By David M. Greenwald
Davis, CA – Earlier this week, the Vanguard checked in with City Manager Mike Webb to update the progress of uncompleted development projects. The conversation turned to the Housing Element—my question was, given the fact that Davis voters turned down DiSC and its 85 units of affordable housing, how will the city complete its obligation of over 900 units of affordable housing this cycle?
With the housing crisis and various legislation, the HCD which is the controlling body for approvals of housing elements has been much more stringent of making sure that not only can a city provide the housing in theory on a map, but also show a reasonable possibility that it can actually be constructed.
With Measure J, it is hard for the city to plan for any peripheral housing projects because the voters have the ability, as we just saw with DiSC, to vote them down. So are there enough infill opportunities to address, especially, the affordable housing component?
City Manager Mike Webb seems more optimistic than me in the short term, but agrees that in the longer term, there is a serious problem.
“I don’t really think it will be a problem,” Webb said. The city will have to lay out a rationale for the sites that will have to be pursued. But even with the loss of DiSC, Webb expects they can lay out enough infill sites to not have a problem meeting the housing needs. Though he did say HCD might want to see a timeline where the housing can be built sooner rather than later in the cycle.
The Vanguard has been warning, however, that the city is running out of infill options and here Mike Webb agrees.
“The next Housing Element cycle, that’s where the community will need to be reengaged,” Webb acknowledged. “I don’t see us infilling our way to a Housing Element next time.”
That means that, by 2029, the city will have to figure out how to get the allotment of affordable housing.
“That’s a key drive to the next General Plan Update,” Webb said. “Looking ahead to the new RHNA cycle.”
The Vanguard noted last week that the voters have been willing to grant housing projects that do not increase traffic concerns. Where that would be is subject to speculation, however.
Both the city and HCD in their correspondence have seen the potential for Measure J to make affordable housing more difficult.
The Housing Element Draft report notes: “While Measure J adds costs, extends processing times, and has been used to halt development projects that would convert agricultural land to urban development, it is only a constraint to meeting housing needs if the city lacks sufficient infill housing sites.”
Key point: “[T]here is not currently (2021) enough land designated for residential development to meet the sixth-cycle RHNA.” Further, “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.”
They continue: “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.”
However, they find: “Had DISC 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.”
The report notes that while Measure J does not “fully prevent the City” from redesignating agricultural land to meet RHNA, “Measure J does place limitations on the City’s ability to rely on rezoning and annexations to meet the RHNA.”
HCD expresses concern about the impact of Measure J and other growth control measures on the city’s ability to deliver on its housing needs.
“As recognized in the housing element, Measure J poses a constraint to the development of housing by requiring voter approval of any land use designation change from agricultural, open space, or urban reserve land use to an urban use designation,” HCD writes. “Since the ordinance was enacted in March of 2000, four of the six proposed rezones have failed.
“As the element has identified the need for rezoning to accommodate a shortfall of sites to accommodate the housing need, the element should clarify if any of the candidate sites to rezone would be subject to this measure and provide analysis on the constraints that this measure might impose on the development of these sites.”
While the council has been understandably reluctant to attempt tweaks or revisions to Measure J in the past, Councilmember Carson and others expressed interest in looking at tweaks to affordable housing options.
The council in August signaled some willingness to explore amending 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.
Carson pointed out, “There was already an exception written into Measure J/R/D for affordable housing, but the language in that exception makes it unworkable, it hasn’t been used in 20 years.”
He said, “We need to make this a useful and workable tool because of the challenges that we have.”
Carson said that he supported Measure J, he voted for it, “but it isn’t perfect and it can be improved.”
The Vanguard has also noted another potential fix would be to set aside land for housing projects on the periphery when it approves its general plan. While it is a workaround for Measure J, it would still require a vote and approval by the voters.
Webb remains skeptical.
“I’m not sure the community would have the appetite for approving a ballot measure that’s not completely laid out,” he said of the pre-approval prospects.
So too did Dan Carson last year.
He said, “We’re not accepting, at least I’m not recommending, one of the proposals that come forth to pre-zone some properties in the city at the end of town.” He explained, “To me, it creates a confusing problem of EIRs and potentially multiple votes. I just don’t think it works.”
There are also new laws that could impact the city’s ability to control land use perhaps even Measure J itself.
SB 330, authored by Senator Skinner and signed into law back in October 2019, would make a number of changes including “a housing development cannot be required to rezone the property if it is consistent with the objective general plan standards for the property. The public agency may require the housing development to comply with the objective zoning code standards applicable to the property, but only to the extent they facilitate the development at the density allowed by the general plan.”
Furthermore, “the HCA provides that, where housing is an allowable use, an affected public agency, including its voters by referendum or initiative, may not change a land use designation (general plan or zoning) to remove housing as a permitted use or reduce the intensity of residential uses permitted under the general plan and zoning codes that were in place as of Jan. 1, 2018.”
An affected city or county is also prohibited from establishing or implementing any growth-control measure adopted by the voters after 2005 that:
- limits the number of land use approvals for housing annually,
- acts as a cap on the number of housing units that can be constructed; or
- limits the population of the city or county.