Sunday Commentary: The City Lacks Vacant Infill – How Do We Meet the Requires for the Next Housing Element?

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

Davis, CA – One of the most critical findings in the Housing Element is that the city does not currently have “enough land designated for residential development to meet the sixth-cycle RHNA.”  Moreover, “All of the sites identified to meet the lower-income RHNA are non-vacant sites. Although Measure J supports infill development, these sites are not sufficient to meet the lower-income RHNA [Regional Housing Needs Allocation].”

Further, “Even with the increased residential densities planned for the Downtown under the Draft Downtown Davis Specific Plan, the City will need to rezone additional sites to meet the RHNA.”

The Housing Element points out—again—“Had DISC [Davis Innovation Sustainability Campus] passed, the City would have sufficient sites to meet the sixth-cycle RHNA upon adoption of the Downtown Davis Specific Plan and would not need to rezone additional sites.”

This is the exact dilemma that the city faces—the city has basically run out of vacant infill land.  They can still rezone land and they can still redevelop land.

I will unpack in a moment what this means from my perspective.

But let me know lay out a few points from the staff response to comments on the Housing Element.

The city has been assigned 2075 housing units this cycle.  As staff points out: “When the city prepares the Housing Element Update to address the new RHNA assignment, it must show where the available residential properties are located.”

If there are not enough available sites, “the city must identify and rezone more sites within 3 years of adoption of the Housing Element. The sites identified to date are the candidate rezone sites to meet the shortfall.”

Because of the housing crisis, the state has “made the selection of sites more stringent.”

They write: “All sites must be viable and ‘ready for development’ meaning that if a city reports the inclusion of a site on its inventory, it must also show the reasonable likelihood of development.”

That means the PG&E site can’t count this time around, because PG&E has stated in writing they are not interested in selling the land or repurposing it.

The staff adds, “The sites selected, in the opinion of staff, have the most likelihood of development. If for some reason an adequate number of sites is not rezoned, then the city will be out of compliance with its General Plan, putting in jeopardy the ability to apply for grant funding and possibility the approval of other projects in the city.”

They further write: “It is true that simply rezoning a site does not mean units will actually be built. That is the reason why the city has an entire element designed to include policies that will further the production of housing. However, the City is not in the business of constructing housing. Therefore, it must rely on private developers to meet all of the requirements laid out by the city. And if the requirements are too burdensome, the affordable housing will not be built.”

They also point out that the legislature has now dictated that, for rezoned sites, “HCD [Housing & Community Development] will not accept any site under 0.5 acres.”

So is there land available to rezone that is commercially zoned?  Yes.  We estimated previously there are about 64 viable acres of land that could be rezoned in the city.  That removes the land held by Sutter and Kaiser for medical facility expansion, it removes land along Second Street that is the Frontier Fertilizer site, and it excludes the 15 acres or so between Chiles and Cowell.

Realistically, you aren’t going to want to put any of the housing along Second St. or in much of University Research Park.  The bottom line is, even looking at vacant rezonable land, Davis is pretty limited.

Plus, a few months ago people were complaining that Davis was rezoning commercial land for residential—they wanted that commercial land to be used rather than building an Innovation Center.

The bottom line: we don’t have much vacant land left.  It is a small pie.  It cannot possibly fill the needs for both housing and commercial.

So can we redevelop existing land?  Of course.  But it is more expensive.  There is a reason why we had a Redevelopment Agency (RDA) at one point to finance large scale redevelopment.

And again, the city has to show that it is viable within three years of adoption of the Housing Element.

So anyone who wants to argue that it’s factually incorrect that Measure J is making it more difficult to meet the current RHNA requirements (we should not use terms like “prevent”—after all we can pass Measure J projects, at least theoretically) is setting the bar way too high.

Existing sites can be rezoned, they can include more density—but that requires the desire for existing landowners to do that and be able to afford the process.

We did see one example of that—University Mall.  We saw how the residents around the area responded to it.  They did do it.  It took a large company, it took a long and contentious process, and it took a divided council willing to stand up to the owners.

This is what we are dealing with at this point.

I think we need to be honest with the community: we don’t have much vacant land, we don’t have an RDA, it’s expensive to redevelop, the neighbors don’t like densification, and the community has opposed peripheral for the most part.

Something has to give.  It doesn’t have to be peripheral.  But increasingly it is going to be hard—expensive and contentious to go up, and there is not much that is vacant.

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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    1. David Greenwald

      I would think the path you seek is to lay out the case that there is insufficient means to produce effective housing under the constraints of Measure J, as such, your focus on my position is distracting from your most effective point.

      1. Ron Glick

        Why bother? You’ve already made the argument repeatedly and convincingly. Yet you are too much of a believer or too much of a coward or too much of a beneficiary from election advertising to admit what the real problem is for Davis housing. Until Measure D expires or is thrown out don’t expect anything good to happen in the city on housing. You support it so why do you go around pretending like there is anything more to discuss?

  1. David Greenwald

    Ron: I think the issue is whether the rest of the community understands whether there is a problem, not whether I agree with your solution to that problem.

  2. Keith Y Echols

    It will be interesting to see if and how the HCD will be able to enforce it’s housing element mandates.  So far they have won appeals in court.  But there are still many cities that are resisting them.  As we’ve seen with some Sheriffs that refuse to enforce Covid mandates, local authorities do not always comply with state laws.  So, I’m waiting for HCD to cross the Rubicon and actually take over a city’s planning and approval process.

    I wonder what the criteria is for “likely to be developed” is.  Does that include NIMBY opposition to infill?  Can the HCD override Measure J restrictions for annexation for new housing projects?  Since that’s a voter approved process; I could see that going pretty far in court if the NIMBY’s dig in.

    So until all of this is resolved; I do not see the RHNA housing element requirements as an immediate threat to Davis’ sovereignty over the planning and approval process.

    However, the City is not in the business of constructing housing.

    IMO, the city should be in the business of constructing affordable housing.


    1. David Greenwald

      “IMO, the city should be in the business of constructing affordable housing.”

      But there is no way to get there without market rate and for the most part, peripheral market rate.

      1. Keith Y Echols

        But there is no way to get there without market rate and for the most part, peripheral market rate.

        I mentioned in a previous comment that I think a project that is 51% affordable housing counts as a project that can be streamlined.  The other 49% can be workforce and/or market rate which could pay for much of the project.

        But I’m an advocate of commercial development to precede residential development so that it helps pay for city services like affordable housing and even infrastructure for market rate and affordable housing.

      2. Tim Keller

        What’s wrong with building market rate?   At this point, even people who “can” afford to live here are getting shut out for lack of opportunity.   It does’t need to be subsidized for it to be good for the City

  3. Don Shor

    How is this playing out elsewhere? On Twitter, Chris Elmendorf has been comparing the Los Angeles housing element vs San Diego’s. San Diego is pretty clearly out of compliance and the state housing department will be reviewing it in September.

    Chino Hills has a voter approval requirement. Significant quote (emphasis added):

    During housing element hearings in Chino Hills, several residents asked how Measure U would be impacted by the state-mandated housing allocations.

    According to Chino Hills community development director Joann Lombardo, state RHNA allocations override any local residential growth control ordinances, including Measure U.

  4. Matt Williams

    Disclaimer/Admission: I have not read the Housing Element document in detail yet, so some of what I say here may be addressed in the detail of the document.

    With that said, some thoughts.

    1) The challenge that Davis (and virtually every other jurisdiction) faces with respect to meeting the lower-income RHNA numbers is that the owners/developers of available land have no economic incentive to actually build lower-income housing.  The Affordable units at Sterling are only there because of the numerous market rate units. Same at WDAAC.  Lincoln 40 and 3820 Chiles both side-stepped the issue of actually providing Affordable units by paying in-lieu fees.  Plaza 2550 also creatively side-stepped having to actually provide Affordable units.  That is a massive obstacle to meeting the lower-income RHNA numbers.

    2) In the final 2008 Housing Element Steering Committee report, the first line of the “Summary of Site Recommendations” reads as follows: Total of Primary Sites – Currently Planned and Zoned for Housing … 516-569.  Somehow since 2008 and 2021 those Primary Sites have either disappeared, gotten lost, or been conveniently ignored.  Those sites are scattered around the City, and many of the 516-569 have been built on since 2008, but my guess is that the number is either between 300-399 or between 400-499.  I would love to hear an explanation of why those sites are not included in the draft Housing Element document.

    3) The lost opportunity in 2018 at the Nishi site would (and still could) solve the problem.  The residential portion of Nishi 2016 (9.8 acres) was designed at a density of 66.3 units per acre.  When the design for Nishi 2018 was unveiled, the residential acres had grown from 9.8 acres to 25.8 acres, but the density had dropped from 66.3 down to 27.1.  If Nishi 2018 had been designed at the same residential density as Nishi 2016, then instead of 2,200 beds (in 700 units) there would have been 5,134 beds (in 1,711 units).  Accounting for the 20% bonus in the Development Agreement, the total could have risen to as high as 6,160 beds in 2,053 units.  At the risk of stating the obvious 1,353 units (2,053 minus 700) was a terrible thing to waste. Given the long delay that Union Pacific has imposed on the project, maybe it would be a good idea to go back to the drawing board on Nishi and in the process solve our RHNA issues.

    1. David Greenwald

      I think addressing point one here, is a key point that I have attempted to point out a few times here. Lower income unit requires means market rate unit requires de facto. That means we actually need a lot more units to get there than it looks like on paper.

      1. Matt Williams

        David, that is not the only alternative.  Affordable-only complexes like New Harmony can be pursued if there is a coherent plan for coming up with the additional money needed to make them pencil out.

        1. Bill Marshall

          if there is a coherent plan for coming up with the additional money needed to make them pencil out.

          New Harmony was sited on land acquired by the City as an affordable housing dedication.

          Who would you propose to “come up with the additional money“?  Without that suggestion, your quoted part of you comment is incoherent.

        2. Matt Williams

          Gavin Newsom from the $70 billion budget surplus is one possibility.

          Davis voters approving an Affordable Housing Tax to “do the right thing in our community” like the Measure O Open Space Tax approves in 2000 is another possibility.

        3. Bill Marshall

          Fair answer…

          Will note that the budget surplus may have been a fluke, a “one-off”… and by law, so much has to be ‘returned to taxpayers’, and another portion earmarked for schools… and I’d like to see more placed in “reserves” in case it was a ‘one-off’… every other “interest” that is reaching for, getting a piece of the surplus pie, probably fully expects that is the “new normal” baseline funding… and will politically fight to make it so, in future years.  Newsom may not be the governor in one month, or January 2023… we don’t know… too many variables to place an informed wager on likelihood of State funding.

          Of the two you posited, that leaves local “Davis voters approving an Affordable Housing Tax to “do the right thing in our community””

          AKA ‘charity’ (but not recognized by IRS as such), aka taxes not even deductible [much less a credit], due to the Republican Congress limiting the deduction for state and local taxes.  To ‘punish’ “blue states”.

          You really think there is the political will to raise local taxes sufficient  to “do the right thing in our community”?  Given it would be non-deductable ‘charity’ for many in this community?  Will that affect other charitable giving folk would otherwise do, also “doing the right thing”?  


          But your two posits remind me of Swiss cheese… might not be able to drive a truck thru it, but a Mini-Cooper? Would be close…


        4. Richard_McCann

          Coming up with money locally would only happen if the state threatens to take away local planning autonomy and enough people care about that to be willing to tax themselves for that purpose. Given the resistance to parcel taxes lately, I don’t see a groundswell of voter sentiment willing to take that course.

      1. Matt Williams

        Sancho Panza speculates that you might be wrong in that assessment Don.

        If our community leadership (both public and private) was more focused on doing the right thing rather than avoiding making a mistake, we might make better decisions as a community.

        1. Bill Marshall

          Actually it would be another Don who would take up that quest… as too many folk read stuff from Q-anon, sniffs like you might be reading too much from the S-quire site…

        1. Bill Marshall

          Actually, not positive, but I believe a citizens’ referendum (initiative) could either negate the previous approvals (claiming “changed circumstances”?), or at least tie it up in the courts for years.

          This should be fun to watch… I have no doggie in the Nishi ‘fight’.

          By voting once (2018), the voters still have the right to vote on a “do-over”… witness the current vote approaching on the recall of the governor… elected in 2018…

    2. Bill Marshall

      Your suggestion is a very clever way to negate the 2018 vote, and trigger a Measure D vote all over again… very clever…

      No way the the voters would accept the changes you propose without new proposal, entitlement process, and vote.  And it would only take one or two to file suit, and throw it into the Courts.

      Think your proposal may be the “perfect monkey-wrench” (ou, sabot)… the no-growth folk should jump on it!

      And the developers could just write-off all previous expenses, and load up their pocketbook again… nice… the anti-developer folk would love that, too!

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