By David M. Greenwald
Davis, CA – Any reasonable accounting for the math suggests that the city will not be able to meet its next RHNA cycle obligations—particularly on the affordable housing side—without significant peripheral housing.
Even a fairly optimistic view as expressed by Judy Corbett last month includes Village Farms (a Measure J proposal) as an infill project—and the math doesn’t seem to add up when you consider a lot of the proposals listed there have either already been counted or are unlikely to add significant affordable housing.
Can the city council count on the voters to approve sufficient housing via Measure J? The history there suggests that’s a tough ask. There have been seven such votes since 2005, and only two have passed. Anything with significant traffic impacts have been met with a good deal of skepticism from the voters.
So what are the options…
Do nothing – I would argue this probably is not viable in terms of successfully rezoning land for housing, but ironically it might be the most likely scenario. If the city council changes nothing, then they are taking it out of their own hands. The pending projects will go to the voters, and then it remains to be seen whether the voters will approve it. Failing that, it would force the state or the courts to step in to determine whether Measure J is a barrier to the building of housing and thus in violation of a variety of different state laws.
Eliminate Measure J – There is still a segment of the community that opposes Measure J and would favor removing it. The problem with this approach is that that sector of the population is shrinking. In 2000, it was a relatively narrow victory for Measure J, but by 2020, it was renewed with 83 percent of the vote. A direct vote doesn’t seem likely to remove Measure J in the foreseeable future. The most likely path to elimination would be either the state or a local citizen or developer filing a legal action that Measure J violates State Law.
Then there are a variety of Measure J revisions that could be proposed
Affordable Housing Exemption – This is one that the council has floated at various times. Currently there is an Exemption for 100 percent affordable housing projects. And while this has been offered up by defenders of the status quo, it is worth noting one key number: zero. That’s the number of 100 percent affordable projects that have been even proposed in the last nearly 25 years. With no RDA that doesn’t seem like a viable option.
What about changing that exemption to 40 percent? That has been at least informally floated. Would that produce any projects? Would the voters support it?
There is a segment of voters who have argued repeatedly that we already have an exemption for affordable housing and we should leave Measure J as written. What we don’t know is whether a majority of voters feel that way.
The other key question is whether that’s enough. The logic here is that by reducing uncertainty it would incentivize a much larger affordable component and, with large peripheral projects, creating land dedication sites are relatively easy ways to generate large amounts of affordable housing.
Rubric Qualified Exemption – Another suggestion has been to create a refined rubric as proposed by the council this spring, and then projects that achieve a certain level of certification would gain exemption. This is a variant of the affordable housing exemption, except it might extend to environmental or transportation goals as well.
Urban Limit Line – Tim Keller recently proposed the suggestion of using or extending a urban limit line as a work-around for Measure J. Basically, Measure J acts as a de facto urban limit line—it makes the line the current city boundaries and in order to rezone additional land, it requires voter approval. Tim Keller and others have proposed basically extending that line outward, so that land within the boundary would be subject to normal land use approvals and then to extend the line would require a vote.
Pre-approval – Similar in concept, I have pointed out that you can basically use pre-approvals to designate land as already approved for planning purposes. The advantage of this approach is that it would not require a Measure J amendment, it would only require the voters to approve certain land for development. The advantage with that is that the developers would not have to expend time and money to develop a proposal, only to have it be rejected. The disadvantage is that without the kind of specificity there is a good chance the voters wouldn’t approve the project.
So where does that leave us?
I think there is no chance that the voters will vote to eliminate Measure J. Would they vote to amend it? Possibly, but I think we’ll quickly see in the comments opposition to any sort of amendment. There is at least a chance the council will attempt to do something and there is also a chance that citizens put up their own initiative.
I still think the most likely outcome is going to be status quo and then it will be up to the state and the courts eventually to decide what to do—unless of course the voters show a willingness to approve some of these projects.