By David M. Greenwald
Davis, CA – People I have spoken to who are supporters of more housing are excited about the passage of SB 9 by the Assembly. Assuming the Senate can reconcile with the Assembly Bill changes and Governor Newsom signs the bill—that scenario seems more likely than not at this point—that is at least a small piece of progress.
But as I have been laying out for weeks now, SB 9 is not likely to change much in Davis. Part of that is the cost of redeveloping existing homes into a duplex or a split lot/duplex. Part of that is the lack of anticipated new neighborhoods.
The overall housing problem is simple: Davis is running out of vacant land to put new housing in town. Davis does not have the ability to reliably develop on the periphery. And it’s too expensive to redevelop.
I appreciated the ten recommendations put forward by Sustainable Yolo and adopted by the Housing Element Committee. These, too, are modest changes for the most part. Some of them are more symbolic. The council deferred on the single-family zoning but rightly anticipated the statewide changes.
The notion of higher targeted units, and repealing one percent growth, were largely symbolic and would not have helped.
One area that didn’t get enough attention was probably Recommendation 8: “Explore including a by-right approval process for housing projects which meet the current affordable housing ordinance as is and current zoning standards at the time of application.”
That has the potential to reduce costs of construction for projects that adhere to current zoning standards. It also puts the impetus on the city to update zoning standards through a General Plan update.
For some, the big gorilla in the room is Measure J. Without revisiting the argument, I don’t see a meaningful opportunity to eliminate Measure J—maybe ever. Certainly not in the foreseeable future.
In 2000, Measure J narrowly passed with 53 percent of the vote. By 2010 it was up to about 75 percent support. By 2020, it was up to about 83 percent support.
That seems to be moving in the wrong direction if you are thinking you want to eliminate it. Instead, what is happening it is becoming a permanent part of the landscape.
A more realistic approach, and one that I favor (unlike the elimination of Measure J), is a modification of it.
One of the approaches I have favored since probably 2016 is simply using a pre-approval mechanism. That doesn’t require any change to Measure J because the voters have to vote for it to be pre-approved.
For the first time this year, the idea that I have been floating for now five years, actually gained enough steam that it was part of the Housing Element discussions.
Still, it has a long way to go. The council immediately poo-pooed the idea.
“I don’t support the proposal to ‘pre-approve’ land inside the Mace Curve and Shriner’s and thus exempt them from Measure J/R/D. This approach probably would not work because any controversial proposal would still be subject to voter approval under state law via a referendum,” Dan Carson said.
While I think he has a point there, the key to that statement is “controversial proposal.” It is also worth noting that opponents of housing projects have not gone that route since Measure J was passed—they did for Wildhorse. But they did not do it for Cannery—much to my chagrin, in fact. And that was a 3-2 vote and the community was bitterly divided.
I would use the opposite argument as Dan Carson here—I would argue that the potential for a second vote is a failsafe in case the community feels that the pre-approval conditions become a “bait and switch.”
Another possible change to Measure J comes forward in this week’s staff report. Right now there is language that would exempt an affordable housing project from a Measure J vote—but that is too high a burden, given that you would need land and funding to make that happen.
We don’t know the exact proposal here.
Language in the staff report is vague.
“Amend the language already in Measure J/R/D that exempts from its public vote requirements projects that provide affordable housing or facilities needed for City services.”
“Amend Measure J/R/D to modify the existing exceptions to create meaningful opportunities to meet our needs for affordable housing and to provide other City facilities that benefit our residents.”
One commenter noted that there has to be a threshold added to this idea. Actually, there has to be a proposal added to this idea. Right now it is just that—an idea.
The problem with this proposal is, unlike the pre-approval, it would require a new vote of the people to enact. You can see exactly where the battlelines form on this one, and ultimately you have to thread a very delicate needle to get the numbers to a place where the public would support it in concept and yet still make it be financially viable.
These two modifications to Measure J—pre-approvals and expanded affordable housing exemptions—could become part of a new reform platform for housing.
Realistically, eliminating Measure J is a non-starter right now, but modifying it has a little bit of traction. Of course, we have yet to hear from the “leave Measure J as is forever” crowd.
Bottom line: Measure J is not going anywhere, but maybe we can modify it slightly.