By David M. Greenwald
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.