By David M. Greenwald
Davis, CA – During the week, the comment period closed in Davis on its Draft Housing Element—the process has been contentious with the Housing Element Committee pushing the envelope, a number of citizens pushing back, and the council in some ways splitting the baby as the draft will now go back to the Planning Commission and then the council for approval.
As pointed out earlier, “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 2029.”
If you look at the Housing Element from 2008, they have listed 20 “green light” sites, and, of those, seven have been approved for any kind of development and just a few have any housing built.
The committee chose to go primarily with aspirational. While Grande and Verona came to fruition, most of the rest—DJUSD Headquarters, Nugget Fields, the Downtown and PG&E Service yard—were not realistic in the short term, if ever.
But with those sites alone, the city was able to show the potential for 1401 to 2459 units, including 460 to 1000 units at Nishi (access via UC Davis only) which actually did get approved (albeit not during that cycle). The other big project was Cannery, projected at 333-776, which has not only been approved but built.
The numbers are of course inflated—PG&E (227 to 495) and Transit Corridor (235 to 420).
None of that ends up hurting the city for the purposes of RHNA and the Housing Element, because the city is not required to built the units or have a realistic assessment of how much could potentially get built.
This reality makes the flap over the housing element from a few weeks ago all the more amusing—a lot of time was spent on the 2008 Housing Element, much of which identified spots that were not viable then, let alone now.
UC Davis Law Professor Chis Elmendorf presented an interesting tweet stream on Friday, noting, “LA’s draft housing element just dropped. It’s an exemplar, a huge deal not only for LA but for cities across California.”
He said, “LA is the first city to realistically assess development potential under current zoning, and the results are stunning.”
He tweets, “As I’ve explained many times before, cities’ assessment of capacity traditionally assumed that every site with near-term development potential *will* be developed during planning period…” The problem, as he points out, “This assumption is patently false.”
In a paper, he argues that “recent changes to state law empower @California_HCD to require cities to discount site capacity by a rough estimate of the site’s likelihood of development during the planning period.”
Think about the ramifications for that just in the 2008 Davis HE estimates. Those top three sites—PG&E, Transit Center and Nishi—in unit estimates account for just under 1000 of the 1491 primary sites listed for 2008 at the low density, and about 1900 of the 2459 on the high density end. Nishi was not approved until 2018, after the 2008 cycle ended. The other two were completely unrealistic. Add in neighborhood shopping centers which were also for the most part not realistic, at 158 to 207 units, and you get the idea that, while Davis could show the sites on paper, most of the cities were not going to get approved in the cycle—if ever.
Elmendorf notes, “Subsequently, @California_HCD issued guidance that embraces our idea, but equivocates on whether it’s a requirement or a recommendation.”
The first big city to submit a housing plan, San Diego, relied on the old plan. Writes Elmendorf: “HCD told San Diego to submit amendments addressing likelihood of development. City’s response was a dud. It should be decertified.”
On the other hand, Los Angeles has recruited a firm to “model sites’ likelihood of development as function of base and density-bonus zoning, price, and several other predictors.”
Elmendorf then shows the difference in the two methodologies. The study shows, if you assume the old formula, that Los Angeles has enough capacity under current zoning to accommodate the entire 1.4 million unit regional need of the entire Southern California region, even without density bonus.
But when they analyze it further, “analysis also shows that share of sites w/excess capacity that get developed in any given year is tiny, roughly 0.012 for the 5-year period from 2015-2019.”
Elmendorf tweets, “Adjusting the projection period from 5 to 8 years, and incorporating estimates of number of units conditional on development, LA projects that it has realistic capacity for about 47,000 new units on these sites (well shy of 1.4m!).”
“In effect, LA’s housing plan assumes that it will realize (as new housing units) only 3.5% of aggregate zoned density of its sites. San Diego, by contrast, assumed that it will realize 90% of zoned density,” he continues.
He tweets that “whereas San Diego’s ludicrous assumptions allowed it to claim that it has no need to rezone in order to accommodate its share of regional housing need, LA promises a massive rezoning program.”
There are some caveats to this. Elmendorf notes that the realistic capacity “nearly doubles” when taking into account a track record for variances and rezonings. He also notes that a lot of development occurred in LA on sites previously classified as having no residential capacity at the start of the period.
He notes, “LA doesn’t claim credit toward RHNA for this ‘hidden capacity,’ but cities ought to receive credit if they show a track record of entitling projects at greater than zoned density, just as they’re rewarded for track record of ADU production.”
He also pointed out: “While most cities don’t have staff capacity or consultants to do their own version of LA’s analysis, the regional councils of govts should be doing it for them.”
The city of Davis probably can’t do the exact calculations, but we could probably eyeball which projects are likely over the next eight years. For example, if we are counting on the Davis Downtown, it seems highly unlikely that those units get built in the short term. Other potential sites might be more realistic.
But can you imagine the fight if we did an assessment in Davis like they did in Los Angeles? But it is the difference between paper compliance at the minimal standard of the law and a commitment to actually provide the housing promised and needed for the community.
—David M. Greenwald reporting