Commentary: Housing Considerations Have Taken a Back Seat to Election Bickering This Cycle

Davis City Hall with an old style bicycle statue out front

Davis City Hall with an old style bicycle statue out frontBy David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

Davis, CA – It made a lot of sense coming off a drubbing by the voters in June and the fact that the two incumbent candidates were vocal supporters of both failed DISC measures, that Measure H and DiSC would be a focal point of the city council campaigns.

History, as we have noted, suggests that most voters do not hold incumbents accountable for failed development projects.  Then again, history has suggested that with a few notable exceptions incumbents have won in local Davis election.

Of course, that could all change in district elections—we are largely in uncharted territory.

Will this be about Measure H or even the broader housing issues?

As one commenter said earlier this week, “Partida stands shoulder to shoulder with developers at the expense of neighborhoods.  That is all you need to know to vote for Adam Morrill.  Nothing more need be said.”

As another commenter noted earlier this week that “my impression is that a lot of Davis voters consider many other things about a candidate apart from prioritizing their stance on Measure H.”

Yet another commenter added, “It’s not just about Measure H.  There are now 3 proposals for developments outside of city limits which would be in Gloria’s district.”

As much as I think this simplifies the issues, I think this would be a far better discussion than the campaign discussions that have been had so far.  Strangely, one would think that if the opposition held the upper hand on the issue of Measure H and the incumbent strong and visible public support for the measure, why would one need to dip into ancillary controversies?

The rule of thumb in politics is once you hit your message, you hammer it home time after time.  Going off message diverts the focus of the voters and the narrative of the campaign.

One problem is that for slow growthers, Measure J is really a two-edged sword.

On the one hand, it gives the voters the power to stop development projects that were approved by the council.

But on the other hand, because the voters have the last say, it makes the issue of Measure J projects much less important when electing a councilmember.

And that is exactly what we have seen in the last 20 years—five of seven Measure J projects have gone down to defeat, three of them in landslides and, yet, the voters keep voting to put the councilmembers who voted for projects on the council.

In fact, some of the councilmembers defeated in election have been councilmembers who opposed development projects.  Michael Harrington and Sue Greenwald have opposed most Measure J projects and yet were defeated in 2004 and 2012 respectively.

And while Stephen Souza was an outspoken proponent of Measure X in 2005 (and later of Measure H), he had been a leading opponent of Measure P which lost in 2009.

In short, the voters typically have not punished pro-development candidates, in part perhaps because they don’t have to.

But there is another angle of this that needs more discussion.  What has gone lost in this council election as a referendum on Measure H is the fact that the city has some pretty serious housing problems that haven’t been ignored, but have taken a seat behind the mainline issues of the campaign.

The biggest issue that the voters have cited is in fact housing affordability and nearly 80 percent of voters in a recent survey see that as a major problem for Davis.

Many of the council candidates have pushed away from peripheral housing and landed on infill as the solution to our housing problems.

Kelsey Fortune, at one forum said, “I really would like for us to focus on infill. It creates opportunities for the city to increase its tax base without increasing infrastructure and maintenance costs. Things like our downtown plan that will, you know, build up multiple different types of housing within the core of our community. Apartments, condos, town homes, you know, denser, denser housing near where people want to live is hugely important.”

Dan Carson added, “I think we need to move forward on both market rate and affordable housing because, from an economic perspective, adding units, adding supply makes a huge difference. I’ve fought the good fight, won some, lost some for housing projects at the ballot at the council.”

Bapu Vaitla stated, “I think the focus initially should be infill housing, downtown dense, affordable climate friendly, transit linked infill. And we have some policy levers to make that happen, including increasing density bonuses, reducing, eliminating parking minimums, fast tracking permitting for developments with a high affordable percentage up zoning to allow these kind of modest increases in density and height.”

Or, as Bapu Vaitla put in another forum, “We need to focus on dense, climate friendly, affordable transit linked infill in our downtown.”

Dan Carson also pushed in the downtown, “We are nearing completion of a new plan for our downtown that will add 1000 market rate and other types of units for about 2200 people over time.”

The message received from the voters therefore is clear—the council candidates want to focus on infill rather than peripheral, which would require a vote.

But that obscures several problems.

First, as we saw with University Commons and indeed other infill projects, just because there is not a Measure J for infill doesn’t make approval and building those projects easy.

Second, the cost of infill, especially construction costs and affordable housing impacts is prohibitive.

Third, finding a way to get enough affordable housing through infill is a particular challenge, and even City Manager Mike Webb acknowledged last summer that the city is not going to be able to infill its way to affordable housing requirements in the next RHNA session.

Finally, while the downtown holds a promise of units as Dan Carson pointed out, analysis by BAE which is now nearly five years old calls into question its practicality.

In short—if the voters really are as concerned about housing as they suggested, there has not been nearly enough discussion this campaign about how we can actually produce that housing a lot people think we need.

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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2 Comments

  1. Ron Glick

    There has been plenty  of discussion about housing. All the candidates oppose peripheral development and see infill as a solution. Of course this is because with Measure J peripheral development is essentially off the table and the CC can do little about it. The fact that infill alone can’t address the 20 year back log in pent up demand without facing a revolt from the neighbors is no reason to tell the voters what they don’t want to hear.

    For peripheral housing the choice for candidates is one between impotence and abstinence. For candidates its preferable to choose abstinence than to admit impotence.

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