Sunday Commentary: The Council Failed to Act Again – Now What?

Photo by Liz Sanchez-Vegas on Unsplash

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

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?

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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27 Comments

  1. Matt Williams

    The student presentation was impressive.

    .
    The student presentation will only be impressive when/if it is also presented to Chancellor May and the Regents. They are asking theCity to go beyond the City’s boundaries and beyond its General Plan because “there is a housing crisis” and more specifically a student housing crisis.  There is absolutely no reason that the Chancellor and the Regents and the Governor shouldn’t be similarly going beyond its LRDP commitments and MOU commitments.  If the students aren’t visibly and loudly asking for that then their presentation on Tuesday night is barely half impressive.

      1. Eileen Samitz

        Good points Matt. I agree, except the City needs to put some effort into pressuring UCD as well. For instance, UCD’s redevelopment planning of their Solano Park on-campus student housing. The new redevelopment of UCD’s Solano Park student housing on campus needs to be 7-stories, unlike the sprawling low-density UCD Orchard Park student housing project which has only 4-stories. Yet. UCD’s Orchard Park is directly across the street on Russell Blvd. from the 7-story “Identity” student housing project in the City, which was built by a private developer.

        UCD needs to step up. Their negligence to provide more and higher density student housing is inexcusable.

        1. Richard_McCann

          7 story housing is hard on young families because they must rely on elevators for the upper stories. We already know from the debacles of urban public housing what kind of woes that can create. 4 stories is at the limit of achievable walk ups for younger individuals such as the graduate students who will reside there.

  2. Ron Oertel

    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.

    Again, your claim is not supported (and assumes that the state will find its own “imposed alternative” to be “not feasible” and therefore disqualified from housing elements).

    This interpretation makes no sense, and is not supported by any of the regulations you’ve cited. Show us an example of where this has occurred – anywhere in the state.

  3. Tim Keller

    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.

    I was surprised by this… David can you clarify?

    To make RHNA we dont have to actually BUILD the stuff?  we just need to have the project on the books from a zoning perspective?

    My concerns about trying to rush a couple of measure J initiatives through before 2024 is that even if they DO get through the EIR and everything else in time to make it on the ballot, any “planning phase” is going to be extremely rushed…  And we have had multiple projects fail that were charged with “being rushed” including DiSC which was part of a decades-long process…

    I want growth, but I am against ill-considerd / rushed growth, and my concern with these projects is that in a rush to “just get something done” we will end up with really bad developments that we can’t un-do.

    So my question is:  Can we do something about “zoning” at a high level but not commit to particulars like the final density and what goes where?   Perhaps that gives us some wiggle room to satisfy RHNA but also buy some time for good urban planning… (?)

    Its probably a naive question… but thats why I’m asking!

    1. David Greenwald

      Requirements that Apply to Sites Regardless of Income Level:

      • Listed in sites inventory: All sites that are proposed to be rezoned must be listed in the sites inventory.
      • Replacement requirements: All sites, including those listed in the site inventory, must be subject to the lower income replacement housing requirements contained in density bonus law, even if they do not have any deed restricted housing.
      • Sufficient sites: The jurisdiction must identify enough sites to rezone to cover any shortfall.
      • Rezoned in sufficient time: The jurisdiction should also identify a timeline that matches state law (see below).

      Timing

      The rezoning program should be implemented as early as possible. The timing of the rezoning depends on when whether the Housing Element is certified within 120 days of the Housing Element deadline.

      (The deadline is January 31, 2023, and 120 more days is May 31, 2023.)

      1. If a Housing Element is certified by May 31, 2023, the rezoning must happen by May 31, 2026 (3+ years from the deadline).
      2. If the Housing Element is not certified by May 31, 2023, the rezoning must be completed by January 31, 2024.
      3. If rezoning is needed because the agency failed to complete all required rezoning in the fifth cycle, the “carryover” rezoning must be completed by January 31, 2024.

      Consequences of Not Rezoning on Time

      If a local government fails to complete the rezoning by the deadline, HCD may decertify a housing element and may refer the jurisdiction to the Attorney General. Per the Housing Accountability Act, for housing development projects where at least 20% of the total units are affordable, in most cases a locality cannot reject a proposed development project on a site identified by the rezoning program.

  4. Ron Oertel

    So again, this isn’t a “Davis-only” issue.

    Again: Nobody with any sense believes there’s any way this will happen. The state could eliminate all zoning, repeal CEQA, give developers the green light to demolish everything, bulldoze neighborhoods, destroy every low-income community in the state—and still, we won’t see 750,000 new housing units a year.

    The message from the data is clear: Either the RHNA goals, and the legislation behind them, are completely faulty and impossible, and the people who promoted them are delusional … or the state is going to need to put up very large sums of money for affordable housing … or this whole RHNA process is a scam to allow more for-profit real-estate development and speculation that will never lead to more affordable housing.

    You want to take a guess?

    https://48hills.org/2022/05/the-states-housing-goals-would-require-massive-demolition-and-evictions-in-sf/

    The State’s Housing Secrecy Just Keeps Getting Worse-and-Worse

    https://48hills.org/2023/05/the-state-housing-secrecy-just-keeps-getting-worse-and-worse/

    The reality is that the city can’t possibly meet its RHNA goals for affordable housing without a massive influx of state money. The price tag for the affordable housing the state is requiring totals at least $19 billion—and the Mayor’s Office has no plan for how to address that funding gap.

    The fact is, the RHNA goals that the state wants to impose are impossible for San Francisco to meet, unless Newsom and the Legislature want to send a very large amount of money to the city. Developers won’t pay for more than 25 percent affordable housing, and much of that at levels much higher than RHNA says the city needs; they say the price is too high and the projects no longer “pencil out” (although to this day, not one housing developer has made public the actual financials of the projects, so the rest of us can see if that’s true).

    And if nobody has an answer to any of this, I don’t see how the Planning Department can seriously talk about a new Housing Element.

    Maybe someone from the state is honest enough to say that. I’m not holding my breath.

    https://48hills.org/2022/08/newsom-wants-to-investigate-sfs-housing-crisis-heres-where-he-could-start/

     

  5. Eileen Samitz

    Downtown vertical mixed-used projects need to be at least 10%-15% affordable housing. Downtown housing is amongst the most expensive housing in the City so vertical mixed use needs to do its “fair share” of affordable housing.  Furthermore, any downtown housing needs to provide adequate parking or it will just negatively impact surrounding neighborhoods and the downtown retail including the restaurants as well. So, the City would lose businesses and therefore lose revenue since it is difficult enough to find parking downtown now, no less doing a ridiculous project proposal like the Hibbert proposal with no parking.

    Also, eliminating all parking, or even a significant amount of parking creates a discriminatory housing by design  situation, because neither seniors not handicapped people could live there without parking. Further, no small families with one child would likely be able to live there since families need a vehicle to get their kids to school, medical appointments, sports, and activities. Davis does not have the robust transit system needed to eliminate parking.

    1. Tim Keller

      neither seniors not handicapped people could live there without parking

      I disagree. Seniors dont, by definition, need cars.  Neither do any of us.   Bikes ( trikes if they need help balancing ) work just as well for seniors as they do us.

      Further, no small families with one child would likely be able to live there since families need a vehicle to get their kids to school, medical appointments, sports, and activities.

      Same objection.  Plenty of parents bike with their kids to school even in the rain.   Zipcars should be made available, on that I think there needs to be assurances… but dedicated parking spots for residents in downtown aren’t necessary.

      This one is timely… just came out:  entitled “How parking ruined everything”

      We need to stop thinking that we need cars for EVERYTHING… we really dont.   I gave up my car over 2 years ago and get around on an electric skateboard for most everything.  My family still has one car that my wife uses with the kids… but honestly that car could be replaced with an electic cargo bike for most trips.

      Here is a great video that sums it up nicely:  You dont need a car if you bike to work

      You are correct that our transit system needs to be better.  100%.   But transit systems can change easily enough… if we continue to build our cities around parking requirements we space things out too much to make the transit ever really work well.

    2. David Greenwald

      According to the BAE proforma from 2018, 10 percent affordable housing in vertical mixed use pushes the projects into the infeasibility range. So how do you square that?

    3. Richard_McCann

      Continuing to extoll a need for car-centric housing runs counter to our need to address the climate emergency that the Council acknowledged in 2019. While I’m not as sanguine as Tim about young families getting by without a vehicle, just about all the rest of us can. The solution for those who are disabled is to have designated handicapped parking only. The point of the Hibbert project is make it very walkable for senior citizens so they won’t need a car. As for parking in the neighborhood, Old North Davis already has limited permit parking and that can be expanded. (And I have never seen the Coop lot full except for special events in 25 years of shopping there several days a week.)

      Tim made a very good point in this Vanguard article that perhaps the best way to encourage local housing for local residents is to limit parking opportunities.

      1. Ron Oertel

        Students are the ones who would occupy Hibbert’s – not families, not “young professionals”, or anyone else.
        And some of them would have cars.  They will “figure out” where to park them, somewhere nearby.

        Tim made a very good point in this Vanguard article that perhaps the best way to encourage local housing for local residents is to limit parking opportunities.

        This type of thinking (that you can “wish away” the negative aspects of development by not accommodating them) does not have roots in reality.

         

      2. Ron Oertel

        Students are the ones who would occupy Hibbert’s – not families, not “young professionals”, or anyone else.
        And some of them would have cars.  They (and their visitors) will “figure out” where to park them, somewhere nearby.

        Tim made a very good point in this Vanguard article that perhaps the best way to encourage local housing for local residents is to limit parking opportunities.

        This type of thinking (that you can “wish away” the negative aspects of development by not accommodating them) does not have basis in reality.

         

        1. Ron Oertel

          Because they are the primary group of renters in Davis – especially for a place that doesn’t include parking.

          The Co-Op is going to “feel” a lot more like going into Trader Joe’s.

          This is not an “improvement” for Davis.

          Still, I’d rather see the city screw-up its own downtown, compared to pursuing sprawl. (The “problem” is that they’re pursuing “both”.)

        2. Ron Oertel

          Honestly, I just assumed it would be.

          But then again, aren’t condos sometimes rented out (individually), as well?

          And don’t some parents purchase entire houses for their kids, when attending UCD?  (Maybe a condo would be preferable for some to purchase, within this group.)

          Regardless, there aren’t going to be any “young professionals” or “families” living in this monstrosity. (O.K. – maybe a couple of them.)

          Don’t forget – I’m on YOUR side this time, in that I’d rather see the downtown destroyed, vs. sprawl. (Again, the problem being that “all of the above” are pursued by the council.)

          The only possible downtown proposal that “might” attract relatively-permanent residents is Trackside, in my opinion. The reason being that it’s relatively small, would have parking, and was described as “luxury”. Then again, the owners were trying to sell that thing, last time I checked.

          I actually do think that “luxury” units are not a bad thing for Davis. Do you want EVERYONE to be poor and/or a student? If I was “in charge” of a city, I’d prefer wealthy residents, over poor ones.

           

  6. Richard_McCann

    While I agree the Council should be moving more quickly (as Francesca suggested, maybe they need to go to more frequent meetings as they did in the recent past), I don’t think the LEED ND rubric is ready for prime time. John Johnston made excellent points about using a point-based system that could lead to adverse conclusions. We on the NRC have been advocating for sometime to establish sustainability guidelines based on the cumulative research and analysis that the NRC has conducted over the years. Some of that made it into the Downtown Plan but it was mooted and ignored when it came to addressing GHG mitigation. So I agree with Tim that perhaps haste could make waste here.

    1. Tim Keller

      I don’t think the LEED ND rubric is ready for prime time.

      Understatement.   I have two problems with the “rubric approach”

      1) It doesn’t count as “planning”…  and planning is what we need.    It is a good way to check if your planning is sustainable… and assign a score… but it cant be driven in reverse like that.  Thats just not what it was supposed to do.

      2) If you look at the LEED ND standards, they describe a style of development that is echoed in Judy Corbett’s et al AND Robb Davis’s plan but NOT the actual plans being put forward by the peripheral applicants.    Sustainable housing is moderate density housing:  Condos, townhomes, apartments.  Not single family homes.

      1. Don Shor

        planning is what we need.

        Why?

        Not single family homes.

        The fact that you don’t prefer to live in a single-family home doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be any built. You are in a distinct minority as to home-buying preference. I’d say you will be a great candidate for one of the Hibbert project condos. But that style of living is not to the liking of most people.

        Condos, townhomes, apartments.

        Those are all good. There should be many of them. But if you don’t build any s-f homes, you’ll just drive (literally) those home-buyers to Woodland.

        1. Ron Oertel

          But if you don’t build any s-f homes, you’ll just drive (literally) those home-buyers to Woodland.

          This is just plain incorrect.  The reason being that Woodland will be pursuing additional sprawl regardless of what Davis does. They already have plans to do so, for that matter.

          This will include the 1,600 housing units planned in the technology park – the one that failed in Davis before it even reached voters (and was “replaced” by – you guessed it – housing in the form of WDAAC).

          For that matter, the site it will occupy in Woodland was once reserved (totally) for commercial development, I believe. (Well, we all know how THAT goes. It would be an easy calculation to determine how many “houses per mile” were created during that “move”.)

          Had Covell Village been approved, Davis would now be dealing with traffic from (both) Spring Lake AND Covell Village.  (That’s a fact, not an opinion.)

          Younger, less-wealthy families will pursue Woodland (in particular) based upon price differential, vs. Davis.

          But there’s always “pre-owned” homes popping-up on the market (in both locales), all the time.

          The fact of the matter is that there is no local housing shortage – as in not at all. It’s difficult to believe that anyone is being hoodwinked by this. (Though I suspect that this is the first time that the word “hoodwinked” has appeared on this blog.)

          1. David Greenwald

            Don: “But if you don’t build any s-f homes, you’ll just drive (literally) those home-buyers to Woodland.”

            Ron: “This is just plain incorrect. The reason being that Woodland will be pursuing additional sprawl regardless of what Davis does. ”

            You’re saying he’s incorrect and then in effect, you’re agreeing with him.

        2. Ron Oertel

          You’re saying he’s incorrect and then in effect, you’re agreeing with him.

          I don’t know how you’re interpreting my observation in that manner.

          First of all, I stated that there is no housing shortage – do Don or you agree with that?

          I then noted that Woodland will be pursuing sprawl regardless of what Davis does.

          The only “question” remaining is whether or not Davis will pursue its own sprawl.  I provided the example of Spring Lake – which would have been built regardless of whether or not Covell Village was approved.  Again, that’s a fact – not an opinion.

          I also provided the example of the “technology park” (which failed in Davis before even reaching voters) and added 1,600 housing units during its “move” to Woodland. That proposal will also be built regardless of what Davis does.

          There isn’t a “fixed” number of people who “may” move to a given locale (such as Davis OR Woodland).  It depends largely on how much sprawl and economic development is pursued.

          It really is a matter of, “if you don’t build it, they don’t come” (and vice-versa). But again, there is no housing shortage precisely because nearby communities pursue sprawl. (And they’ll offer a product which is substantially-cheaper than what you can get in Davis.)

          The so-called housing shortage is “fake news”.

        3. Matt Williams

          David and Ron O are both wrong.  The reason they are wrong is the level at which they are looking at housing (in Davis, but also in California as a whole).  Housing is not a homogeneous continuity from top to bottom. There are segments, and the existence of a shortage in those different segments.

          In my opinion there absolutely is a shortage in Davis of residences (both ownership and rental) for the 16,077 people that the US Census tells us work in Davis.  How to addresses that shortage is a complex issue, which is different for ownership housing than it is for rental housing.

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