Commentary: A Bit of Magical Thinking on Housing

Covell site in 2005

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

Davis, CA – Magical thinking.  That was the phrase used on Tuesday by both council candidate Francesca Wright and Councilmember Bapu Vaitla.  Overall, I think that is an apt phrase to describe not just the city’s response to HCD but also to the response of many in the community to the housing crisis.

We have seen this week a fifth Measure J project come forward and have a pre-application filed.  While some have reacted with bemusement to the rash of projects, the bigger picture is that the applicants are reacting to an environment where they see it as advantageous to put forward a project—even into a crowded field.

To put this into perspective: From 2000 until 2022 there were exactly five different projects that came forward—Nishi and DISC came forward twice.  Now there are five projects that have come forward since DISC went down to defeat in June.

What is happening?  I would argue that there is a huge demand in Davis for more housing.  And second, I would argue that some see the writing on the wall as far as the state is concerned.

Is there really a huge demand for housing in Davis?  Obviously the developers putting millions into these projects believe so.

For those arguing that the current fiscal climate is a bit cloudy and point toward falling prices in housing—for the first time in a decade—most observers believe this is a temporary respite rather than a trend.  In fact, it is worth noting that even the Great Recession itself was a temporary disruption in the upward trend of housing prices.

Had we planned better, we might have used that time to enact smart housing principles and avoided the problems we now face with the housing crisis.

Poll after poll has shown California voters concerned with housing affordability.

Last year at this time, a poll by UC Berkeley IGS found that 31% of respondents thought housing affordability was the most important issue California needs to address, followed up closely by homelessness at 29%.

Last year a poll by the city of Davis found that by almost the same number, housing affordability was the top cited issue for Davis voters as well, followed also by homelessness.

Last month, a Quinnipiac University Poll found by an 82-14 margin that there is a housing crisis in California.

Locally, over 70 percent of voters saw housing affordability in Davis a huge problem.

And yet, some will argue, the last two Measure J votes perhaps cast doubt on whether Davis voters really see housing as a huge problem.

While a fair point, I think it’s a bit tricky to read into the last two Measure J results.

You can argue that the last two housing projects, both in 2018—Nishi and WDAAC—passed easily with 60 and 55 percent of the vote respectively.

While DISC in 2020 and 2022 had housing components, they weren’t just housing proposals.  The project clearly got caught up with concerns over traffic on Mace and probably uncertainty about the pandemic.

Taken together it would seem that the voters are willing to support housing projects, but not at the expense of things like traffic.

At the same time, one of the flaws of a voter project is that the people allowed to vote, almost by definition, tend to be people who already live in Davis and thus already have housing.

The demand for housing of course extends to people who may work at the university but don’t have the ability or opportunity to purchase housing in the city.

When I first came to UC Davis as a graduate student, upwards of two-thirds of the faculty at UC Davis still lived in the city—now, as I understand it, that number is less than half.

That means that every day, huge numbers of people travel over the causeway and drive into UC Davis.

We have already discussed the impact on schools, but it also greatly lessens the connection to the community by faculty and it also greatly impacts the environment in increased traffic and VMT.

For those who claim to oppose housing for environmental reasons—how do you square those two things?  There is a reason why the modern push for housing is linked with the notion of dense, transit-linked infill as a way to reduce VMT.

The question at this point is how the city can possibly meet its HCD/RHNA mandated housing—especially affordable housing.

Here I continue to be disappointed in the response from the city.

What is happening?  I would argue that there is a huge demand in Davis for more housing.  And second, I would argue that some see the writing on the wall so far as the state is concerned.

Staff’s view in light of the HCD rejection continues to be that this was somehow a conditional approval and that they should be able to meet the requirements for affordable housing even with the loss of University Commons.

City Council candidate Francesca Wright accused the city of having “some magical thinking happening about 485 affordable units.”

“How can we zone for that?” she asked. “Where will these be built?”

I would add, I also think there has been a lot of magical thinking here and HCD has somehow let the city slide with the 1000 projected units in the downtown even though we all know full well that’s just not going to happen in the next five years—maybe not in the next 20.

Councilmember Bapu Vaitla injected a bit of realism.

He said: “In the future though, under these present circumstances, we have no chance of fulfilling our next RHNA obligations.”

He added, “What that means is that we need to get really bold with what we do with infill and we need some peripheral development planning principles.”

Echoing a public comment from earlier, Vaitla said that “it’s magical thinking to assume that we’re going to be able to meet our housing needs without major changes in our legislation and in our culture.”

While Vaitla continues to be an advocate for transit-linked, dense infill, the community needs to heed this warning—even he believes that the only way for us to meet our housing needs is to go peripheral at some point.

There are of course those who still believe that we don’t need to worry, that the state will lose interest, that the communities will push back, but I think those voices both in Davis and across the state are in the slim minority—as backed by the polling I cited earlier.

I continue to believe that getting the housing we need will require changes to how we do housing.  I also believe at some point—maybe sooner rather than later—HCD and the state will come in to take our Measure J.

I think the city council would like to find a middle path between the current course and a course where there is no Measure J in Davis.

I continue to support a “mend it, don’t end it approach.”  I think we can get some sort of high affordable exception to be supported by the voters.  Something that would give the developers the certainty they need that they won’t spend millions on a project that won’t happen, but something that gives the community back a higher percentage of affordable housing than they are getting now.

Will the voters go for it?  The future of Measure J might ultimately depend on that.  Stay tuned.

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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22 Comments

  1. Matt Williams

    When I first came to UC Davis as a graduate student, upwards of two-thirds of the faculty at UC Davis still lived in the city—now, as I understand it, that number is less than half.

    Four weeks ago I received the following response from UCD to a Public Information Request.

    The summary is that about 31% of Davis Campus employees live in Davis, followed by Sacramento, Woodland, and West Sacramento. For UC Davis Health, 41% live in Sacramento, followed by Elk Grove, Davis, Roseville, and Folsom. Data is as of February 2023 payroll, which is the most recent available.

    1. Keith Y Echols

      When I first came to UC Davis as a graduate student, upwards of two-thirds of the faculty at UC Davis still lived in the city—now, as I understand it, that number is less than half.

      Why is this a bad thing?  Having less people live here that work out of town makes Davis less of a bedroom community (city pays for services and infrastructure and only gets a little bit of property tax revenue) .  More people living here would be a good thing if Davis had enough retail to capture the spending of these commuters (to jobs OUTSIDE of the city) to generate sales tax revenue.  But Davis’ retail offerings (and restaurants…etc…) are minimal.  Grow more retail and then you can have more commuters live in Davis.

      1. Richard_McCann

        Having more commuters is bad for the environment, plain and simple. It creates all sorts of pollution (not just GHGs). It also would lead to a more vibrant retail economy here–it’s synergistic as each does not exist unto itself.

        1. Keith Y Echols

          Having more commuters is bad for the environment, plain and simple.

          More commuters bad eh?  Not economically.  Environmentally?  I know a lot of people view Davis as a bubble in the Sac region but until they actually put a dome over it; I’ll take the environmental benefits claims with a grain of salt.

          . It also would lead to a more vibrant retail economy here–it’s synergistic as each does not exist unto itself.  

          You do realize that I’ve been saying the whole time….RETAIL FIRST…if you want more homes and people to crowd the town….at least if you grow the retail first the city can pay for services and infrastructure maintenance for the new homes.

        2. Mark West

          “RETAIL FIRST”

          Davis made the decision in the late 60’s and early 70’s to limit retail to the downtown area, but then failed to expand that downtown area to accommodate demand. Instead, we created artificial barriers to new retail outside the downtown in order to protect the pocketbooks of the existing downtown property owners. This includes enacting  Municipal Code that prohibits new retail outside of the downtown that competes with existing retail within the downtown, and store size restrictions that don’t impact existing stores downtown. In total, it is a code that proscribes what you desire, making your ‘retail first’ idea completely invalid.

        3. Keith Y Echols

          In total, it is a code that proscribes what you desire, making your ‘retail first’ idea completely invalid

          Yes, I’m well aware of the archaic beliefs about Davis that are baked into the General Plan (it’s literally written into the Vision).  My claims of retail first are meant to emphasize that this idiotic quant sleepy college town view of Davis that comes from a time long past needs to be changed due to pressures from the growing Sacramento region.  Davis will choke on it’s sleepy small town vision while it becomes insolvent and forced by the state to build housing…not under it’s own terms.

          1. Don Shor

            The neighborhood shopping centers are intended to provide what nearby neighborhoods need, but they could be allowed to do more. Each is required to have a grocery store, for example. But in reality, they are becoming destination retail instead of neighborhood retail. Those centers that are on busy main streets with lots of housing nearby have done well. Those that are on side streets have not done well. Those existing neighborhood shopping centers could each form a nucleus for local residential development. Housing proposals that are further from such centers would logically be lower priority compared to those that would be nearby. There are two on Covell Blvd that have some strong retail, each of which would benefit from more nearby housing.
            The problem is that urbanists seem to want each neighborhood to have retail and commercial integrated within the residential. That’s just unrealistic. There are a lot of good reasons that retailers don’t wish to locate on side streets and in residential neighborhoods. Retail and commercial conflict with residential in many ways — noise, parking, truck deliveries, night lighting. Just look at the difficulty The Cannery has had in filling its commercial component. Retailers want visibility to the maximum number of passing vehicles. You don’t get that on Alhambra or 8th St. So those shopping centers have had long periods of inactivity and literal blight, exacerbated by demands as to what types of retail would be allowed therein.
            If housing goes in on the Mace Curve, there would be a need for a shopping center on the Mace Curve. If housing is going to increase near 2nd Street Crossing (Target), the rules for that shopping center should probably be amended to allow a grocery store there and to remove the constraints on types of retail (it took them forever to fill the extra pads due to limits on what kinds of businesses might compete with downtown retailers, per an agreement between the developer and the downtown business association).
            So proximity to existing shopping should be a consideration as new housing proposals are evaluated. But we need to drop this long-held shibboleth that somehow neighborhoods are going to have little shoppes and bistros serving their residents. Work with what we have, add another retail shopping center if necessary (good luck with that fight), but a basic understanding of what retailers need always seems to be missing from these conversations.

        4. Keith Y Echols

          . Those centers that are on busy main streets with lots of housing nearby have done well.

          Yes, I suppose many of the shopping centers have been integrated as best they could as the Raly’s shopping center and the Market Place have lots of apartments around them.  The problem is that they’re still not that well integrated into the community.  Even with most of the apartments around those strip malls; it’s a bit of a walk to get there (unless you live right across the street).   Future neighborhoods should seek to have the neighborhood retail not be strip malls but be integrated mixed use so that the higher density residential is closer to the retail….a short walk.

          Just look at the difficulty The Cannery has had in filling its commercial component

          I’d argue that the Cannery’s retail problems are due to design and a half hearted attempt from the start (as I can’t believe anyone thought that barn thing sitting back by itself away from Covell was a good idea for serious retail.  It seems to me that it was some sort of wholesome farm to fork community retail collective vision thing….basically it seems like it was sold on hyped up concept and not a realistic vision of retail…..again…this is how I perceive Cannery row’s retail attempt.

           Those that are on side streets have not done well. Those existing neighborhood shopping centers could each form a nucleus for local residential development. 

          My experience with this kind of thing is that in order for these kind of local retail centers to work they need:…(as you’ve mentioned) to as best they can face a main street.  But also they need far denser residential around it and integrated into  than Davis currently offers.  You can’t just knock down a strip mall and build another shopping center with 2nd story of homes on top of it.  You have to build up the entire area.  I’m talking 5-6 stories of dense residential housing on top of and around the neighborhood retail.  But I’m not sure if Davis is ready for that.  I do think it could work on Russell and/or 2nd street, Rice Lane and B Street for a student quarter that features student focused retail and entertainment.

          But more than anything, I think Davis needs to drop it’s restrictions on the size of retail centers (they did that for Target no?)…not so much for neighborhood retail.  But for the potential of larger mass retail (the kind that pay the bills).  Or destination retail.

        5. Richard_McCann

          Environmentally?  I know a lot of people view Davis as a bubble in the Sac region but until they actually put a dome over it; I’ll take the environmental benefits claims with a grain of salt.

          There is no dispute over this fact that increases car commuting is environmentally detrimental. Car travel is about two thirds of the region’s GHG emissions and a majority of the criteria pollutant (smog producers). No grains of salt needed. (I’ve been working on climate change and air quality issues for over three decades.)

  2. Matt Williams

    There are two cliches that apply to this article and the events it describes … “The devil is in the details” and “You can’t see the forest for the trees.”

    Why those two?  Because the Vanguard and the City Council are talking about details/specifics but without any discussion of the big picture context … a Community Vision of what they believe the City of Davis should (wants to) be in 5 years, 10 years, 20 years, 30 years.  They are saying that they want Davis to be bigger, but they don’t say where their  “bigger Davis” is going.  They also do not answer the question “How big?”

    Ggiven the well documented reality that housing costs the City more in service and maintenance costs than it takes in in revenue, our leadership needs to help the residents and businesses in Davis know how their Vision for Davis will address that shortfall … a shortfall that is causing our streets to crumble and our historically-available services to shrink.

    1. Keith Y Echols

      I wonder if the City Council has decided that trying to actually get an updated General Plan and Downtown Specific Plan completed is counter productive….I mean sure they say it’s important.  But in the mean time the city needs projects to get completed for fiscal and RHNA reasons.  So it’s more likely something good will come if a bunch of projects are submitted; many are rejected but maybe one or two pass….or the HCD will just take over and approve the needed projects….as the alternative is trying to update the General Plan and complete the downtown specific plan….all the while a significant and vocal number of people with oppose something and nothing ever gets built…paralysis by analysis because of the short sited electorate……and yeah…I admit my comment is a cynical take…..but you have to admit that there are some real seeds of truth to it.

  3. Keith Y Echols

    Is there really a huge demand for housing in Davis?  Obviously the developers putting millions into these projects believe so.

    While Davis needs to meet it’s RHNA numbers; let’s not confuse huge demand housing for actual NEED for housing.

    While DISC in 2020 and 2022 had housing components, they weren’t just housing proposals.  The project clearly got caught up with concerns over traffic on Mace and probably uncertainty about the pandemic.

    ALL PROJECTS WILL HAVE SOME IMPACT THAT A SIGNIFICANT NUMBER OF PEOPLE WILL OPPOSE.  Many times those impacts and objections will (rightly) be about traffic.  That’s what Not In My Backyard Means.

    Bottom line is that much of your article still makes the erroneous assumption that the answer to housing affordability lies in more for profit housing projects.  You’re just going to exasperate the problem.

    I continue to support a “mend it, don’t end it approach.”  I think we can get some sort of high affordable exception to be supported by the voters.  Something that would give the developers the certainty they need that they won’t spend millions on a project that won’t happen, but something that gives the community back a higher percentage of affordable housing than they are getting now.

    You’re on a diet, you’ve staunchly advocated the benefits of your diet and now you want some cheat days.  I hope the HCD blows up Measure J.  And after reading the legal reasoning behind LAFCO’s ability to force annexation on to cities (thanks for the info Jim Frame) I think it’s possible for the HCD to force housing requirements on to counties through LAFCOs who can then override Measure J’s zoning restriction on Ag land.  So pressure the counties which will pressure LAFCO (a state empowered entity) to do something about Measure J.

    See Citizens Against Forced Annexation v. LAFCO [32 Cal. 3d 830].  “We conclude that the state’s interest in carrying out a policy of planned, orderly community development under the guidance of the local agency formation commissions…is of compelling importance. That interest cannot be achieved if residents of the affected city or their elected representatives have the power to reject an annexation endorsed by the commission and approved by the residents of the affected territory.

    Again, I use the same reasoning that LAFCO (acting under direction from the HCD) can force annexation in that they can force rezoning…..also the county under pressure could simply entitle adjacent to the city county ag land and then force annexation.

     

  4. Ron Oertel

    That means that every day, huge numbers of people travel over the causeway and drive into UC Davis.

    And yet, just last year – it was claimed that DISC was needed to prevent large numbers of workers from Davis traveling in the OTHER direction – across the causeway TOWARD Sacramento.

    Do these people wave at each other, when traveling in opposite directions across the causeway?

    For UC Davis Health, 41% live in Sacramento, followed by Elk Grove, Davis, Roseville, and Folsom. Data is as of February 2023 payroll, which is the most recent available.

    Sounds like a bunch of people from Elk Grove, Davis, Roseville and Folsom need to move to Sacramento.

    1. Keith Olsen

      Sounds like a bunch of people from Elk Grove, Davis, Roseville and Folsom need to move to Sacramento.

      I was thinking exactly that same thing.  Great minds think alike…

    2. Walter Shwe

      Sounds like a bunch of people from Elk Grove, Davis, Roseville and Folsom need to move to Sacramento.

      People can choose to live wherever they desire just like you are free to live in Woodland. Some of these households consist of couples that work for different employers in different cities. You once again are displaying tunnel vision and a complete inability to consider anything outside your very rigid opinions.

      1. Ron Oertel

        People can choose to live wherever they desire just like you are free to live in Woodland.

        Just as you’re free to live in a house outside of Davis’ city boundaries. Actually, people move in/out of cities all the time (though it’s quite expensive to sell a house, buy another one and move). In fact, that’s another problem with the theory presented here – that existing workers would go through that expense and hassle, to move to another smaller, more-expensive house (for example).

        For sure, folks new to the area look at what’s available in the entire area, when making such decisions. And for those who aren’t particularly wealthy, they’re going to focus on locales where they get “more bang for their buck”.

        Another problem with the theory presented here is that there is no data regarding projected growth in employment at places like UCD, assuming that Davis is “responsible” for providing housing for them in the first place. And those already working there already have homes.

        Some of these households consist of couples that work for different employers in different cities. You once again are displaying tunnel vision and a complete inability to consider anything outside your very rigid opinions.

        This actually reinforces and expands-upon the point I made. And yet, you fail to see that due to your own rigid thinking.

         

        1. Walter Shwe

          In Montana, home prices have more than doubled in the past nine years, spurring alarm from lawmakers. Now Republican leadership in the state is pushing to make housing easier and cheaper to build by legalizing duplexes, triplexes, and fourplexes in cities, and by forcing cities to “allocate space to house population growth.” The Frontier Institute, which supports these efforts, has warned of a “California-style” crisis in the making. “If we don’t want Montana to become like California, we must address California-Style zoning regulations before it’s too late,” the Frontier Institute cautioned, arguing in support of Governor Greg Gianforte’s proposed bills.
          I’ve seen this framing in other states as well. One Nashville advocate, pointing approvingly to Montana’s proposed reforms, wrote on Twitter, “we do not want [Tennessee] to have California-Style zoning either.” Even Californians are getting in on the hate: “If Arizona wants California-style local control and segregationist zoning, it’ll get California-style housing prices and homelessness, simple as,” tweeted a political-science professor at UC Riverside.

        2. Ron Oertel

          spurring alarm from lawmakers. Now Republican leadership in the state is pushing to make housing easier and cheaper to build by legalizing duplexes, triplexes, and fourplexes in cities, and by forcing cities to “allocate space to house population growth.” The Frontier Institute, which supports these efforts, has warned of a “California-style” crisis in the making. “If we don’t want Montana to become like California, we must address California-Style zoning regulations before it’s too late,” the Frontier Institute cautioned, arguing in support of Governor Greg Gianforte’s proposed bills.

          Sounds like you’re more of a Republican regarding these issues, than a Democrat.  Which seems to make more of a different to you, than it would to me.

          Can you imagine that – vast numbers of “fourplexes” in “Big Sky” Montana?

          I’ve seen this framing in other states as well. One Nashville advocate, pointing approvingly to Montana’s proposed reforms, wrote on Twitter, “we do not want [Tennessee] to have California-Style zoning either.” Even Californians are getting in on the hate: “If Arizona wants California-style local control and segregationist zoning, it’ll get California-style housing prices and homelessness, simple as,” tweeted a political-science professor at UC Riverside.

          Nashville, along with most of Arizona and Idaho are some of the places where home prices are now crashing the fastest.  The places where folks (and businesses) moved to during the pandemic and corresponding rise of telecommuting.
           

        3. Walter Shwe

          Even Republicans realize how to avoid “California-style housing prices.”

          Now Republican leadership in the state is pushing to make housing easier and cheaper to build by legalizing duplexes, triplexes, and fourplexes in cities, and by forcing cities to “allocate space to house population growth.” The Frontier Institute, which supports these efforts, has warned of a “California-style” crisis in the making. “If we don’t want Montana to become like California, we must address California-Style zoning regulations before it’s too late,” the Frontier Institute cautioned, arguing in support of Governor Greg Gianforte’s proposed bills.

          One Nashville advocate, pointing approvingly to Montana’s proposed reforms, wrote on Twitter, “we do not want [Tennessee] to have California-Style zoning either.” Even Californians are getting in on the hate: “If Arizona wants California-style local control and segregationist zoning, it’ll get California-style housing prices and homelessness, simple as,” tweeted a political-science professor at UC Riverside.

  5. Walter Shwe

    Just as you’re free to live in a house outside of Davis’ city boundaries.

    For over the past 5 years I have lived in the City of Davis. I told you that months ago.

    Sounds like a bunch of people from Elk Grove, Davis, Roseville and Folsom need to move to Sacramento.

    it’s quite expensive to sell a house, buy another one and move

    Why do Keith and you then want this group of people to move when you admit that moving is costly?

     

    1. Walter Shwe

      Sounds like a bunch of people from Elk Grove, Davis, Roseville and Folsom need to move to Sacramento.

      it’s quite expensive to sell a house, buy another one and move

      I am still waiting for Ron and Keith to explain how both statements taken together could possibly be true. IMHO the first statement is false.

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