By David M. Greenwald
Davis, CA – The Housing Element contained a warning: “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 2019.”
The Draft report notes: “This, combined with the generally high cost of the existing single-family for-sale housing stock, has led to concerns that as the City’s existing homeowners age in place, the lack of housing suitable and affordable to families has been changing the community demographics, forcing increasing numbers of local workers to commute in from surrounding areas, and contributing to related community issues, such as declining school enrollment.”
While it is likely the city can stay in compliance with RHNA requirements for the current period, the long term picture is troubling at best.
The Housing Element Committee attempted to find additional ways to build housing made a series of recommendations — most of which were shot down by council members after considerable opposition was voiced to the recommendations by many in the community.
The recommendations included exploring removing R-1 zoning, elimination of parking minimums, eliminating the one percent growth cap, rezoning strip malls to allow housing, by-right ministerial approval for new housing, pre-approvals of development at two sites, and a goal to build more than the RHNA assignment.
One of the recommendations, the elimination of R-1 zoning, could come from legislative action by the state. Council indicated that they are willing to rezone strip malls, but most of the rest have been rejected.
The problem at the end of the day; however, remains the first statement and second statement I quoted at the beginning of this article from the Draft Housing Element report — how do we address housing shortfalls, the high cost of single-family homes, and the lack of suitable and affordable housing for families in the community?
The answer from a sizable portion of the community is … to some extent, we don’t.
To the extent that we have any plan at all it could be summarized as pushing new development to UC Davis.
As I expressed in a recent commentary on the UC Davis strategy, it seems more like punting the hot potato out of town, rather than attempting to forge a meaningful policy.
The first problem of course is that UC Davis is largely insular. We can attempt to work with them. We can attempt to partner with them. But at the end of the day, where does the 800 pound gorilla sit in the theater? Anywhere it wants.
But even if UC Davis were more amenable, shunting housing to the campus is not necessarily a great answer. I don’t have a problem pressing UC Davis to accommodate half its student housing on campus. But beyond that, we are basically advocating putting upper class students and potentially faculty and staff on campus in neighborhoods that are cut off from the city, disenfranchised the residents of that housing from voting in the city, but still largely connected and reliant on the city.
Leaving aside the viability of growing another city next to Davis – what advantage does such an arrangement really get us? If anything, it puts a large population not only off our tax rolls and away from the polling place but also outside of our control in terms of growth and other impacts.
The UC Davis strategy seems to be a variant on the “grow out or grow up” choice. The only difference is that it moves that growth from the north side of Covell to the south side of Russell.
Let me be clear — I am all for UC Davis doing their share, and all for acknowledging that they really haven’t done their share for the last 20 years, but at the same time, neither have we.
So what is the viable growth strategy for the city other than a strategy that pushes for more housing from UC Davis?
I think that is what the Housing Element Committee attempted to tackle.
On the one hand, we have an infill strategy — which has largely been the preferred course of action. That means more density. The HEC acknowledging the dwindling supply of open and vacant parcels in town that can support housing, and through their recommendations, has embarked on a strategy that seems to maximize space, increase density, and make housing more economically viable.
The viability issue is paramount. When we looked at the Downtown Plan for example, a big problem with mixed-use in the downtown was cost. A by-right process could speed the process and help to reduce cost. Enough to make redevelopment of the downtown viable? We should be checking.
In addition, the rest of the recommendations seek to maximize available land by increasing density. Removing R-1 zoning is probably out of our hands, but thatr recommendation does point to a way to replace at least some single-family homes with multi-family housing. Eliminating parking minimums, rezoning strip malls and the like are other ways to increase housing on a finite footprint.
Don’t like those options?
That leaves us with peripheral housing. Some people want to eliminate Measure J. But that’s likely not in the cards given the overwhelming margin it was renewed by.
I believe that pre-approvals of the two recommended parcels is NOT an end run around Measure J. It just isn’t. It doesn’t require changes to Measure J. It still requires voter approval. But it allows for the process and cost to be moved up front, before the expensive work of design comes into play. Ideally, the community identifies land for potential housing, puts baseline features on that land to limit how much housing can go there and votes on it.
The council is correct — there is a fail safe for the community — the ability to put a project on the ballot for approval after the fact through a referendum. For controversial projects that could be in the works. I disagree with the Council members who suggested that this would be commonplace . My reason is simple. Since the passage of Measure J, no housing project that didn’t require a vote of the people has been put on the ballot by the voters. Not even Cannery, which perhaps should have.
Are there other answers to the housing problem? I don’t know. We have a General Plan Update coming up and would love to here viable solutions beyond just pushing the problem to UC Davis.
—David M. Greenwald reporting