Commentary: Affordable Housing Will Become a Critical Challenge for Davis – Sooner or Later

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

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.

Would these changes impact the city’s ability to have Measure J?  And, given that Measure D was passed in 2020, would that restart the clock?

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. Ron Oertel

    Again, the same type of RHNA requirements are foisted-upon cities which aren’t expanding outward at all.  In fact, those type of cities (e.g., in the Bay Area) are the primary focus of RHNA requirements.

    In the absence of any explanation regarding how those cities are able to meet their requirements without expanding outward, the claim that Davis has to expand outward to address those requirements makes no sense whatsoever.  Which leads one to believe that this is simply an advocacy to use RHNA requirements as an “excuse” to expand outward.

    I would think that the larger impediment (for ALL cities) is the actual funding to build Affordable housing.  So in response to “viability”, I would guess that a lot of cities are going to tell the state that they need funding (from the state) for the Affordable housing component to actually be built.

    In other words, cities will shift the responsibility for the questions the state asks right back to the state, itself. Ultimately, the only thing that cities have to provide is a potential spot – “here ya go”. And again, this applies to cities which aren’t expanding outward at all.

    If I had to guess, funding will end-up being woefully-short, regardless of how much money the state pumps into Affordable housing.   And that most of that money will be used for Affordable housing in areas that are far more-expensive than Davis.

    It costs a lot of money to build Affordable housing.  (I suspect that there will be an increasing number of audits regarding the use of those funds, in the future.)

    My guess is that the state’s efforts are ultimately going to (mostly) be unsuccessful, as they already have been. Keep in mind that the state is attempting to apply these same type of “forced growth” requirements on cities that are LOSING population, as well. (Such as San Francisco.)

  2. Ron Oertel

    Would these changes impact the city’s ability to have Measure J?  And given that Measure D was passed in 2020, would that restart the clock?

    None, as Measure J/D addresses land that isn’t in the city.

    If the state attempts to do-away with all urban growth boundaries, force cities to expand outward (and change existing agricultural zoning throughout the state), it seems unlikely to prevail.  There is no wording in the article above which shows that the state is attempting to do so in the first place.

    There is no change in existing agricultural zoning (or inclusion/incorporation into the city), when a Measure J proposal fails. It is not part of the equation.

    There is no state agency commanding that cities expand outward onto land already zoned for agriculture, outside of city limits. (And if there was, there would be a much larger uproar, which would impact far more than Davis.)


  3. Richard_McCann

    It would appear that Measure D violates the state law. Measure J had an express time limit. That legacy does not extend to a new measure.

    1. David Greenwald

      Two of the more interesting things to watch are going to be whether HCD signs off on the city’s affordable housing plan and whether the state decides to intervene into Measure D.

        1. Ron Oertel

          A quick review of those two cases show that the first one was an attempt by citizens to overturn a council decision to change zoning to allow development.  (Something that isn’t a factor under Measure J/D, since the council has no power to change agricultural zoning outside of the city in the first place.)

          The second case also does not apply to Measure J/D:

          As pertinent here, Measure T imposed a numerical cap on the number of housing units permitted, a minimum lot size requirement and a limitation on the number of parcels per lot. As in the City of Oceanside case discussed above, a housing developer again invoked SB 330 to challenge the validity of Measure T.

          I also see in other articles that legal appeals are expected.

          But again, if developers attack Measure J/D, they’re also going to be attacking existing agricultural zoning and urban growth boundaries throughout the state. Regardless of whether it’s voters, or representatives who previously enacted or preserve them.  I suspect they’re going to have their hands full, with that.

          Now, if a city (or voters) attempted to change existing urban zoning to farmland zoning (to prevent development), that might be challengeable.

          Seems to me that the most important thing here is to not give in to fear-mongering, including speculation from those who clearly have an agenda.

    2. Ron Oertel

      Regardless of Measure J (or D), there is nothing in the state requirements which force cities to incorporate agriculturally-zoned land outside of city limits for urban development.

      The only thing that Measure J/D does is to allow voters to make such decisions, rather than a council.  The law also does not force councils to make such decisions.

      In addition, Measure J/D does not apply to Affordable housing outside of city limits on land that is currently zoned for agriculture.

      ” . . . and whether the state decides to intervene into Measure D

      Nothing you’ve cited would provide any legal basis for them to do so.

  4. Todd Edelman


    Would setting up a mechanism that creates infill housing and mixed-use development on greyfields – inclusive of over-wide and otherwise wasteful ROW, larger parking lots and low-density, low-value restructures – based on Commission review and a Council vote – have been a better use of Staff and activist time in the past couple of years when there’s been a big focus and resources spent on both failed iterations of DISC?

    Billions of people on the planet live in areas that are denser overall than Davis, and perhaps hundreds of millions of these are wealthier or roughly equally as wealthy as people in Davis. And there are new models for housing based on traditional designs that maximize efficiency of space while emphasizing conviviality over our sun-bleached backyards with their pools, donating Sacramento River water to the Gods of Evaporation, and sacrificing their lawns to the Gods of… Evaporation.

    We’re spending more money than necessary to re-pave local streets that are so wide that we then find we need to spend more for things to slow them down. Wide, black streets that radiate heat for hours into the summer night. So wide that city trees at their edges take many years extra to form a shadowing canopy.  Certainly some of these streets are viable for ADU’s or other additions to existing homes on them.

    Then we have all the parking lots that are least three car lengths wide – at commercial businesses and some at buildings housing religious congregations. So much of this space sitting empty at night.

    Finally there are more complicated challenges such as the filling the bottom of the sky roughly between Hutchinson and Covell on CA-113. It’s not necessarily as expensive as we think it might be to create a foundation here for mixed-use overhead, and the extreme proximity to the University adds layers to its layers of value.

    We have an abundance of infill opportunities.


    1. Don Shor

      One of the evaluations done by the state housing department as they review each city’s housing element is the Likelihood of Development. “Theoretical capacity” is not sufficient. Davis housing plan is out of compliance right now.

      1. Todd Edelman


        Shanties get built on the side of hills in Brazil; new homes in the Netherlands are anchored to bedrock and designed to float in a flood. Cats love to sit inside small boxes and there will be homes in the Asteroid Belt if there are minerals there that we need.

        Where there’s a will there’s a way.

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