By David M. Greenwald
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?