By David M. Greenwald
Davis, CA – It took the city of Davis over four years to complete the Downtown Plan. While there are definite steps forward here, overall I’m a bit skeptical that this plan is going to produce a lot of housing that the community needs.
The council did stick to its guns on building heights over the loud objection of neighbors.
“We continue to be in a housing crisis,” Vice Mayor Will Arnold said. “We continue to see the benefits of having folks live near where they shop, where they are able to access transit. We need more housing and more density in this area. So there is whether we end up supporting four stories or five stories as part of the zoning and the decision we make tonight, the benefit of increased density is more folks having an opportunity to live in downtown and all the benefits that come from that.”
Another council member told me privately that given the fact that the community has repeatedly opposed peripheral housing, they were forced to find infill opportunities in the downtown.
The problem of course is that they are only looking at about 1000 units in total in the downtown, only about 83 of those are projected to be Affordable Housing (big “A”). That’s not going to move the needle much long term.
Moreover, given the precarious financials – high construction and redevelopment costs – how affordable (small a) will the units actually be?
City Manager Mike Webb, as I have noted previously, is worried about the next RHNA cycle.
“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 all leads us the next stage – General Plan Update.
The reality is this – state is continuing to push for more housing. There is a small contingent of people – probably very small – that don’t believe we actually need additional housing and believe that the state will not be able to enforce its mandates, so I guess, they think the city should just ignore them and hope for the best.
That does not seem like a viable strategy.
On the other side of fence are those who believe that the true problem is Measure J itself. That the city is artificially constraining development and that the best course of action is to end the city’s seminal land use ordinance.
That’s also a tiny minority. In 2020, just 17 percent of the voters opposed Measure J. Clearly ending Measure J is not a viable short-term strategy – and probably not even a viable longer-term strategy.
That leaves us with perhaps a viable middle ground. Somewhere around 70 percent of the city’s voters according to one recent poll recognize an affordability problem, but around 35 to 40 percent of voters will likely oppose any and all proposed housing projects.
That gives us a viable middle ground but not much margin for error.
So what can we do? I think the reality is that we are in “mend it – don’t end it” territory with respect to Measure J. That will invariably tick off both extremes – those who are dead set on repealing it (again only 17 percent voted to oppose Measure J in the last election) and those who demand before council to renew Measure J with only small, technical changes.
My first recommendation here is that any changes to Measure J should take place off cycle. In other words, don’t wait until 2030 when the whole things come up for renewal to propose changes. We still have seven years anyway, might as well see if the voters will support some changes.
The most obvious would be some sort of affordable housing modification. As former Councilmember Dan Carson often pointed out, the previous exceptions to Measure J for affordable housing were largely unworkable.
So that seems like a good place to start. Will the community support exceptions to Measure J for larger affordable projects? That might help the city to reach its affordable housing RHNA requirements in the next two cycles. That’s clearly something to look at.
The second option is more daring and more controversial – can the General Plan set aside property and housing numbers that are pre-approved by voters? That would of course not necessarily require changes to the actual language of Measure J, but rather a vote of the public to exempt certain land under specified conditions for housing development.
The city would be able have to have slow and managed and well planned growth, but ensure a greater degree of certainty on both ends. One inducement might be to trade more certainty for a higher percentage of affordable housing – say 35 percent instead of 15 percent for pre-approved land.
That’s a way to make Measure J more workable. It creates certainty for city planning. It creates certainty for the voters. And it gives us more affordable housing and avoids the kind of project by project planning that we have really done over the last 20 years.
I have some doubts that will fly. But a General Plan that fails to set aside land for housing is doomed to fail to get us out of the piecemeal approach.
But we will see what the council decides in terms of process and what the community agrees to in terms of outcome.