My View: Taking the Plunge on Measure J and Affordable Housing

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

Davis, CA – In 2020, the Davis City Council seemed to have little desire to have any sort of discussion on Measure J prior to putting it back on the ballot largely as written in 2000.  At the time, Gloria Partida put forward an idea of a shorter term approval while Dan Carson suggested looking at the affordable housing exemption.

But things have changed—at least among the council members, and they indicated an inclination to at least have a discussion on the possibility of altering the exemption on affordable housing.

Newly elected Councilmember Bapu Vaitla said, “Peripheral, we can look at the RHNA numbers.  It’s broken down in the Housing Element. We have potential, if everything goes very well, to satisfy a certain fraction of that with infill downtown.”

He continued, “Every development, every single parcel downtown becomes absolutely critical. We need to optimize for the amount affordable, but it’s also time to talk about affordable on the periphery.”

So he said, “It’s time to talk about an affordable exemption for Measure J/R/D.  It’s time.  So let’s open the community conversation.  Let’s hear about it.”

At the same time, he noted, “We know that we have limited viable peripheral sites. We know that we want to protect as much agricultural and open space and habitat as possible.  So we need to use every one of the sites that we have available judicially.”

He believes we need to maximize the amount of affordable, saying, “To me, the pathway to do that is to open the conversation about an affordable exemption to Measure J/R/D.”

His colleagues agreed with this approach.

What changed?  I think a big factor that changed is the realization that it is going to be very difficult to meet RHNA numbers for affordable housing this time and there is a belief—as I have reported a number of times—that the next cycle will be more difficult.

Some have suggested that there is no need to look at the periphery—after all, communities like San Francisco are adding affordable housing without peripheral development.

But Davis has limitations—it has limited vacant sites in the city, it doesn’t have the city-owned sites that San Francisco can utilize, it doesn’t have the state and federal funding to help purchase those sites that are either vacant or underutilized, and the sites that the city is looking at are topping out at seven stories, rather than a good deal larger.

I happen to believe that the city should look at current sites like the corporation yard as well as look into ways to tap into state and federal money—but ultimately that is going to impact the margins rather than the central driver.

The current exemption allows for 100 percent affordable housing to be exempt from requirements that there is a vote of the people to determine final approval for any property that converts agricultural land to urban uses.

“Any proposal approved under this subsection shall be required to have all housing units permanently affordable to persons or families of moderate, low and very low income,” the exemption reads and the council must find, “There is no other land already designated for urban use that can accommodate the City’s legal fair share housing requirement.”

In the 23 years since Measure J was originally passed in 2000, there have been no projects that come forward attempting to utilize this exemption.

It is worth noting as well, even within the city, the affordable housing projects have been on land dedication sites; none have been standalone projects.

In the various discussions I have had, the suggestion has been that the city could consider reducing the requirement to somewhere around 40 percent affordable rather than 100 percent affordable.  That could be a powerful tool, allowing an applicant to propose setting aside 20 to 40 acres on a 100-acre parcel for affordable housing and then allowing non-profits to raise the funding necessary to build the housing.

But that would take a major lift from the community.  The community would have to support changes to Measure J—that has never been attempted before.  We know that every time Measure J has come back to a vote, a number of citizens have pushed hard for no revisions, changes and only small technical changes to the ordinance.

The advantage of making the changes off-cycle is that it would not be an up or down vote on Measure J but only on the changes to Measure J.  That could actually make it more difficult to pass the changes.

One idea might be to sweeten the pot, extend Measure J from expiring in 2030 to expiring in 2040.

I still think the politics of this would be difficult.  Supporters of the current measure will accuse the council and supporters of the change of attempting to undermine Measure J.

While it’s an easy political argument to make, I think from a number of practical levels it falls short.

First of all, it doesn’t undermine the core of Measure J, which is to protect agricultural land and contain growth.  It seems to recognize that Measure J has perhaps pushed the pendulum too far in one direction and acknowledges we need to find additional ways, especially given the cost, to facilitate the construction of affordable housing.

Second, as I have ponted out previously, Measure J has never been legally challenged.  While the approval of Nishi and WDAAC in 2018 reduce one possible line of attack, the overall difficult of passing projects coupled with the housing market and difficulty of building affordable housing could leave Measure J open to legal challenges either from the state or even locally.

Finally, I would argue—we need to have these conversations.  We need to discuss what the future of this community should look like and whether the current policy is for the best.

I see no downside to having discussions—at the end of the day, it is the citizens who will have to decide this one.  Why not at least allow us to call the question?

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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33 Comments

  1. Jim Frame

    Why not at least allow us to call the question?

    No one is preventing — nor can they prevent — the CC from discussing this.  But I guarantee that there will be strong organized opposition to the proposals that have been suggested.  I’ll be part of that.

    The fact remains that the bar to creating affordable housing on the periphery isn’t Measure J, it’s funding.  The ordinance as currently written allows for the annexation of ag land for affordable housing, but the people with the money have no interest in building it.  Find the money and you can build the housing under the existing law.

    All the proposals to amend Measure J that have been put forth are just excuses to build high-value housing with some affordable thrown in.  I don’t believe that’s what the electorate wants.

    1. Keith Y Echols

       but the people with the money have no interest in building it.  Find the money and you can build the housing under the existing law.

      You know what people with money want?  Two things: 1. to make money.  2.  not to lose money.  Do you know one of the major reasons a residential developer or otherwise won’t propose a peripheral project in Davis?  Because of Measure J.  The riskiest part of real estate development is getting entitlements.…AND THAT’S WITHOUT getting the unwashed masses involved in a direct vote on the project.  So financing a peripheral project in Davis like playing 5 Card Draw Poker without the draw.  So yeah…peripheral development is a huge gamble…a potential huge waste of money.  So there is no magical “find the money” for building affordable housing in Davis.

        1. Keith Y Echols

          Sure.  But it’s not like it’s a huge unknown…unless there are local political stuff between the city and county to worry about (there can be county lafco board members that are county supervisors that don’t get along with city lafco board members).  Other factors are if the property isn’t contiguous or fully contiguous to the the city.  Another factor in the past has if it’s determined there’s a need for it…..like if a city is just spreading out without much thought….but in Davis’ case there’s not a lot of development options or track record of development that shows that it can meet it’s housing requirments.

          Otherwise…you’re right it’s just the city and county agreeing on a lot of pre-determined criteria….especially if the property is in the city’s sphere of influence.

          1. Don Shor

            But it’s not like it’s a huge unknown…unless there are local political stuff between the city and county to worry about (there can be county lafco board members that are county supervisors that don’t get along with city lafco board members).

            That is exactly how Mace Ranch came to be developed. To resolve that tax dispute going forward, a redevelopment district was created. Those are gone now, so the guard rails are off. At this point, preventing development on county property next to the city limits depends on a continued amicable relationship between county supes and city council, and an adequate fiscal status for Yolo County.
            You might enjoy this history, given your professional background:
            https://www.cityofdavis.org/about-davis/history-symbols/davis-history-books/growing-pains-chapter-6

        2. Richard_McCann

          Matt, going before an electorate in a political campaign is both riskier and more expensive than gaining approval from a local political body. Ramco would not have spent $1M to gain approval and would have been able to both count noses and determine exactly what might be the most important factor to sway the votes. Developers are familiar with that type of process and understand the risks. They are not as familiar with political campaigns and the expenses are excessive. That’s why Measure J is such a huge barrier–we don’t even know what projects weren’t even proposed because of that risk.

        3. Keith Y Echols

          So what is the status of that pass through agreement with the RDA gone?

          I’ve said before that the county could develop around the city if it wanted to.  It could also be a measure to get around Measure J.  If the property is no longer ag and entitled; then when it’s annexed the project would not be subject to a Measure J vote.  It would have to be a substantial development because it would require the creation of new infrastructure services.

          But my initial comments are about how the HCD would look at Davis and Measure J.  Jim’s claim that it’s not Measure J that is the impediment for the development of new housing and that the issue is the county does not seem to be correct.

          From political pressure to county finances; to me it seems like the county has all the reasons in the world to look for ways to approve development around Davis.  If any developer has the fortitude to push for county development it could put Davis in a position similar to the Wild Horse project approval.

          As for legal authority, so for there have been no successful legal challenges to the HCD’s far reaching (and ever growing it seems) powers in these matters.

  2. Ron Oertel

    Some have suggested that there is no need to look at the periphery—after all, communities like San Francisco are adding affordable housing without peripheral development.

    Again, that’s a false statement.  It’s highly-likely that they won’t be able to make that happen (despite having their plan approved), as noted in numerous articles.  Here’s an 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?

    https://48hills.org/2022/09/the-states-local-housing-goals-are-nothing-more-than-a-farce/

    And again – it’s not just San Francisco which won’t meet these requirements.  As noted yesterday, less than 15% of the Bay Area’s cities and counties even met the deadline to submit plans to the state.

    Cities across the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area had until Wednesday to show state regulators how they plan to approve a sufficient quantity of housing over the next decade.

    Some submitted their plans on time. Most did not. Some made an earnest effort to comply. Others not so much. Some will have their plans accepted. Others have already had theirs rejected. Suburbanites viscerally opposed to new construction and density in their neighborhoods are incensed. Pro-development activists are celebrating a “Zoning Holiday.”
    a

    https://calmatters.org/newsletters/2023/02/california-housing-politics-builders-remedy/

    A key plan to dramatically increase housing across the Bay Area fell flat this week as less than 15% of the region’s cities and counties met the state’s Tuesday cutoff to provide their homebuilding proposals.

    https://www.mercurynews.com/2023/02/01/most-bay-area-cities-are-now-late-on-their-state-housing-plans-and-new-penalties-could-be-in-store/

    What I find most-aggravating on the Vanguard is when David, for example, “denies” that he’s trying to make a connection between Measure J and RHNA requirements.  Even when he does so within the same article, as he did yesterday (and again, today)!

    This is absolutely Trump-like, in nature. Deny what you yourself said, even if it’s on tape!

    You can be sure that he’ll continue doing this, and that this series of articles will continue.

    1. David Greenwald

      Ron omits a key second paragraph from the Mercury article: “Blowing the deadline means they could soon miss out on crucial state funding and be forced to approve new housing projects much larger than local laws now allow.”

      1. Ron Oertel

        I’m already aware of that as a possibility.

        But as I’ve mentioned in previous articles, I’m actually looking forward to that.  The reason being that if the state starts pushing that in mass, they’re going to unleash a dragon.  (That dragon won’t be originating in Davis, however.)

        And even in that case, there are requirements for developers to make some of that housing affordable. Which might be enough of a poison pill to derail them.

        But again, I’m looking forward to it – in some wealthy community like Atherton (where people like Stephen Curry are already objecting to it). I kind of enjoy it when wealthy and well-connected people get involved. And even though I’d never be able to afford it, I like places like Atherton and Tiburon “as is”.

        However, if you want rent to be controlled, pass “rent control”.

  3. Joseph Wisgirda

    There will never be truly affordable housing in Davis anymore.

    That ship set sail in the 90s. The only things left are wage slave quarters – if you are lucky enough to find them.

    1. Ron Glick

      I guess you didn’t watch the last CC meeting because there are people in the faith based community that are ready to pay up to provide Affordable Housing in Davis.

      The discussion on J has changed but I don’t know if the community and the peripheral land owners can settle on a percentage of Affordable units that works for everyone. I doubt the 40% affordable standard David mentions would be workable for investors but I’m not an expert on these things.

      The CC shouldn’t fear a conversation on changes to J. The people who are the loudest on not changing J went all in on defeating Partida and for Fortune and lost big. The community has clearly moved on from the politics of no on everything. Its time to have an honest discussion about Measure J.

    2. Ron Oertel

      It’s from the same hat that San Francisco (alone) will seek $19 billion from.

      If San Francisco wants to meet its state-mandated affordable housing goals, the city will need to find roughly $19 billion of local money over the next eight years—and nobody at the Mayor’s Office or the City Planning Department has any idea where that kind of money will come from.

      https://48hills.org/2022/05/sf-needs-19-billion-to-meet-state-affordable-housing-goals-and-breed-has-no-plan/

      Part of the “punishment” for not meeting these type of goals is to withhold that non-existent money in the first place.

      The state rules, in a bizarre twist that only Wiener and the Yimbys could love, say that cities failing to make those goals can lose state affordable housing money. But the state offers no specific funding to help make the affordable housing goals happen.

      Seems to me that the state has created a (rather-hilarious) problem for itself.

      “So, you won’t finish your brussels sprouts, Johnny? Well then, no more brussels sprouts for you!”

      “And by the way, we’re also going to allow a developer to tear down your bedroom, and build a luxury condominium complex in its place.” And rest-assured that the junior techies taking your place will be a lot wealthier (and appreciative of brussels sprouts) than you are!”

    3. Ron Oertel

      I guess you didn’t watch the last CC meeting because there are people in the faith based community that are ready to pay up to provide Affordable Housing in Davis.

      Terrific – let them write a check.  There’s also at least one large, rather-empty church site on Pole Line, which could provide quite a bit of housing.

      The discussion on J has changed but I don’t know if the community and the peripheral land owners can settle on a percentage of Affordable units that works for everyone. I doubt the 40% affordable standard David mentions would be workable for investors but I’m not an expert on these things.

      I doubt that 40% would be approved by voters.  Even more so, when they try to define what “affordable” actually means (or how it’s enforced, long-term).

      Again, there’s nothing preventing developers from proposing the inclusion of Affordable housing component now, via Measure J.  And in fact, every recent proposal has already included this.

      The people who are the loudest on not changing J went all in on defeating Partida and for Fortune and lost big.

      The people who went “all in” to defeat Measure J lost by a higher percentage than any other group in the history of Davis. And as I recall, support actually INCREASED for it during the last election – without even much effort on behalf of supporters.

      They also lost by a higher percentage than Carson did, largely as a result of his legal challenge launched against some members of that same group (on behalf of a developer).

      There was not much coalescence regarding Adam’s candidacy, from what I could see.

      The community has clearly moved on from the politics of no on everything.

      Could have sworn that Measure J was used to approve two housing developments (Nishi and WDAAC – both of which include “affordable housing”), and was also used to help prevent additional housing challenges (the rejection of DISC).

      Its time to have an honest discussion about Measure J.

      “Honest” about what?

      I’d urge the council to not put themselves (and the city) into an unnecessary, divisive battle. Don’t they already support enough of those?

  4. Walter Shwe

    Sacramento and Placer counties gained an advantage in securing state funding for affordable housing on Friday when Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration announced that they received a planning designation intended to speed up those projects.
    “The Prohousing Designation is the result of communities stepping up and being proactive when it comes to their commitment to build more housing, faster in California,” Newsom said in a statement.
    Newsom’s office said Sacramento County stood out in the applications because it had modified standards to promote density, created development impact fee reductions for residential housing and used “holistic” planning to reduce commuting.

  5. Matt Williams

    Second, as I have pointed out previously, Measure J has never been legally challenged.  While the approval of Nishi and WDAAC in 2018 reduce one possible line of attack, the overall difficult of passing projects coupled with the housing market and difficulty of building affordable housing could leave Measure J open to legal challenges either from the state or even locally.

    .
    What you appear to be saying David is that the State by pursuing a legal challenge to Measure J will be saying to Davis (and as a precedent for all jurisdictions statewide) that they must accept a forced annexation.  I seriously doubt that the State will want to establish that kind of autocratic precedent.

    The issue of “standing” would be interesting for any locally initiated lawsuit.  With the exception of Wildhorse Ranch/Palomino Place, any parcel subject to Measure J would not be in the City jurisdiction, and any City resident who attempted to file suit regarding a Measure J parcel other than Wildhorse Ranch/Palomino Place, would more than likely not have standing in the unincorporated County.

    1. David Greenwald

      That assumes that the state is going to see a challenge to Measure J as forced annexation when annexation would only occur with the approval of a duly elected body. You seem to forget in your comment that one of the sticks that HCD has is to preclude local jurisdictions from using their land use discretion if they abuse that discretion and are therefore out of compliance with their Housing Element

      1. Matt Williams

        You seem to forget in your comment that one of the sticks that HCD has is to preclude local jurisdictions from using their land use discretion if they abuse that discretion

        .
        I didn’t forget it at all.  In fact the City has no discretion it can exercise over a peripheral parcel (other than Wildhorse Ranch).  The County has that discretion, and the County must voluntarily cede that discretion over to the City through protracted negotiations.  A Measure J vote never happens unless the County agrees to let it happen.  The County/City negotiations cover, amongst other things, the ceding of taxes revenue by the County to the City.

        Bottom-line, the City has no discretion it can abuse, and if HCD wants to bring legal proceedings forth for abuse of discretion, they will have to go after the County, not the City.

        1. Keith Y Echols

          HCD wants to bring legal proceedings forth for abuse of discretion, they will have to go after the County, not the City.

          Can you cite any relatively recent examples where the county has impeded Davis’ desire to expand?

          There are a few other areas beyond Wildhorse that fall within the sphere of influence that Davis and the county are already in agreement.  But in general, I don’t think the County would have any issue with city if the city were to wish to expand.  The County’s goal is for growth to happen in the cities.  Regional, market and political forces are pushing Davis to grow it’s housing inventory (especially affordable housing).  So I don’t see the County as being an impediment to peripheral growth.  The primary impediment are the voters in the city.

          I also recall reading that there were potential challenges…I think in Marin county?….to other local housing measures that require voter approval.

        2. Matt Williams

          Can you cite any relatively recent examples where the county has impeded Davis’ desire to expand?

          .
          There haven’t been any, but that doesn’t change the fact that Measure J is a City ordinance rather than a County ordinance.  HCD filing suit would pertain to a parcel in the County, and therefore would have to sue the County.  It is a catch 22 from a legal perspective.

        3. Keith Y Echols

           HCD filing suit would pertain to a parcel in the County, and therefore would have to sue the County. 

          You’re looking at this like the legal challenge would be over a singular proposed development vs. an over all legal challenge to Measure J for nob being able to comply with RHNA numbers assigned the city.

        4. Richard_McCann

          Matt

          First, the county wants the Covell Village parcel developed under city jurisdiction. It is particularly interested in putting farmworker housing there. (I had a conversation with Taro just before he retired about this.) The county is far from an impediment.

          Anti-growth referendums are not illegal under a 2005 state law. HCD can challenge Measure J directly as it has a defined period and each renewal is technically a new ordinance. I’m waiting for a developer to challenge the law on this basis. It only needs to be a property owner next to the city. They can challenge after the county gives approval.

          Davis controls the sphere of influence. The state has already weighed in on forcing cities to accept multi family housing by overriding local zoning. Annexation isn’t really different. But more likely the state will eliminate local growth controls and Davis will be caught up in that.

        5. Ron Oertel

          Before making assumptions, perhaps an in-depth look at whether or not HCD considers open space and farmland surrounding other cities (which are also “protected” via various methods) when assigning RHNA numbers.

          But again, less than 15% of cities and counties in the Bay Area even met the deadline to submit a housing element.

          And the majority of cities along the coast aren’t expanding outward at all.

          Does anyone believe that any city (statewide) will actually meet their requirements, when so many haven’t even submitted a plan – let alone identified funding for Affordable housing? (Which amounts to BILLIONS of dollars.)

          Get back to us in 8 years, and tell us how many of them were “successful” in meeting their requirements. Or if you’d prefer, let us know in 4 years how they’re doing with that.

          And while you’re at it, let us know what the state actually “does” about it, by that time.

          What’s with all the fake angst regarding Davis, which (by all accounts) has a plan that will likely be approved?

          And why is this angst always coming from those who don’t like Measure J in the first place?  (“Coincidence”, perhaps?)

  6. Todd Edelman

    It’s disingenuous at best to define “affordability” without including transportation costs, and anything built on the periphery of Davis encourages car ownership even if it’s difficult, and requires sacrifices. The Campus Travel Survey consistently shows that few are interested in trips by bicycle that take more than 10 minutes or so. There’s no way that rattling buses that run hourly or even half hourly can compete with the private car, unless parking downtown is as expensive as it is on campus. But there’s little interest in that. People also acquire cars for convenient travel in the region, and then most demand that this convenience extend to downtown, via cheap or free parking. There’s not really an easy way to cross I-80 by acoustic bicycle. An e-bike makes I-80 less of a wall and helps with distances but it’s still a schlep to downtown and especially campus from the eastern and more so the southeastern periphery. We screwed up: It’s too difficult to travel to campus, back home at the periphery and then back to downtown for some evening activity unless one drives.

    Thinking ahead, even if we build dense housing on the east-west rail corridor and the one towards Woodland the space between these areas is so low density that it makes it difficult to justify the significant expense of restoration of railway services, e,g, something like a tram train – a vehicle that operates like light rail in built up areas and like a regional train in between them. To make this all work and also have an excellent connection to the future high-speed rail we can significantly densify West Village and the parts of Woodland and West Sacramento that are 5 minute walk, bike or bus ride from the rail corridor. Anything more than that and people will just drive.

    In sum, building affordable housing on the periphery ends up not being on the periphery but in between places that it’s connected to conveniently and at low cost for users. It requires a regional effort and a connected one. But West Village has a footprint probably 300% larger than it needs to be, and new housing in Woodland is obviously much worse.

  7. Matt Williams

    Perhaps it is time to revisit the density of Nishi.  If Nishi 2018 had the same residential density as Nishi 2016 had, instead of 2,200 beds it would have between 5,000 and 7,000 beds.  That would put a serious dent into the student housing shortage.

    1. Don Shor

      Nishi is moving forward as approved. I feel quite confident that the developers would not seek changes that would require complete redesign and likely invite substantial delays and lawsuits.

      1. Matt Williams

        I agree Don, but that is the practical answer that is absent the current student housing shortage.

        Since the holdup of Nishi has been, is, and continues to be Union Pacific Railroad, having the State have an interest in the project because of 3,000 to 5,000 additional student beds, might tip the scales of the project negotiations with UPRR in the project’s favor.

          1. David Greenwald

            According to the city, they are getting the final design for a grade separated crossing completed and then through UP for approval.

  8. Jim Frame

    What you appear to be saying David is that the State by pursuing a legal challenge to Measure J will be saying to Davis (and as a precedent for all jurisdictions statewide) that they must accept a forced annexation.  I seriously doubt that the State will want to establish that kind of autocratic precedent.

    I thought this would be the case as well, but a bit of research indicates that I was mistaken.  LAFCO statutes basically give the residents/owners of the proposed annexation area the right to be annexed without regard for the desires of the annexing agency (but nevertheless subject to certain rights of the latter).  There are some twists and turns to all this, but the statutes and supporting case law (see https://law.justia.com/cases/california/supreme-court/3d/32/816.html ) find a compelling state interest in promoting annexation.

     

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