By David M. Greenwald
Davis, CA – On Tuesday I was once again disappointed to see what I perceive as a lack of urgency on the part of council when it comes to housing. Let me be clear: to a person, the council I think understands that there is a housing crisis and that they will need to go outside of their comfort zone to solve it.
While I understand that the timeline is tough—the focus should have been on November 2024. Staff doesn’t have the bandwidth? Hire an outside consultant. This isn’t rocket science.
On Tuesday, there didn’t seem to be an appreciation that the best time to put a housing measure on the ballot is November 2024 when you maximize turnout and you also maximize the student vote.
That important piece was completely missing from the discussion. Council talked about having a planning process, about the bandwidth issues for the city, and of course about how contentious that could be.
Mayor Will Arnold at least pointed out that a community planning process was no guarantee.
He noted that the DISC project was in fact the result of a rather lengthy process, a community planning process that lasted a number of years, where the Innovation Park Taskforce put forward a request for proposals that netted the city three proposals, and DISC was the last one standing.
Mayor Arnold explained that “yet that didn’t spare us the conflict of the developers still presenting us with what they were able to do and the conflict of the community still saying, no, this isn’t what we’re looking for, voting it down.”
The calculation here should be pretty simple—while there is a general recognition by the public that affordability of housing is a problem, when we see polling on individual projects they start out with about 35 to 40 percent of the public opposed to new development no matter what.
That’s a tough hurdle to overcome and if you go to a special election, we saw how low the turnout was this month for District 3. A Presidential General Election is maximum turnout—80 percent plus a huge number of students, and it is students and some of the infrequent voters who are going to carry a project to victory.
There are those who believe that the public understands the need for housing—that may be. But we also know as several councilmembers put it on Tuesday, there are things about every project that people like and things that they don’t like.
Opponents of development have learned to pound the perceived weaknesses of a project. Look no further than Eileen Samitz and Pam Nieberg’s guest piece on Village Farms. Given the size of the project and existing traffic congestion in the area, it won’t be hard for a campaign to hammer on perceived problems.
The frustrating part of this is the council does understand that in order to meet housing needs, the city is going to have to go outside of its boundaries. It probably will need to do at least two or three peripheral projects.
Councilmember Bapu Vaitla said, on the one hand, “I believe in a growth boundary for Davis. We’re surrounded by some unique and valuable soils in open space, and I want to preserve that.”
But he said, “That means maximizing the value of the parcels that we have to work with both infill and these peripheral parcels will inevitably be developed.”
He continued, “The parcels that are in question right now, I think it’s magical thinking to think that they won’t be, they will be.”
Looking at the next RHNA, he said, “Without optimizing the amount of affordable units we get out there in these peripheral parcels that are up for discussion, we’re not going to meet those next cycle RHNA targets, we’re just not.”
And yet, he wants to prioritize a revenue measure and bypass the best time to put a land use measure on the ballot.
Why does this matter? It matters because the city in my view lacks the zoned properties in town to accommodate the amount of housing we will need—perhaps as early as this RHNA cycle, and if not, the next RHNA cycle.
Some have questioned why we are even considering the next RHNA cycle when we should be focused on this one.
Simple: let’s look at the calendar. 2028 sounds like a big number, but it’s not. That means we have to start developing and drafting the RHNA as early as 2026. In order to have the land count for RHNA, it has to be rezoned. In Davis, that means there has to be a Measure J vote—and it must be successful.
The chart that city staff provided is helpful with this. We are starting to plan now for projects that *could* be on the ballot in 2025 and 2026. If we wait until 2028 to put measures on the ballot, it leaves no margin for error if the measures fail.
So yeah, sorry, but it would be irresponsible for the city to wait any longer to start addressing how to zone land for sufficient housing for the next RHNA cycle.
What happens if we fail to do this? The simple answer is there will be consequences. We have seen the state become much more aggressive in enforcing housing laws—whether it is all the cities out of compliance with their Housing Element or the lawsuits the state has started to institute.
Some have called it blackmail, some have called it fear mongering or scare tactics. I call it anticipating consequences for non-compliance with the law.
Laws come with an enforcement mechanism or a stick that acts as a consequence when you don’t follow it.
Bottom line from my perspective is that if Davis cannot approve the housing that it is required to do, the state may well be inclined to come in and take out Measure J. I have floated this out there as a possibility and have had it confirmed to me by a number of well-placed sources.
That’s a real possibility.
The person who seems to grasp the urgency of the situation right now is actually Alan Pryor—who has often been a force behind blocking Measure J projects.
Prior wrote, “The reason I am now advocating for a peripheral housing project to be placed on the ballot as soon as possible is simple, Times Have Changed!”
What’s changed—state law and mandates on housing.
Pryor argues, “If cities do not comply with these requirements by submitting plans accepted to HCD showing a pathway to increase their housing stock, the state may impose severe penalties including removing some control over local housing development from the local government.”
He continued, “Should the City’s proposal to HCD continue to be rejected and eventually result in litigation against the City to impose more housing development, the obvious target of any such litigation likely would be to overturn the City’s voter-approved Measure J/R/D allowing citizens the right to vote on peripheral housing projects in Davis.
He added, “I believe this to be a real and urgent concern.”
I agree with Alan Pryor here. My preference is that Davis can build the housing it needs—I don’t think a long and contentious battle over Measure J is in the best interest in the community.
But that is going to take a recognition on the part of the leaders of this community that we need to work together to come up with a way to get the housing we need.
I believe that there is a generic appreciation that we need more housing by probably two-thirds to three-quarters of the public. But the devil remains in the details and the enemy of the good is the perfect.
We are not going to get a perfect project and we are not going to have a perfect process. What we need is something that is good enough.
And if we don’t—then yes, there will be consequences. And yes, I think people do need to take into account ALL of the information in determining how to proceed. That’s not fear mongering, it is recognizing that all decisions we make have consequences.