By David M. Greenwald
Davis, CA – I was sitting down this week over coffee with a community member, when the conversation turned to housing and they asked me about the Housing Element and my take on it. The big problem in my view is not that we will be unable to meet the requirements for the 2021 to 2028 housing cycle, but, rather, what happens after.
This is the gigantic red flag for the city: “The City does not currently contain enough vacant land appropriately zoned for the development of the housing necessary to meet the City’s estimated housing needs for the period between 2021 and 2028…”
The city will meet the housing needs for this cycle, with a requirement “to rezone enough land to meet this need within three years of the adoption of the Housing Element.”
However, “Inclusion on this list does not necessarily mean that a property will be rezoned, and consent of the property owner to do so is required.”
For the last five or six years, I have from time to time (some would argue too frequently) pointed out that the city of Davis is facing a crisis (I intentionally use this word), because it is not only pricing middle income professionals of child rearing age out of the community but it is also running out of options for generating enough housing to address the problem in the future.
No one is really talking about this problem. The elected officials do not have any incentive to do so of course—they have a much shorter time horizon than 2028. Most will not be still on the council at that point.
The local paper has largely ignored the Housing Element and, while there seems to be a tacit acknowledgement that Davis—like much of the region and the state—has a housing crisis and in particular an affordable housing crisis, there has been little discussion of just how boxed in we are becoming in terms of options going forward.
I do think some of the proposals from the Housing Element can alleviate some of this impending concern.
The elimination of single-family zoning to allow duplexes and quadplexes on single-family home sites might help, if we address financial constraints on redevelopment.
The ability to rezone some of the strip malls to be mixed use, for instance, could help. You could argue that reducing or eliminating parking minimums could add land for use as housing (store people, not cars).
I also think the by-right proposal for infill would be helpful, as one of the chief hindrances to redevelopment in the downtown is that projects right now do not financially pencil out and Bay Area Economics (BAE) recommended streamlining the process to reduce burden and costs.
Finally, I would argue that preapproval of peripheral land could ease the burden as well. From the discussion earlier this week, it is clear that this would be highly contentious and controversial. I would venture to guess that the initial attempt will not work.
But I think that makes it incumbent on the council to squarely present the Davis Housing dilemma to the public. The problem is: we no longer have sufficient land for housing and our land use policies are making it difficult to change that.
Sustainable Growth Yolo live tweeted the discussion at the Planning Commission on the Housing Element.
I was especially interested to see the public comment portion. They broke down the calls—30 of them—as 11 opposing the Housing Element changes and 19 supporting some or all of the recommendations from the Housing Element Committee.
Opposition focused on things like: the Housing Element being infiltrated by student and developer interests, opposition to the removal of the one percent growth cap, opposition to preapprovals, and some focused on putting more housing on UC Davis.
The one percent growth cap figures to be a large area for pushback, but, from my perspective, it is almost a distraction. Without addressing the structural issues and finding a way to build housing more easily and finding locations to put it, we are never really going to push against that limit. It is worth noting that in the last 20 years, we have not come close to butting up against the growth cap.
So where do we start? We start with the need to understand that this is a problem. And for some people, it is not a problem. They have their homes in Davis. They like the Davis community as it is. They either do not have kids or their kids are grown. They are retired or closing in on retirement age.
So, for a sizable portion of the community, the fact that we do not have enough housing, the fact that our demographics are growing older and there is a shrinking number of families with school age children, and the increasingly unaffordability of housing for younger families is largely not a concern.
These debates tend to come with harsh value judgments that cut both ways. But when we do that, people do not hear the concerns of others, they dig into their position, and these battles get heated.
Instead, we need to start with a good assessment of the situation we face. And the alternatives that we have. If we can do it in a measured way that is data-based, we can have a discussion for what we want this community to look like in eight years when we have to address the next housing element, and then discuss ways to get there.
For me, I worry about the lack of understanding of our limitations. We have so much over the last 20 years attempted to preserve the character of our community that we are starting to learn that those very policies are also causing huge changes to the same character of our community.
—David M. Greenwald reporting
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