Sunday Commentary: A Lot of Things Don’t Add Up from Tuesday

Covell site in 2005

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

Davis, CA – A lot of things did not add up on Tuesday, even before we learned about the letter from Housing and Community Development.  The subcommittee of Mayor Will Arnold and Bapu Vaitla seemed to have been setting things up to take on one of the Measure J projects in November 2024, and then suddenly seemingly pulled the rug out from underneath everyone.

While it made sense that the city would have neither the bandwidth nor the inclination to do more than one Measure J vote for November 2024, zero is frankly perplexing.

Consider the argument put up by Bapu Vaitla, who has been on the council all of four months or so.

He said, “I’m very very concerned about the revenue side of what’s happening in the city.”

A lot of us are.  But what does that have to do with a Measure J vote?

He explained, “To me, in terms of the November 2024 ballot, that is my priority, to ensure that the fiscal needs that are unmet right now are met to carry out a community engagement process that’s robust, that’s authentic, that will culminate in a revenue measure, is gonna require a lot of staff time.”

He argued, “November 2024 date seems really critical for the future fiscal health of the city, and I’d like to prioritize that above any development proposal.”

While I can certainly understand the bandwidth issue on the part of the city’s planning department not being able to process two Measure J votes—and frankly I think having two Measure J votes on the ballot at the same time would be detrimental anyway, I’m baffled by this notion.

Consider the June 2018 ballot.  We had Measure H—the Park Tax renewal.  Measure I—the street tax.  And then Measure J—Nishi.

The one mistake the city council ended up making here was that Measure I was a special tax—a parcel tax that required a two-thirds vote.

As it was, with three on the ballot, Measure H, which was strictly a renewal received 73.6 percent of the vote to pass.  Measure J received 60 percent of the vote.  And even Measure I, which fell short, received 57 percent of the vote.

The council this time will not repeat that mistake and will put a revenue measure that requires a simple majority—that’s in fact why November 2024 becomes the target.  Otherwise, they could separate them anyway and do June.

November 2024 is 19 months away.  Are you really telling me that the city lacks the ability to do two measures?

I am definitely concerned about city finances—have been for well over a decade, but the city has not put a revenue measure on the ballot since that defeat in June 2018.  Moreover, they have made some fiscally questionable decisions, such as approving a ladder truck with ongoing personnel needs when it was not clear it was needed.

In the meantime, we are in a housing crisis.

Despite the effort since 2016 to build student housing in Davis and secure agreements for additional student housing on campus, students in January complained that they were forced to camp out overnight at various locations in order to secure housing for the next school year.

Moreover, the city pledged to work with the school district in order to address housing for families, not to mention teachers, in town.

Declining enrollment is a real threat to undermine the quality of life and quality of our schools in this community.

The city was already in a tight spot even before the HCD letter.

Even before the city lost out on the housing from University Commons, I was skeptical that the city could have addressed housing in the current RHNA cycle.  That was dependent on downtown infill.

But between University Commons, which was approved as mixed use, and the 27 units at Trackside, it is not clear that Davis can actually build infill projects even when they have been approved by council and, in the case of Trackside, ultimately clear legal hurdles.

The city is clearly depending on the project at the Hibbart site, but even that would be about one-quarter of the needed units in the downtown.

City staff this week expressed optimism that they can find the replacement units for University Commons—but they are not certain where.

It is worth noting that the city would be unable at this point to use peripheral land to make up those units, because they would have to rezone them for housing—and they can’t do that even without a Measure J vote.

The Builder’s Remedy has been floated by some this week—but I’m skeptical as to whether that is a solution.

The first problem—it requires the project to be 20 percent affordable.  For infill in Davis, I’m not thinking that is going to be viable.

The second problem—even if you can finance 20 percent affordable projects, where is this project going to be placed?  The Builder’s Remedy location would have to already be zoned for housing.

The problem for Davis, despite the problems with University Commons and Trackside, is primarily getting housing on the periphery.  The city has always been willing to support infill projects.  It might take community agreements and sometimes contentious pushbacks, but ultimately that hasn’t been the problem.

The problem has been that we have limited vacant and underutilized land in the city that already zoned for housing—and, given that, the Builder’s Remedy really is not going to change much even if a project can get financed with 20 percent affordable.

The most frustrating aspect of all of this is the council knows what we are going to have to do.  They have simply decided to push the project beyond 2024.

For Will Arnold, he noted that Measure J elections are “flashpoints” and “causes of schisms.”

He said, “We see some of the scars of an election that was nearly 20 years ago that are still fresh today.”  He continued, “We have repeatedly over the last few years subjected the community to these battles.”

He noted that he thought there would be a benefit to the community of “having at least one election cycle off from one of these fights.”

He added, “The worst possible outcome, in my opinion, is that we fast track, which I think there’s no way around saying we would be fast tracking one of these proposals for a November 2024 election.  And in part, because we fast tracked it, it fails after a long, hard fight, we’re going to be right back here, maybe with one fewer of you here in the room, having this exact same conversation in 2025.

“That’s an unacceptable outcome,” he said.  “It gives me no pleasure to be the last nail in the coffin here, saying we are intentionally taking November 2024 off the table for one of these elections.”

The mayor at the same time noted that “this is a long-term process that we will be participating in that will hopefully culminate in at least one of these passing and being built, and then another one, and then another one so that we can meet what I imagine will be our 2030 RHNA requirement that is going to require that we go outside of our current city boundaries to meet those numbers.”

At this point, the question is whether the state or perhaps one of the developers will come in and attempt to take Measure J out.  The city may be able to thread the needle and get enough housing for 2028, but no one believes that they can meet the needs for housing before 2028 without going to the periphery.

Given that, in my mind the biggest of the crises facing Davis are housing and declining enrollment.  Where is the urgency on the part of council to address that and to get the General Plan update process rolling—because that is going to be crucial for planning peripheral projects past 2028.

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. Keith Y Echols

    He said, “I’m very very concerned about the revenue side of what’s happening in the city.”
    A lot of us are.  But what does that have to do with a Measure J vote?

    Seriously?  How many times do we (I know I’ve stated it multiple times and sited sources and Matt Williams has provided numbers to support this in the past as well) keep having to tell you that RESIDENTIAL DWELLINGS ARE A COST TO THE CITY.  So new residential development will further drain the city’s resources.   That’s why any residential development I’ve supported or proposed had some sort of commercial and/or retail component so that business tax and sales tax would offset the costs of new residential development.

    Is it me or has the City Council decided that Measure J votes are a lost cause and not worth the political fallout.  It seems to me that they almost welcome the “Builder’s Remedy” because that takes the heat off of them when housing is approved against the wishes of the very vocal NIMBY’s.

      1. Keith Y Echols

        I don’t think the Builder’s Remedy is going to move the ball much in Davis. It only impacts land that is already zoned for housing.

        Last I heard, Trackside was still for sale and could be and candidate to be built through the builder’s remedy.   It’s possible some developer that doesn’t care about building in Davis again or believe the community outrage will blow over.   I’m also interested to see if anyone tries to go through the county to conditionally zone adjacent county property as residential.  Then either the Council annexes it or the state forces it…(no Measure J vote).

        1. David Greenwald

          No, Trackside doesn’t need to be built through the builder’s remedy, it’s already entitled. Builder’s Remedy is a streamlining process to entitlement.

          “I’m also interested to see if anyone tries to go through the county to conditionally zone adjacent county property as residential.”

          That could become a thing, especially for the projects outside of the city that are already appropriately zoned.

    1. Ron Oertel

      How many times do we (I know I’ve stated it multiple times and sited sources and Matt Williams has provided numbers to support this in the past as well) keep having to tell you that RESIDENTIAL DWELLINGS ARE A COST TO THE CITY.  So new residential development will further drain the city’s resources.

      This is also the reason that the city (along with many other cities) is already experiencing fiscal challenges.

      Cities and school districts are incentivized to push for the one-time infusion of funds from development (for short term “gain”), at the expense of long-term fiscal stability. Which ultimately makes the problem larger.

      It probably does work for awhile (as long as they keep sprawling outward indefinitely, and there’s also no housing crash). But as soon as they stop growing (for one or more of these reasons), that’s when it’s time to “pay the piper” (or look for ways to continue sprawling). I think we know which of these options that cities normally pursue.

    2. Mark West

      “How many times do we… keep having to tell you that RESIDENTIAL DWELLINGS ARE A COST TO THE CITY.”

      That is true if we are discussing low density detached single family homes, but not true if the discussion is about high-density multifamily construction, especially with ground floor retail. Not everyone wants a yard to take care of and not all residential construction is a net cost. Time to change the conversation to include other options.

      1. Tim Keller

        100% agree with Mark.   High density housing is a net benefit to the city economically, especially when its mixed use.

        Which is one of the biggest forehead slappers of this proposed layout… you already have a shopping district on the south side of the street…. why shouldnt we have 7 stories of residential over commercial space on the north side of the street?   Instead they are proposing a park?

        From a city revenue perspective, this project is not well conceived.

        If we had much higher density up front, apartments over retail… then some condos and apartments behind them… then some townhomes and row houses behind that… THEN you could afford to have some single family housing all the way at the back…..

  2. Ron Oertel

    Moreover, the city pledged to work with the school district in order to address housing for families, not to mention teachers, in town.

    Declining enrollment is a real threat to undermine the quality of life and quality of our schools in this community.

    We’ve been over this nonsense many times, now.  Do we really need to do so again?

    At this point, the question is whether the state or perhaps one of the developers will come in and attempt to take Measure J out.

    Go for it, and see what happens after that. For sure, it won’t be the “end of the story”.

    They’re going to keep trying to eliminate or undermine Measure J, regardless. (My guess is that each is hoping for some “other” developer to do so, in order to avoid wrath and consequences. Though there might be a few willing to take it on, openly.)

    The city may be able to thread the needle and get enough housing for 2028, but no one believes that they can meet the needs for housing before 2028 without going to the periphery.

    And yet, the state itself “believes” it can happen for the vast majority of cities that are subject to RHNA requirements, and aren’t expanding outward.

    How is it that they can do so, but Davis (which is much-less dense than some of these other cities) supposedly “can’t”?

    The state’s focus is on infill, in areas that have experienced a lot of “economic development”.

    But as pointed out by the state auditor, there is no logic behind the state’s mandates.  (If there was any logic or objective support for those numbers, places like San Francisco would have their RHNA numbers reduced, as the population has declined and the entire commercial district has been severely impacted in the aftermath of Covid, businesses leaving, and the impacts of telecommuting.)

    My guess is that the state’s mandates are legally vulnerable, based upon how they came up with those numbers in the first place.  (Again, see the state auditor’s report, regarding that.)

    So unless they take a position of, “we’re the state – it doesn’t matter how we came up with those numbers”, they may lose, if challenged.

    I’m sure that there are cities which are studying their options (not to mention those that are looking for loopholes).

    But I will say that Bapu’s actions are actually consistent with his campaign goals (e.g., focus on infill before any peripheral proposals are entertained). I hadn’t actually expected that of him.

    I’m glad that the entire council has abandoned their push for sprawl (for 2024, at least).

     

     

    1. David Greenwald

      “I’m glad that the entire council has abandoned their push for sprawl (for 2024, at least).”

      Read the Will Arnold quote: “so that we can meet what I imagine will be our 2030 RHNA requirement that is going to require that we go outside of our current city boundaries to meet those numbers.”

      Peripheral development does not necessarily equal sprawl, but regardless, Will Arnold made it quite clear, it’s coming.

      1. Ron Oertel

        I have no doubt that there will be more attempts at sprawl, and that the voters may approve some.  They’ve already approved WDAAC and Nishi (though I’m not sure I’d describe Nishi as sprawl).

        But again, no one has explained how many of the most-populated, dense cities (e.g., along the coast) which aren’t expanding outward are expected to meet these requirements, while simultaneously putting forth an argument that Davis (uniquely) cannot (without sprawl). 

        It also makes no sense in light of the fact that some of those same cities are experiencing an economic and population downturn.

        By the time that 2030 rolls-around, I suspect that the failure of the state’s mandates (statewide) will be on full display.  And some of those who created these mandates will no longer be in office, by then.

        But perhaps even more important is the fact that Davis cannot count on “pre-approved” sprawl to meet the RHNA mandates.  And I’m not sure that the “need” to adhere to unpopular mandates is a winning campaign strategy, in regard to proposals. Nor is threatening Measure J.

        At some point, folks just become pissed-off enough to revolt (again, statewide). That is, if the economic and housing downturn doesn’t fully derail these mandates on their own. (Even YOU acknowledge that those mandates won’t be met (again, statewide).

        The state is going to have to hire an army of lawyers (and probably create an entirely-new state agency) to go after all of these “scofflaw cities”.

        (They’d probably be more effective, however, if they abandoned that approach and learned some construction skills, themselves. In other words, stop suing – and pick up a hammer instead.)

         

        1. David Greenwald

          ” no one has explained how many of the most-populated, dense cities (e.g., along the coast) which aren’t expanding outward are expected to meet these requirements, while simultaneously putting forth an argument that Davis (uniquely) cannot (without sprawl).”

          There are some good articles about how San Francisco is doing it – dense infill, vacant parcels, housing trust fund with state and federal monies (this is something Davis really does need to do much better on), city owned property, etc.

        2. Ron Oertel

          San Francisco may be doing some of those things, but they’re also not going to fulfill those requirements.

          Here’s how Michael Barnes, an economist and member of the Albany City Council, puts it in a letter he’s circulating:

          The inflated RHNA targets allow HCD to scapegoat local governments for the inability of developers and the profit-driven housing market to provide the quantity of housing California residents need at the prices they can afford.

          In San Francisco alone, the price tag for the RHNA affordable housing mandates is $19 billion.

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

          For that matter, those housing funds are not “unlimited”. I would assume that funds used in one city are then not available for any other city. (Which, if you think about it – would provide a convenient excuse for cities to “bypass” the application process if they didn’t want any more Affordable housing within their city.)

          My guess is that Affordable housing creates a disproportionate drag on city finances, probably in more than one way (e.g., less revenue, AND more expense).

      2. Richard_McCann

        Ron O

        First, no one else agrees with your definition of “sprawl” at “building at least a single new house on existing agricultural land.” Your logic about what is “sprawl” is simply sloppy and a total bastardization of those who coined the term would define it as such. My sister worked for Beyond Sprawl (and invented the term “complete streets”) and she does not define sprawl in the way that you do. She supports compact development that enhances transportation choices while minimizing footprint impact. We need development guidelines that accomplish that, but it also means that we are going to have to step outside of our current city boundaries to accomplish that.

        Second, no one else agrees with you that there is not a housing crisis in Davis or in California. As I’ve shown, household density is rising while family size is falling which indicates that more people are crowding to existing housing. This has driven up housing prices and accentuated the homeless crisis.  You have no proof for the premise of your endless arguments against building more housing.

        Third, you have been presented with repeated evidence about school quality factors. You have not presented any evidence to support your supposition that decreasing school district size will not adversely affect school quality. Everything you’ve said on the matter is pure speculation with no facts whatsoever. Further, most of the district’s funding comes from the state and downsizing will not change the total number of students in the education system, just reallocated them. In addition, the parcel tax you pay to the district is to repay bonds for capital projects–none of that can go to operating costs. Those bond payments are fixed and unavoidable for decades so there’s no cost savings there. As a result Davis taxpayers will see no reduction in taxes, and may in fact see an increase.

        1. Ron Oertel

          First, no one else agrees with your definition of “sprawl” at “building at least a single new house on existing agricultural land.”

          Not a definition I put forth, but here is one:

          Sprawl:  the spreading of urban developments (such as houses and shopping centers) on undeveloped land near a city.

          https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/urban%20sprawl

          Your logic about what is “sprawl” is simply sloppy and a total bastardization of those who coined the term would define it as such.

          (Again, see Merriam Webster’s definition, above.)

          My sister worked for Beyond Sprawl (and invented the term “complete streets”) and she does not define sprawl in the way that you do.

          No one cares how you or your sister define it, nor does anyone care whatever other term your sister made up.

          Second, no one else agrees with you that there is not a housing crisis in Davis or in California. As I’ve shown, household density is rising while family size is falling which indicates that more people are crowding to existing housing. This has driven up housing prices and accentuated the homeless crisis. You have no proof for the premise of your endless arguments against building more housing.

          You have a habit of speaking on behalf of “everyone in the world”, with no basis for it. I have yet to see anyone put forth a singular definition of “housing crisis”, or what (exactly) it would take to “solve” it. But the fact that the state has lost 500,000 residents over the past three years should help the situation. Well that, plus the housing market downturn, etc.

          Third, you have been presented with repeated evidence about school quality factors. You have not presented any evidence to support your supposition that decreasing school district size will not adversely affect school quality.

          It is not up to me to “prove” that maintaining an oversized school district correlates with “quality”. As you know, there are plenty of small districts which offer superior quality of education compared to larger districts.

          Everything you’ve said on the matter is pure speculation with no facts whatsoever. Further, most of the district’s funding comes from the state and downsizing will not change the total number of students in the education system, just reallocated them. In addition, the parcel tax you pay to the district is to repay bonds for capital projects–none of that can go to operating costs. Those bond payments are fixed and unavoidable for decades so there’s no cost savings there. As a result Davis taxpayers will see no reduction in taxes, and may in fact see an increase.

          The parcel taxes go to “extra programs” and teacher salaries. Those parcel taxes will go farther, when there’s fewer students.

        2. Ron Oertel

          In addition, there would be a “profit” from selling off a school site, which would then be available for other facilities.

          Not to mention reduced maintenance, staff, and administrative costs.

          Let’s at least put forth honest facts, even if some resist the obvious solution.

          But I’ll wade into an “opinion”, here as well: It’s disgraceful and embarrassing that some actually put forth an argument than an oversized district should be driving city planning in any way, shape or form. And if that type of argument is coming from some associated with the district itself, that alone provides some idea of the “quality” of education that’s (already) emanating from the district. Not to mention any purposeful misstatements of facts.

          Turns out that saving one’s own job is a powerful motivator, indeed. But it’s really unfortunate when these folks have any influence outside of their own circle (or “silo”).

          The more I hear from them (or those who think like them), the less I like them. They have way, way too much influence beyond their silo.

    1. David Greenwald

      According to the state’s guidelines:

      “The project is proposed on land zoned for agriculture or resource preservation that is surrounded on at least two sides by land being used for agricultural or resource preservation purposes, or which does not have adequate water or wastewater facilities to serve the project.”

      I think that would eliminate the only city parcel zoned Ag that is a Measure J vote.

  3. Dave Hart

    The subcommittee of Mayor Will Arnold and Bapu Vaitla seemed to have been setting things up to take on one of the Measure J projects in November 2024, and then suddenly seemingly pulled the rug out from underneath everyone.
    While it made sense that the city would have neither the bandwidth nor the inclination to do more than one Measure J vote for November 2024, zero is frankly perplexing.

    Not perplexing at all if you look at the issues through the eyes of people who actually have to put up with those who pour acid on any development and especially peripheral development.  Council members (I can only intuit their view by putting myself in their place) know that if they put both tax measures and development measure(s) on the same ballot, that small and well-known group of people who have become quite adept at stoking the fears and frustrations of every faction (traffic whiners, nothing-should-change-my neighborhood whiners, “Mace Mess” whiners, closet low-income housing haters) into one giant “No” mass to effectively scuttle the tax measure.  They are experts at pulling the emotional levers. Development has become more electrifying than taxes. If I’m wrong, I believe David Greenwald could get an interview with just one council member who would say I’m incorrect.

    1. Ron Oertel

      Council members (I can only intuit their view by putting myself in their place) know that if they put both tax measures and development measure(s) on the same ballot, that small and well-known group of people who have become quite adept at stoking the fears and frustrations of every faction (traffic whiners, nothing-should-change-my neighborhood whiners, “Mace Mess” whiners, closet low-income housing haters) into one giant “No” mass to effectively scuttle the tax measure.  They are experts at pulling the emotional levers.

      I don’t believe that “tax scuttlers” have much correlation with any particular viewpoint regarding development issues. If I had to guess, tax “supporters” probably align more-closely with slow-growthers.

      Nor do I believe that “closet low-income housing haters” have much to do with any particular view regarding development issues. (Actually, I also don’t think that “low-income housing haters” are in any particular closet in the first place.) My guess is that this has more to do with “density”, than low-income.

      (Though I will tell you from my own observations – federal housing projects that were built around the country around the 1950s-1960s are a complete failure, and have resulted in racial segregation spanning generations. With some similarities to Native American reservations in rural settings.)

      I don’t know why you think any of this comprises a singular group, as there’s no evidence whatsoever of that.

    2. Ron Oertel

      And the issues regarding “Affordable housing” (trapping generations of folks – often via “race”) is another reason that rent control is a better approach. Those who enjoy rent control do not experience income limits to remain in their homes.

    3. Dave Hart

      A development proposal will paint a target on the back of the city council complete with ad hominem attacks that they are in the developers’ pocket, that they are corrupt, and associate the hated development with the bad judgment of how to use taxes.  Hatred of the development will be used to whip up hatred of taxes measures and every other issue the council might be in favor of including whether we should celebrate Mother’s Day.  It’s all a package when it comes to shooting down development.  Everything the council touches will be used as fuel for the anti people.  They have no scruples and no ethical limits on negative campaigning. The tax measures alone will be hard enough to secure a yes vote let alone pairing it with the third rail of peripheral development. I get where the council is at. My only wonder is why anyone serves on the city council.

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