By Alex Achimore
Finally, the housing logjam seems to have broken. The recent announcements of three (!) large infill housing projects on G Street is great news, and I may need to be counted as another Downtown Plan skeptic who got it wrong. Meanwhile, four previously approved projects have just broken ground. And the City Council has greenlit two enormous expansion proposals—Village Farms and Shriner’s Property, together offering up to 3,000 new homes—to move forward into environmental review and on to a Measure J vote. With the words “housing crisis” now part of everyday vocabulary, chances are better than ever that one or both will be approved.
But there’s a nagging issue Davis shares with other high-priced cities that won’t be addressed no matter how much more housing comes along if we only build at the high and low ends of the wealth/income spectrum. It’s often called the “missing middle” but is more insidious than that—we have been devolving into a community divided between property owners and renters, a rich/poor split not just by income, but even by where we live in town. Not exactly a revelation, given the times and the ever-growing wealth disparity in our nation, but we’re also in the midst of planning how to add thousands of new housing units to Davis, and what and where we build can make it all a little better, i.e., fill in the gap, or a little worse, depending on what we build.
The prospect of adding housing and population is an opportunity to arrest the decline in our school enrollment, offer new access to groups that have been historically shut out, especially first-time and first-generation homebuyers, and help us look more like the rest of California. But we need to recognize how the good intentions of preventing sprawl and preserving farmland have contributed to the housing affordability crisis as well as the growing divide in our city between renters and owners. And we should be careful about what type of housing we build in the future, because thousands more detached single-family houses will only widen the wealth/income gap in our community. I don’t agree that any type of additional housing is necessarily good for Davis.
OK, but with all the new projects within our city limits, do we even have to consider expansion? Our draft Housing Element, the State-mandated report on where we plan to accommodate at least 2,075 units at various price points by 2029, relies entirely on infill, and many agree that’s as it should be. Of course the Downtown Plan pushes high density, but after scouring within the city limits for other housing sites, I think the Element well documents that there isn’t room for anything much different than more of the 4-5 story apartments that have recently joined the queue. Note that those projects are of one single type—market-rate rentals, geared toward households earning what’s defined in the Element as Moderate Income (current maximum $136,000 for a family of 4). Isn’t that the “missing middle?” The lower half maybe, but it’s still all rental apartments, and not attractive to those earning more, yet not enough to buy in Davis.
For Moderate Income, at least, we are certainly way ahead—1,330 units already approved even before the three projects on G street vs. 340 allocated in the Element—but they aren’t generating much affordable to low and very-low incomes (maximum $91,000, family of 4). While the old Regal Theatres site is pledging 20% of the total units to be restricted to low-income (their incentive is to streamline entitlement through the Builder’s Remedy), the old Hibberts’ site promises only 5% and the just-completed 3280 Chiles is paying a fee instead. And even adding the others already moving ahead we still have to find sites for over 600 Low/Very Low-Income units. To do so will take additional strategies, including building on city-owned land and increasing public sources like the Housing Trust Fund that I won’t go into here, but maybe there’s room for those as well without expansion. The harder to imagine scenario, actually, is how to accommodate the remaining 299 Above Moderate Income (no upper income limit), but the Element essentially says that densities will be increased to whatever it takes for the total to fit. Altogether, it seems a bit of a stretch (pun intended) to me but check out the map below and judge for yourself.
Anyway, if asked whether we can do it all with infill, I would say sure, and if every new Davis resident is happy with living in an apartment, we’ll be fine. But what about families, especially those with young children, who want to own, benefit from the wealth-building of real estate appreciation, and have a small patch of private outdoor space? If they make less than $160,000, and don’t have sufficient savings to hold their mortgage to a manageable amount, they can’t afford the minimum Davis starting price of about $650,000 (the recent sales price of an older 3-bedroom, 1-bath house). But the adjacent cities of Woodland and West Sacramento are building for at least a portion of that demographic, and if we can’t offer anything within their price range in Davis, we’re headed toward a further divided community.
So I personally believe we will need some additional land, but there’s an opportunity in the Above Moderate category that we shouldn’t get wrong. Because there is no upper income limit, we could theoretically fill the quota entirely through expensive detached single-family houses, and recent proposals to build outside our boundaries certainly aim in that direction.
The problem is that in a market like Davis’ it is virtually impossible to build a detached house even on a tiny lot that is worth less than the $650,000 cited above. If we could only find a way to move the entry-level price downward, we could broaden the demographic of people who live here, including many that work in Davis but are only able to purchase in adjacent cities.
So how could we do that without further use of subsidies and price controls? While it may be impossible to produce a for-sale, market-rate house that is affordable by every level of the Above Moderate category, we could at least drive the prices down somewhat by building more attached units—duplexes and townhouses—which have the added benefit of reducing the consumption of land. It’s a simple but effective move: a party wall, even built with modern soundproofing technology far superior to 20 years ago, by itself reduces the value of a home. We’ve got some fine examples of attached homes in Davis, but there could be a lot more, and perhaps that’s all we should build going forward.
In order to ensure new housing in any expansion of Davis is built attached, we’d need to set a minimum density—at least 10 units per acre would do it. If not so ideal for the landowner/developers, it wouldn’t exactly be a “taking” either, and maybe the requirements for including affordable housing could be adjusted if that’s truly necessary to help bring costs down in line with reduced sales revenue. Both David Greenwald and Robb Davis have made the point that inclusionary zoning isn’t the most efficient, and I would add not the fairest, way to create affordable housing. Worse, I think, is that we’ve drifted into an implied (though never explicit and possibly inaccurate) assumption that a very healthy return must be made on high-end housing in order to provide some units with low-price restrictions. The optics alone are unfortunate—a few dozen dense, low-income rental apartments surrounded by and somewhat indebted to hundreds of expensive homes—and only tout the growing disparity.
But pushing attached housing, perhaps with a feasible inclusionary requirement at the higher end of the affordable scale, would help backfill some of the middle-income strata we have been losing in Davis. And the key amenities, especially desirable for families with children, of a ground-floor entry and even a tiny yard are still possible in that format. This is not some new or radical concept: in its 2010 “Blueprint” for growth, SACOG called for all additional housing in the region to be at least 70% attached. It obviously hasn’t yet happened around here, although the Bay Area, Los Angeles, and San Diego are doing so, but we could certainly take the lead in our region.
True, attached homes in Davis won’t be cheap by any standard and still unattainable to many, but they would reach down and hold lower prices—a recent Zillow scan shows just one (making the point we need more) townhome for sale: a 3-bedroom, 3-bath with 1,400 square feet for $520,00. At best, this is a partial solution for a finite population, and additional measures such as down payment assistance will continue to be needed. But it could have a noticeable impact in narrowing the wealth gap that’s been growing here, and just as importantly would consume far less land than our typical residential neighborhoods or what’s being proposed on our edges. Even with parks and greenways, attached houses could cut the amount of land consumed by either the Village Farms or Shriner’s proposals by more than a third.
In any case, we shouldn’t accept the notion that marketability means there’s a shortage or need—Davis already has well over 11,000 detached single-family houses worth more than $650,000, plenty of inventory that will turn over in time for those with the ever-rarefying means necessary to buy. If you take the logic of Davis’ housing obligations from the Element (and I realize many don’t), we only need 299 additional units in the Above Moderate Income category by 2029. Of course the next cycles will likely require we keep adding, but even if you triple to 900, that’s far short of the thousands of detached single family homes being proposed that will only be attainable by folks earning significantly above Moderate Incomes. Why spend so much farmland on such a narrow segment of our society and widen the divide between renters and homeowners?
How we get to a consensus on the appropriate density of land added to Davis has to be the subject of another tome and probably by someone else. The same old lines around the issue of expansion at all are being drawn in the sand, not unexpected given how similar the peripheral proposals look to what’s been rejected in the past. But the fact that the previously proposed Covell Village got built in Woodland isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Those homes are clearly less expensive than they would be if they were built in Davis, and the quality of the farmland consumed is not as high.
The climate crisis is as real as the affordable housing crisis, and anything we build going forward must address both. Davis has benefited in the past from cutting-edge developments like Village Homes and Northstar, and several of the principles in those projects are involved in the expansion proposals today. I don’t see the same level of innovation in what’s being offered so far, but perhaps as more details emerge, and/or if the EIR process seriously considers alternatives, as has been stated, we’ll have some real choices at a Measure J vote. I believe there are advocates for affordable housing willing to go to bat for the right project. Someone should take advantage of that.
Alex Achimore is the parent of a Davis High School teacher who recently moved to West Sacramento.