By David M. Greenwald
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.