Commentary: Can the City Move Forward With Much Needed Affordable Projects in a Timely Manner?

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

I was reading an editorial from the LA Times from earlier this month, “To ease Los Angeles’ crushing housing shortage, the city needs a lot more new homes, especially affordable ones. Yet the City Council has been sitting on two community plans that would make it easier for developers to construct housing and boost the number of low-income units in downtown and Hollywood.”

Change the names and you could be writing about Davis.  Last week, the council received an analysis of their inclusive housing policy by Cascadia.  Once again, the report, confirmed the difficulty of building affordable housing of this sort.  The council response was to create a subcommittee of Gloria Partida and Bapu Vaitla to look into this further and come up with some proposals.

On paper that makes sense, but it also takes time.

It’s already been more than a year since HCD rejected the city’s Housing Element, and just this month, did the Planning Commission receive a revised proposal.

There are a lot of important ideas and considerations floating out there – how they coalesce into a workable plan will determine whether the city can address at least some of its pressing housing issues.  The problem at this point – there seems no urgency.

From the Housing Element, “The 2021-2029 Housing Element acknowledges that while some governmental requirements and standards may not represent constraints in and of themselves, or represent justifiable impositions on new development, the cumulative impact of the City’s governmental requirements and standards can add significant cost.

“The Housing Element therefore incorporates an assortment of policies and programs aimed at reducing the cumulative impact of governmental requirements, standards, and processes on development.”

There are a lot of go ideas here…

They are moving forward on this one: “Conduct a comprehensive update of the Affordable Housing Ordinance. The process for updating the ordinance will include conducting a study to determine appropriate inclusionary proportions and affordability levels, analyze in-lieu fees and other alternatives to providing units on site, and evaluate other parameters of the ordinance as appropriate.”

Part of the proposal incorporates this idea: “Provide incentives to the development of affordable housing through measures such as parking reserves or waivers on development standards such as setbacks, lot coverages, and open space of up to 10 percent.”

The most controversial might be: “Put a package of housing policy initiatives on the ballot to, among other things, amend 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, or other changes to city ordinances that would help create affordable housing.”

There is also: “allow housing developments with at least 20 percent affordable housing by-right, consistent with objective design standards.”

There are those who will argue that we need to just end Measure J, but if we can’t get an affordable housing exception to Measure J, how is it that we are going to repeal Measure J.

As I have noted a number of times, the city believes that they can accommodate RHNA requirements for affordable housing this cycle internally – meaning they can do it through infill.  I’m skeptical that they can because it relies on about 83 or so affordable units in the Downtown and the report by Cascadia casts real doubt over whether than can occur.

I think as an interim step, the city should look at property that it already owns in the city and then find non-profits who can get the funding needed to build affordable housing on those sites.

In the longer run, the city manager acknowledged that they probably will not be able to meet affordable housing requirements through infill in the next cycle.

Creating a means by which to exempt affordable housing heavy sites from votes is probably the only legitimate course of action there.  But that is going to inevitably lead to the question – how much is enough.

100 percent is the current requirement, plus other findings which makes the current Measure J unworkable.  But would the community be willing to go to 50 percent?  35% like the previous ordinance, or even 20 percent?

My guess is that 20 percent is a non-starter, 35 percent is unlikely and even 50 percent would be a life.

Then you have to ask the key question – can you get to 50 percent?  The advantage of a peripheral project is that you could probably have a land dedication site of sufficient size to accommodate a much higher percentage of on-site affordable.  And you could have the density on the rest of the site to off-set those costs with market rate housing.

But making it all work, that’s going to be a challenge.  Doing it in any expedited manner of time seems unreasonable.  But that’s the challenge our community faces.

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

    The housing element is already set for approval.

    As with most other cities, it’s highly unlikely that all of their plans will be fully-implemented within the upcoming RHNA cycle.

    The only reason that some “worry” about this is so that they can attack Measure J.  Measure J already provides an exemption for Affordable housing.

    Funds for Affordable housing are not unlimited in the first place.  That’s one reason that a stand-alone proposal has not been proposed outside of city limits.

    Another (larger) reason is that some landowners are hoping to cash-in on a much larger proposal, than just an Affordable housing development.

    Any Affordable housing funds that are not used to support sprawl beyond Davis are then available to other cities (which usually aren’t sprawling outward in the first place). And yet, not one (let me repeat, NOT ONCE) has David examined how these other cities are supposedly meeting the requirements, without sprawling outward. How are you going to continue attacking Measure J, without addressing that fact? Do you think everyone is just plain dumb?

    I don’t know why David keeps putting forth fake “sky is falling” arguments to undermine Measure J, when he hasn’t even examined how other cities are accomplishing this – without sprawling outward.

    Good luck in convincing the voters of your claims regarding your never-ending effort to undermine Measure J. Especially when you can’t even convince your own readers.

    Let me repeat something else, as well: Housing elements are not intended to address developments outside of cities.

    1. Ron Oertel

      Housing elements are not intended to address developments outside of cities.

      With the exception of the RHNA requirements assigned to counties.

      By the way, wouldn’t the county be interested in “taking” some of the credit for housing developments located outside of cities?

      I suspect that the way it works is that housing elements cannot address land outside of city limits, UNLESS it’s already annexed to a city. (I recall wording to that effect in regard to the state’s response to the city, as well.)

      The city will forever be in a “catch 22” (assuming that the state’s efforts don’t completely fail by the time the next RHNA cycle rolls-around). That is, it cannot “count on” developments that voters haven’t already approved in advance, when submitting its housing element.

      To which I’d say, “welcome to the club” of the vast majority of cities (in major population areas) throughout the state, which aren’t expanding outward at all. And yet, have they have the EXACT SAME TYPE OF REQUIREMENTS that Davis is facing. (You know – the situation that David has repeatedly neglected to examine at all, while falsely claiming that Davis is somehow “unique”!)

    2. David Greenwald

      “Measure J already provides an exemption for Affordable housing.”

      It doesn’t provide an actual exemption for Affordable Housing that is workable. That has been the whole point of the discussion and the note in the Housing Element.

      1. Ron Oertel

        It doesn’t provide an actual exemption for Affordable Housing that is workable.

        To date, you mean.

        Probably because of the corruption between sprawling, market-rate developers, landowners, and Affordable housing developers.  Along with limited government funding, etc.  (Though I understand that the funding has recently increased.)

        That has been the whole point of the discussion and the note in the Housing Element.

        Unless you address how other cities (which aren’t expanding outward) are meeting the requirements, your “discussion” is nowhere near “complete”.  For example, the cities within major population areas within about 30 miles of the coast.  (Those cities are the FOCUS of the state’s efforts.)

        1. David Greenwald

          To date is a near quarter-century sample size.

          There was a problem with the failure to keep affordable units as limited equity, but that problem actually predates Measure J and has long since been corrected.

        2. Ron Oertel

          David:  As long as landowners, developers, and Affordable housing developers (working-together) have legitimate hope that they can convince voters to approve market-rate developments outside of city limits (which include a small portion of Affordable housing), they will continue to (collectively) be uninterested in Affordable-only proposals.

          And in fact, they’ve been successful at this in regard to WDAAC (and possibly at Nishi, if they’re claiming that the “affordable” units are available to non-students).

          There’s nothing preventing a peripheral developer from proposing something with a significant portion of Affordable housing, in an effort to appeal to voters.  A “requirement” for them to do so is not needed for them to propose this.

          But again, until you examine how other cities are meeting these requirements (without expanding outward), your “discussion” is not complete. Your apparent purpose here is to attack Measure J, and not to examine how other cities meet their requirements. In fact, you’re repeatedly doing everything possible to avoid a full discussion. You’re engaging in advocacy against Measure J, not an examination of RHNA requirements.

          And again, try as you might – you can’t include land outside of city limits to address RHNA requirements, unless it’s already approved for inclusion into the city.

          Matt makes some excellent points, below. Including one that’s very similar to what I’ve pointed out.

          1. Don Shor

            But again, until you examine how other cities are meeting these requirements (without expanding outward), your “discussion” is not complete.

            Here is San Francisco’s Housing Element, passed by their planning commission and pending review by the state housing department. I’ve linked to a portion of the implementation section. Pages 7 – 22 should answer your questions. Let us know when you’ve read it and we can discuss how SF and Davis differ regarding meeting the RHNA numbers.

        3. Ron Oertel

          I’ve linked to a portion of the implementation section. Pages 7 – 22 should answer your questions.

          I didn’t ask any questions. However, I did note (several times now) that David has not presented any information regarding how other cities (e.g. the major population areas along the coast – which aren’t expanding outward) are meeting these requirements.

          But given that San Francisco (and other cities) have a plan (which presumably will be approved by HCD), doesn’t this provide direct evidence that cities are not expected to sprawl outward to meet their RHNA requirements?

          Again, the fact that these plans exist provides that evidence – regardless of the details. That’s actually what I was pointing out, since David has repeatedly ignored this fact.

          Let us know when you’ve read it and we can discuss how SF and Davis differ regarding meeting the RHNA numbers.

          Don:  I’m not the one who is attempting to undermine Measure J, while simultaneously failing to note that other cities (and not just San Francisco) have the same type of requirements (but aren’t expanding outward).  So perhaps your suggestion is better-directed at David, not me. 

          David (and perhaps you) are the ones who are repeatedly trying (but failing) to put forth a logical argument regarding the reason that Measure J needs to be changed, not me.

          But perhaps it’s not the “differences” we’re looking for – it’s the similarities between Davis and cities along the coast.

          Either way, it seems likely that the plans contained in housing elements throughout the state are not going to fully materialize.  For example:

          The state’s local housing goals are nothing more than a farce

          Why is everyone so set on meeting “RHNA” standards when the evidence is very clear that it will never happen?

          My fifth comment, for the day.





      2. Matt Williams

        David, what is an actual exemption for Affordable Housing that is workable?

        The Cascadia analysis appears to be saying that any percent of Affordable housing above Zero% does not pencil out.

        1. David Greenwald

          They were only looking at one type of affordable housing inclusionary. The advantage of going peripheral would be they have land to do a land dedication site.

        2. wesleysagewalker

          Matt. The land dedication is more workable because you can have a 100% affordable project which can utilize federal and state funding to finance. Inclusionary housing is almost impossible to fit into the existing financing infrastructure from the feds and state which is currently available to 100% affordable projects. Due to prevailing wage triggers for the entire project if there are public monies spent, projects with inclusionary housing have to take the hit for every affordable unit purely out of the project’s bottom line which reduces returns substantially. Inclusionary housing ends up putting the entire cost burden on the market rate units and project which reduces financial viability. 100% affordable (or close to that percentage) can use public financing programs to cover the costs.

        3. Matt Williams

          Thank you Wesley.  That is a clear and helpful answer.  The one thing your answer does not address is timeline.  I believe our experience in Davis … Creekside, New Harmony, Mike Corbett’s south davis project, etc.) has been typically 10 or more years between the date of land dedication and the date of actual occupation of Affordable units.  Thoughts on that history?

        4. wesleysagewalker

          Hi Matt, I am not terribly surprised at there being a long timeline given the time it takes to get project entitlement approval along with securing the financing. Affordable housing usually has a very complicated capital stack that can rely on up to twelve different sources all of which are necessary for the project to move forward. Public funds are generally oversubscribed, so it can often require several applications before receiving any monies (usually can only apply once per year), so that drags it out for potentially years. Funding levels vary dramatically from year to year which complicates the picture and extends the timeline for project delivery.

        5. Matt Williams

          Thank you for that honest answer Wesley.  So the bottom-line of the land dedication alternative/approach is that the community/city gets a bunch of high $ per square foot housing that makes the affordability of housing in Davis worse not better … and some time decades later, if at all, Davis gets a small number of Affordable residences. Is that correct?

          1. David Greenwald

            ” the community/city gets a bunch of high $ per square foot housing that makes the affordability of housing in Davis worse not better ”

            That part is false according to the research we have cited.

        6. Matt Williams

          David, three points

          1) the research you have cited was a generic study

          2) it was not relevant to the specific Davis housing market

          3) it was not specific to the type of market Davis is where housing supply is very local and housing demand is both regional and super regional.

          In addition, you have made no effort to gather and analyze the Davis-specific dollars per square foot data that exists during the years just prior to the approval of The Cannery up to present.

          So, you can say you disagree with me and Keith Echols in the $ per square foot point we have made. That is your opinion.  But it is only an opinion, one that has no supporting data.

          Further, do you dispute the fact that the $ per square foot costs of The Cannery (and almost all new construction) are higher than almost 100% of existing Davis housing?

  2. Matt Williams

    In the longer run, the city manager acknowledged that they probably will not be able to meet affordable housing requirements through infill in the next cycle

    This statement is hard to understand.  The RHNA allocation for a jurisdiction can only use the carrying capacity of the lots/parcels that are within the jurisdiction’s boundaries.  So the question that naturally flows from that legal reality is “What parcels is SACOG using to set the Allocation that the City believes can not be used to satisfy the Allocation?”


    1. Richard_McCann

      Most likely SACOG is using the City’s sphere of influence, not its political jurisdiction, for setting that target. So El Macero and Willowbank are included for example. The County has assigned responsibility to the cities in almost all cases for developing new housing as a means of inhibiting urban sprawl into agricultural land.

      1. Matt Williams

        Richard, that is an interesting supposition, but it isn’t supported by the facts in evidence.  Specifically, can the City of Davis count El Macero or Patwin or Old Willowbank or any other Sphere of Influence Housing lots in its Housing Element?

        The simple answer to that question is that they can’t.

        1. Richard_McCann

          Not true about other Sphere of Influence areas. That’s why Measure J was highlighted as an impediment to achieving the RHNA target. Growth control measures are repeatedly identified as barriers for many cities and all of these involve annexation outside of current jurisdictional boundaries.

        2. Matt Williams

          So what Richard is saying is that there is a different rule (footprint) for establishing the RHNA requirement of a jurisdiction than for satisfying the RHNA requirement.  That defies logic.  It is worth researching whether that speculation of Richard’s is correct.  At the risk of sounding like Ronald Reagan, I’d like to “verify” that in writing.

          Regarding Measure J there is no need to go beyond the City Limits to get examples of how it can be an impediment.  One only need look at Wildhorse Ranch and the two Nishi projects.  HCD’s citing of the Measure J impacts on Nishi can be put into perspective by looking at HCD’s attempts to give no RHNA credit to the City for the Nishi project that was approved by the voters … ironic.

  3. Ron Glick

    Affordable housing in a timely manner? Mending Measure J, laugh out loud. What is this the Davis version of The Onion?

    In 23 years since the passage of Measure J not a single unit of housing subject to the ordinance has been occupied. We can’t even get market rate housing built in a timely fashion. I guess it depends on your definition of timely. Not only that, the only person talking about looking at opening up the Affordable exemption in measure J during the last election, Dan Carson, was overwhelmingly turned out of office by the voters.

    Don’t  even expect the CC to take this up in a timely fashion. You criticize me for not being realistic about going against the tide on measure J then you ask a completely non-sensical question as if it should be taken seriously. I guess this is the Davis Vanguard version of Jeopardy. You can write any stupid thing you want as long as its in the form of a question.



    1. Don Shor

      There are three candidates for District 3. Simple questions for them.
      Where do you see affordable housing being initiated in the district, or elsewhere in the city limits, within your council term?
      How would it be funded?
      Would you accept a peripheral housing project if it contained significant affordable housing?

    2. Matt Williams

      Ron Glick,  you do realize don’t you that the parcels requiring annexation into the City would require a LaFCO vote approving their annexation in most cases.

      Measure J simply makes more granular/specific the LaFCO provisions already in place.

      1. Ron Glick

        Okay, now that I’m done chuckling at the idea that Measure J simply makes Lafco’s job easier. I guess that is true since under Measure J few annexations ever go to Lafco. Anyway,  a more serious response is that under Measure J, there are parcels already in the City that haven’t been rezoned for housing because of they are subject to a vote under Measure J and were voted down, a process Lafco has nothing to do with.

        1. Don Shor

          The Palomino Place project proposal is a good example of what is wrong with Measure J. In the city limits, but still zoned ag so it goes to the voters. In a normal city, there would probably already be a project underway on that site providing much-needed housing.

        2. Matt Williams

          Don and Ron, you are falling into the trap of letting the exceptybe the rule. Wildhorse Ranch/Palomono Place is the very last (one and only) parcel inside the City Limits that is zoned Agriculture.  Further, since it is already within the City Limits, no annexation is needed and LaFCO has no involvement.

        3. Matt Williams

          Not ameliorated Ron.  LaFCO’s rules give the public the right to vote on annexations.  Measure J simply adds specific provisions to that right.

          The Measure J vote embeds the LaFCO annexation vote within it.

        4. Keith Y Echols


          I’m not sure what you’re talking about concerning LAFCo votes.  I mean I guess the boards are representatives of the voters in the county and cities (the LAFCo board members are made up of county supervisors and city representatives).  But the voters are not involved directly in LAFCo annexation decisions.  The only time they have any say is if the land being annexed has more than 12 inhabitants and more than 25% of them protest, then a vote is called….if not then the annexation is approved.

          Other than that LAFCo generally follows their bigger plans/philosophies.  In Yolo County’s case it’s that growth should be in the cities.  That growth beyond the cities should be in planned areas in the city’s sphere of influence.  They also consider districts for services and how any growth effects that at the county level or if cities can or should provide services.  For the most part LAFCo just wants to avoid someone building a giant skyscraper out in the middle of nowhere or prevent islands of growth or have some development cause some massive strain on county services.

          I’m also not sure what LAFCo has to do with Measure J….again as long as the annexation is within a city’s sphere of influence….or even planned to be in a city’s sphere of influence….LAFCo shouldn’t have an issue.

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