Commentary: Maybe ‘By Right’ Development Can in Fact Get Us Out of the Housing Crisis

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By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

Davis, CA – I was pleasantly surprised this week to see the proposal for Fourth and G, at 20 percent affordable, for a vertical mixed-use project in the downtown.

I will readily admit that I thought the city’s plan for 1000 units in the downtown by 2029 was not realistic.  But here we are, a few months after the Downtown Plan was finalized, and we are already 45 percent there with just three projects along G St.

Perhaps even more surprising is that one of the projects has a 20 percent affordable housing component, which qualifies it for the Builder’s Remedy.

The whole purpose of the Builder’s Remedy—and indeed the updated Downtown Specific Plan—is to provide certainty for people who want to build projects that provide housing.

What it means is that if you meet certain requirements—a big one is the 20 percent affordable component—you can build by right.  “By right” basically streamlines the approval process, and it is granted when the development proposal strictly conforms to the zoning and building codes, and therefore can be built without having to go through a discretionary approval.

It’s a trade off.  It means if you meet certain standards or parameters, there is no discretion on the part of the city council or the Planning Commission to change the project.

In the past few weeks, we have seen not only the council subcommittee, but individuals and community groups put forward a set of guidelines or a rubric or parameters for a shared vision of what peripheral housing should or could look like.

Some of these conditions are a higher requirement for affordable housing, zero energy and environmental standards, and certain transportation and connectivity requirements.

I have a range of reactions to these proposals.

On the upside, there seems to be an increasing recognition in the community that we have a housing crisis and we need to find ways to build housing.

Further, increasingly, I think people understand that some of that housing at least is going to have to be on the periphery.  Even if we get the full 1000 units of housing in the downtown, that housing will count toward to the current Housing Element/RHNA requirements, not the next one.

On the other hand, while I understand that people want to hold Davis to a higher standard, there is a cost trade off.

The more requirements you put on builders and developers, the more upfront costs there are going to be and, thus, while people want affordable housing and do not want additional housing that is unaffordable, some of the requirements here are going to for sure add costs to housing.

But there may be a work around here that provides people with a mechanism by which these high standards can be met with affordability.

One possibility is that we set certain thresholds for peripheral projects that include a 25 percent target for affordable housing, a missing middle component, density requirements, zero energy requirements, and transportation and connectivity—and if the applicant meets that goal, the project can bypass a Measure J vote and be built by right.

That would of course require the voters to approve a modification for Measure J.  But it’s the trade off of certain costs versus certainty.  You meet certain standards and you don’t have the risk of investing money into a project that never happens, you also avoid the costs of a lengthy planning process and, in exchange, the city gets its high standards.

In short—everyone could win, assuming you set the process up correctly.

The city could also protect its character by either establishing an Urban Limit line that would provide an absolute cap to expansion, or it could simply limit the annual growth rate to one percent or whatever the community desires.

What we have seen very clearly is that by right development can work.  It can get us higher standards by trading cost for certainty and avoiding a lengthy, expensive and uncertain planning process, and it can produce the kinds of high-quality projects that the community is looking for.

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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9 Comments

  1. Tim Keller

    Lets not conflate “our housing crisis” with “our RHNA requirement”  I think our RHNA number is 10%-20% of the housing we urgently need.  Im still working on that number… but I think its something in that range.

    The city could also protect its character by either establishing an Urban Limit line that would provide an absolute cap to expansion or it could simply limit the annual growth rate to one percent or whatever the community desires.

    My preference, instead of a simple percentage is to preferentially say yes to “missing middle” projects and then watch the vacancy rate of that higher density housing… only allowing the development of single-family housing once there is some indication of market saturation in the medium density has been achieved.

    Richard McCann has suggested looking at “days on market” for housing units instead of vacancy rates because we are a long way away from having enough supply to EVER see something actually vacant… and I think he is probably right.

    Either way, not treating all housing options as being the same is probably wise especially if we do have a preference for housing local workforce and achieving lower community VMT’s

    If we want to conserve farmland and prevent traffic, that is going to be the way to go.

  2. Don Shor

     

    6/13/2023, from a local realtor: “There are currently only 24 homes on the market (Metrolist MLS) in Davis, and just 17 excluding halfplexes and condos.”

     

    By comparison, per Zillow:

    Woodland, population approx 61,000: 91.

    West Sacramento, population approx 54,000: 82.

    Dixon, population aprox 19,000: 53.

     

    Davis has a severe lack of housing inventory.

    1. Ron Oertel

      I’m showing 30 for Davis, 90 for Woodland.

      But what an odd way to claim that there’s a “housing crisis”.

      Do folks normally shop for 30 houses at a time?

      I’ve posted several on here over the past few weeks, in the $700K-$750K range.  Decent places.

      There is relative lack of inventory – nationwide, at this time.  Folks have locked in low interest rates, and are not as willing to sell/move.

      But as far as places like Woodland are concerned, this is a primary reason that there ISN’T a “housing crisis”.  Houses are available, and they will ALWAYS be less-expensive in surrounding communities.  That’s why less-wealthy people (young families in particular) are drawn to them.

      Now, why anyone thinks that Davis “needs” more young, poorer families in the first place has never been explained.  Davis is “dodging a bullet” if those folks seek out surrounding communities, instead.

      But again, how many new jobs are being created in Davis in the first place?

  3. Don Gibson

    By-Right approvals can prevent corruption. In Los Angeles, councilmember Curren Price was arrested this week because of him getting kickbacks for proposed developments. If a policymaker or even a very influential community member decides to do self-dealings, a discretionary process allows the bad faith actor to get kickbacks for their support. https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2023-06-13/l-a-city-councilmember-curren-price-charged-with-embezzlement-perjury

    1. Ron Oertel

      Probably much easier for development / business interests to simply ensure that “their” guy (or gal) gets into statewide office, to change the laws – thereby bypassing the locals.

      Another form of corruption.

      But if this model actually ends up producing any real results, it’s not going to bode well for those officials and their efforts.  (See Proposition 13, regarding how that may occur.) There’s already an effort to do just that.

      But folks will have to become more “woke” regarding what their preferred political party is up to. And the only way to ensure that occurs is if these types of developments are “successful”.

      I suspect that the only reason that the ACE proposal has been put forth is due to the money they can make by supplying student housing. And since Nishi is still far-off in the future (despite the government funding it recently received), there’s still a demand for student housing at this point.

      The city report for the item states the funding would help expand service in city limits, provide funding support for the the Nishi Project, which would unite UC Davis research and development with high-density housing that would fill in a 46-acre strip of land southwest of Olive Drive — and for infrastructure improvements identified in the Downtown Davis Plan, a guide for the longterm development of downtown Davis.

      https://www.davisenterprise.com/news/council-votes-to-back-i-80-partnership/

      1. Ron Oertel

        To clarify, money that will be used to support developments, in exchange for support of freeway expansion.

        Nope – no “corruption” there.  🙂

  4. David Thompson

    By Right and Builders Remedy will add units in certain categories but will clearly avoid Davis meeting the Very Low Income (VLI) requirements of 580 VLI units in this RHNA cycle.

    The Builders Remedy definition is for a requirement of 20% for Low Income (LI) households with no units at all built for VLI. So under the Builders Remedy we might meet the goal of 350 LI units.

    We may meet most of the RHNA categories but it is clear to me that we will not meet the VLI category of 580 units.

    We will be out of compliance with RHNA for this cycle and likely out of compliance for the VLI group in the next cycle.

    Davis may very well be permanently out of compliance with RHNA and therefore subject only to the state’s onerous Builders Remedy iver which Davis has no control.

    Not meeting RHNA means we have lost local control over housing for the next 8-10 years and perhaps longer

    Other RHNA categories will likely be met so meeting the 580 VLI units should be the most critical and perhaps the only goal of our plans for housing.

     

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