By David M. Greenwald
Davis, CA – Last week’s column speculated on why local government underproduces housing, and the researcher notes: “local governments – which will focus on the local, negative impacts of housing production – are less likely to produce housing than a larger-scale government.”
I started thinking about it again when the Chronicle blasted the supervisors for having “lost their minds on housing.”
The Chronicle writes: “What does San Francisco need even more than dense, affordable housing near jobs and transit? It needs a Board of Supervisors that won’t sabotage any and seemingly all earnest attempts to deal with this city’s housing crisis.”
I saw individual supervisors disputing the Chronicle’s depiction here, but the issue got me thinking about the fact that the housing crisis really isn’t one size fits all, and the problems in a place like Davis have less to do with local government and more to do with preferences of local citizens.
In Davis, we have seen consistently since probably 2004 that slow growth candidates have struggled to win seats on the city council. In 2000 when Measure J passed, slow growthers had the majority on council, by 2004 there was just Sue Greenwald left. From 2006 to 2010 it was just Sue Greenwald and Lamar Heystek and, after 2012, no one—which means that a slow growther has not won a seat on council since 2008.
On the other hand, when it comes to measures on the ballot, only the 2009 Wild Horse Ranch project drew two votes in opposition. The last four have all been on 5-0 votes, even as half those lost.
The only two contested votes on council for housing in the last decade was the 3-2 vote in 2013 for Cannery and 3-2 vote last year for University Commons.
When we look at the differential between slow growth policies (i.e. voting on Measure J projects) and voting for council, it is really stark.
Last November DISC lost by a 52-48 margin citywide. In the two council districts where there was a clear cut pro-DISC against a clear-cut anti-DISC candidate, you saw that the pro-DISC candidates won overwhelmingly. In a head to head match up, Lucas Frerichs doubled up on Larry Guenther in one race. In the other, Will Arnold won more than his two opponents combined, and the candidate that opposed DISC, Colin Walsh, finished third.
In both districts the No on the DISC vote easily outpaced the vote for the NO on DISC candidate.
Clearly there are other factors in the vote—such as incumbency and the perception of the candidates on other issues. That’s actually part of the point. Incumbency is generally an advantage—familiarity and people knowing the candidates tend to work in their favor except where there are anti-incumbent modes.
One theory here was first espoused to me by former Mayor Sue Greenwald way back in 2007, when she pointed out to me that she thought Measure J—though she supported it—hurt progressives in Davis because it allowed voters to not have to worry about growth and housing when they voted in council races.
I have never taken the trouble to test that theory systematically, but I do think there is something to it. I have seen polling that consistently shows that around 35 to 40 percent of the Davis voters oppose housing/development of any kind.
That not only demonstrates the difficulty of actually winning a Measure J race when you start out with 35 to 40 percent automatically in opposition, it also demonstrates that a sizable percentage of the voting population are voting for people who don’t align with them on housing—and while housing is not the only issue, time and again it has proven most salient for voters.
What it suggests to me is that, with Measure J in place, voters are willing to elect people based on issues other than peripheral housing, knowing that they get the final say on housing—if it is a conscious choice, which hard to know.
But I also point out that for those who have been arguing that the problem is Measure J, I would counter that Measure J is a symptom of voter preferences rather than a cause of housing stagnation.
Without Measure J, it is quite plausible that voting considerations would be far different and that each council election would be a replay of housing wars that we once saw in Davis and have now largely disappeared.
That said, while I think there is something to the Measure J factor, I don’t think that’s wholly the explanation.
I’m not saying we would have a slow growth council majority but for Measure J. Part of the weakness of the candidates who run office on a slow growth platform is a function of the voting public itself. The voting public itself, when polled, has shown a concern for lack of affordable housing and the need overall for more housing.
So why do Measure J votes fail?
From my perspective it’s actually more of a NIMBY factor than people want to let on. People in general understand that we need more housing in the abstract, but when it comes to impacting their lives, they can turn against projects on an individual basis.
A key explanatory variable for passage of Measure J projects—traffic and near-neighbor opposition.
Covell Village turned on traffic issues. Wildhorse Ranch on near-neighbor issues (plus traffic, plus it was during the housing market collapse, etc.). Nishi 1 on traffic. DISC on traffic.
The two projects that passed—Nishi 2 and WDAAC—had no traffic concerns and no near-neighbor concerns.
In short, it would appear that what drives opposition are impacts to people’s lives rather than a philosophical opposition to housing. That might explain why people will support candidates for council who support housing overall even though they might oppose individual projects.
If Measure J went away, however, that calculation might radically change. Pre-Measure J, we saw voters sign petitions to put projects on the ballot, we have seen petition drives on things like water, and we have seen lawsuits and other measures designed to stop individual projects.
This is another reason why I don’t agree with the anti-Measure J people that, but for Measure J, we would have more housing. Measure J was not an accident and neither would the other barriers to housing that would crop up in its absence.