in 1994, housing was cheap and plentiful enough that my parents, a state worker and a therapist, could afford to buy a house and raise children here. This is no longer the case. The average home in Davis sells for $761,000, which is unaffordable to anyone making less than $150,000 a year. Davis High School and UCD graduates can’t afford to stay in Davis and raise families. Many of the students are already commuting in from Woodland or Sacramento, causing traffic and pollution. Davis has a golden chance to address the housing shortage this year, but the City is not rising to the challenge.
Later this year, the City of Davis has to send a legally binding plan (called a Housing Element) to the State of California, showing how the City plans to build a minimum of 2,075 new homes by 2029. If the State doesn’t approve the plan, the City land use and zoning laws are suspended until a new plan is accepted. Every city in California is dealing with this new housing quota system now. Some cities are making a good faith effort to meet their respective quotas. Sacramento voted to allow small apartments citywide, and big apartments near train stations; Berkeley and Santa Monica voted to end their apartment bans. Unfortunately, the City of Davis’s response is to play games with the numbers, and continue with business as usual.
To avoid having to change Davis’s sclerotic housing laws, the City simply waves a magic wand. They say, Davis can meet its quota because Davis will build 100% of the housing currently planned or approved. That’s laughable. Davis’s history is littered with the wreckage of large-scale housing proposals which went down in flames. Covell Village in 2005. Wildhorse in 2009. DISC in 2020.
But there is a way out, because there are four straightforward reforms the City could adopt in its plan to make it possible again for Davis High School and UCDavis graduates to stay in the town they love.
First, the City could allow new apartments to be built on top of parking lots. The struggling Davis Manor shopping center on East 8th has 2.9 acres of lightly-used surface parking lot; the Westlake shopping center in West Davis has struggled for decades, and has 2.5 acres of surface parking; the civic buildings downtown are surrounded by 4.5 acres of parking lots which sit largely empty.
Second, the City could repeal its apartment ban. In most Davis neighborhoods, including where I grew up, suburban-style single-family homes are required by law. This makes it illegal to build the kinds of neighborhoods you see in Midtown Sacramento, or in other college towns like Berkeley, Cambridge and Princeton. Thus, on a typical 7000 square foot lot, it’s legal to build a 2800-square-foot mansion with a 500-square-foot garage. But it’s not legal to build four apartments, as in Midtown Sac, or four row houses, like on the East Coast. Both options are compatible with Davis’s quirky college-town feel.
Third, the City could repeal its mandatory parking law. Despite Davis’s world-beating bike infrastructure and famed cycling culture, City law requires:
- 800 square feet of car parking (two spaces) to be built for every home, on average
- 400 square feet of car parking (one space) for every 300 square feet of retail
- 400 square feet of car parking (one space) for every 400 square feet of office space.
This mandatory parking law wastes land, encourages people to drive, and makes it illegal to build the kinds of traditional neighborhoods that you see in Downtown Davis, Midtown Sacramento, and in Berkeley.
Fourth, the City could take a page from Sacramento’s book, and provide automatic approval for all new housing projects which otherwise meet the law. Currently, building new homes in Davis is a complex, painful process. Even if a proposed project meets the existing City law, the City Council often delays or rejects new homes, usually on spurious grounds. The best example of Davis’s broken planning process is the decades-long redevelopment of the old Hunt-Wesson tomato cannery on Covell. The plant closed in 1999. Twenty-two years later, the project still isn’t fully built out. (For reference, the Golden Gate Bridge took four years to build.)
Davis should make a good faith effort to reform its laws and allow more homes to be built. But that’s not what the City is proposing to do. Instead, the City’s plan is to twiddle their thumbs, game the numbers, and accept the status quo of expensive housing, commuter traffic, and air pollution. The City Council should reform Davis’s housing policies, and create a housing element which makes Davis more affordable for all.
Jake Berman is an attorney who previously worked at the Attorney General’s Office and grew up in Davis (DHS ’04). He has previously written for the Guardian, Strong Towns, and PublicSource Pittsburgh. His artistic work has been in The New Yorker, Atlas Obscura, the SF Chronicle, and the San Jose Mercury News.
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