By David M. Greenwald
Davis, CA – It was two in the morning on Wednesday morning and I’m still getting texts— “where is the urgency” and “doesn’t the council care that there is a housing crisis?”
While I think the council does care, I think the blowback after the most recent failed Measure J vote has them a bit overly cautious—or as I less politely put it at two in the morning, “afraid of their own shadows.”
I have an optimistic side here—there have been a number of proposals that have come forward that have presented some peripheral development standards for the city.
The student presentation was impressive. There might be some ways with peripheral development to get to 25 percent inclusionary housing, but that’s going to be a tall ask.
At the same time, many of the proposals have suggested looking at infill first. Frankly, I remain skeptical that infill is going to be the way forward for Davis at this point. It remains costly to build, difficult to get affordable, and it’s not particularly well suited for families with kids.
I noted one big barrier to infill last week—changes in Housing Element law which turn out to be a bit more convoluted than I had originally thought, but don’t really change much.
Take the 1000 units proposed for the downtown. HCD has attempted to crack down on the use of nonvacant redevelopment properties as placeholders for housing sites. It makes sense; you wouldn’t want the city to be able to list the PG&E site over and over again when there is not much likelihood of it getting developed.
The state, therefore, distinguishes between nonvacant sites—which pretty much all of the downtown falls into—versus vacant sites.
NONVACANT: “For a nonvacant site: Included in a prior planning period’s housing element (e.g., 5th cycle housing element)”
VACANT: “For a vacant site (see definition of vacant site on page 21): Included in two or more consecutive planning periods (e.g., 5th cycle and 4th cycle housing element)”
There is a way around it that would allow a city to put a nonvacant (or even a vacant site) on additional Housing Elements. It could be rezoned with a special program “to allow residential use by right for housing developments in which at least 20 percent of the units are affordable to lower incomes households.”
The problem of course: the city already has a finding that basically says 20 percent or more affordable units is not going to be feasible in the downtown. And the state has its own limitations, requiring, “Analysis to determine if sites are appropriate to accommodate the jurisdiction’s RHNA for low- and very low-income households” and “Analysis to determine if nonvacant sites are appropriate to accommodate the jurisdiction’s RHNA.”
That doesn’t mean that ultimately the city won’t be able to build the full 1000 units in the downtown—they have already received one project proposal and are expecting at least one more. It simply means that those 1000 units are not likely to count for future Housing Elements.
This is the whole problem that we are going to have with all of these rubrics and protocols. It’s expensive to build housing in the downtown. The housing that we are likely to have there is likely to be quite expensive. And it’s not housing that is likely to solve a lot of our critical housing needs.
That’s the problem I see overall—with all of these rubrics and proposals.
Do we need more affordable housing? Yes, we do. But is it feasible? That’s a big question.
Do we need to improve the density of some of the peripheral projects? Yes, we do.
Village Farms on Wednesday morning expressed a willingness to go to 1800 units.
Lydia Dellis-Schlosser committed: “Should we be selected to move forward with the EIR process, increase our density by 30% to 1800 units, increase the developable units per acre to 9.1 with an average parcel size of 5,000 square feet, increase the amount of mixed building types and incorporate a multimodal hub from the beginning.”
But in so doing, they are only getting to 15 percent affordable.
There is a tradeoff here.
We are getting 15% of those 1800 units or “270 multi-family units for the extremely low, low and very low income earners.”
But will an 1800-unit project—as opposed to a 1400-unit project—scare off voters?
And there is no discussion of the next tradeoff—how are we expecting to get to 25 percent affordable as several of the proposals have put forward high energy efficiency standards?
Are we creating poison pills that create standards so high no one can meet them? Are some of these proposals self-defeating, meaning they will be so large as to scare off the voters?
And as I pointed out last week—where is the urgency? The clock is already ticking toward the next RHNA cycle, especially if you have to go peripheral—which we almost surely will—and need to have projects actually approved (or at the very least land actually rezoned) in order to count them for RHNA.
We might get one more shot at November 2024 depending on what happens on June 20. But that might close the door on the best window to approve a Measure J project.
And then what?
The bottom line for me at this point is there does seem to be a recognition that we need housing. That’s a huge step. I would much rather debate the “what” and “where” and perhaps “when” than the “whether.”
BUT, and this is the problem I see, I start reading these long laundry lists and I question whether we can ever meet the very high standards being put forward with housing that people can actually afford and a project that someone can actually build.
We should have learned this lesson with University Commons. We lost 260 units of housing across the street from the university because we put too many conditions on the builders and they threw up their hands and punted.
If that happens again—what will the state do? Will they take away local discretion? Take out Measure J?