Monday Morning Thoughts: What Can/Should Council Do to Jumpstart Housing in Davis?

Mixed Use

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

Davis, CA – There is a general but by no means universal sense in this community by many who believe the city lacks housing and is becoming increasingly unaffordable.  What the city council should do about that—we have seen a wide range of different community and council-based proposals but no real consensus, and that’s part of the problem.

Here I am going to throw out some ideas and attempt to assess their utility and likelihood.

The Rubric: The Long Range Growth subcommittee (Mayor Arnold and Councilmember Vaitla) developed a “set of interim criteria by which to evaluate proposed and potential future annexation/development projects.”  This was designed to “serve as a bridge and provide guidance for consideration of such proposals until such time that an updated General Plan is crafted and adopted.”

The upshot: this is the plan moving forward.  The upside is that creates a series of criteria by which to evaluate projects and also give applicants something tangible to shoot at.  But as we have already seen the criteria are complicated, extremely subjective and unless they give the council legislative muscle (probably through some kind of Measure J amendment) it’s hard to imagine that this is any more than a bridge.

General Plan Update: Let’s be honest, the city has needed to do a General Plan update or new General Plan for a long, long time.  The update process would serve a visioning process for the community to engage.  I’m probably a good deal less sanguine that such a process would yield any kind of consensus.  I also have a grave concern about how long the process will take.  We saw how long the Downtown Plan took.  I am not saying we shouldn’t do it, just that it needs to be one necessary step in an array of decisions.  We are not going to solve the current housing crisis with a new general plan, but we can solve it using the general plan and other strategies.

At this point, the council is moving forward on their Rubric and they are at some point probably soon going to launch a General Plan Update process.

So what should that include?

Infill: Infill is a popular solution because it at least theoretically adds housing without a contentious Measure J vote and probably an even more contentious Measure J revision.  But how far will we actually get with infill?  We looked at the infill proposals and one thing that immediately jumped out—people like Mike and Judy Corbett were counting Village Farms as infill—which, whether it is or not, is a Measure J vote.  We have seen three proposals for redevelopment in the downtown—all good for sure, but also primarily rental housing.  We can densify the core, we can add infill, but we are neither going to solve our housing crisis nor address our affordable housing RHNA requirements through infill.

Status quo: Or as I put it a few weeks ago, do nothing.  I don’t think this is a solution to anything or for anyone.  But it might be the de facto outcome of a paralyzed process.  Theoretically, status quo would probably look like the infill solution.  But it basically means we continue on our same course without a large shift in policy.

Measure J Amendment: I have seen some interesting proposals.  I have personally suggested we simply pre-approve land prior to going through the development process.  The upside of that is that it would not require any change to Measure J.  The downside of that is that it probably would not have sufficient detail to garner support from the community.

I have also noted the possibility of a high affordable project being exempt from Measure J.  Some have argued we already have such an exemption, but that exemption is for 100 percent; I am thinking maybe 40 percent or something in that range.  While we may have an exemption, there has never been such a proposal, so it doesn’t appear realistic or viable.

Another option be a Rubric Qualification Exemption—create a refined rubric as proposed by the council this spring, and then projects that achieve a certain level of certification would gain exemption.   One of the thoughts behind these types of incentives is that by creating high standards—40 percent affordable, LEED Platinum or the like—we would be adding costs and requirements, but then giving the applicant certainty that, if they met them, they would not have to go through a costly and uncertain Measure J vote.

Urban Limit line: Again we have discussed this elsewhere.  As noted before, 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.  There is no reason we couldn’t move that line out (it would require a vote—perhaps a Measure J amendment or perhaps something like I was suggesting with the pre-approvals) and allow housing to be built out to the limit line without a new vote of the people.

Elimination of Measure J:  This is probably the most extreme change.  There is probably no chance that the voters of Davis would vote to eliminate Measure J.  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.

But this is not an impossibility—that either a developer or more likely the state will file a suit, take the matter to the court, and argue that Measure J is a barrier to housing and thus in violation of state law.

Is this a realistic possibility?  Yes.  I also see it as a bit of leverage—we have to do something to create more housing in town or we will risk losing local control.

Is that a threat?  I think so.  It is a realistic threat and one that the community should acknowledge and grapple with.

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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19 Comments

  1. Don Shor

    Development teams are submitting projects for review and for a public vote. The council should seek to increase the civic benefits each one provides, do their best to mitigate traffic impacts, negotiate increased densities if they can, and then just put them on the ballot as quickly as possible.

    Staff bandwidth appears to be a delay factor. Council and the city. manager should work to increase staffing for reviewing these projects. The people who build housing are ready to go. The public can vote. If they reject the peripheral projects, in full awareness that it might invite state action against Measure J, that’s an informed decision by the voters.

    We don’t need more planning. We need to move forward. The council’s time would be better spent seeking an answer to the very-low-income-housing conundrum. That probably involves city property, or school district property, or some property swap, for development by a non-profit builder. That should be council and staff priority. “Regular” housing is ready to go. Let the voters decide and stop delaying everything with pointless, endless planning processes.

    1. Matt Williams

      We don’t need more planning. We need to move forward. The council’s time would be better spent seeking an answer to the very-low-income-housing conundrum. That probably involves city property, or school district property, or some property swap, for development by a non-profit builder. That should be council and staff priority. “Regular” housing is ready to go. Let the voters decide and stop delaying everything with pointless, endless planning processes.

      .

      What Don is proposing is a Band-Aid treating one of the manifestations of the terminal disease that Davis has.  With that said, Band-Aids are very useful and often appropriate ways to stop bleeding when it occurs.

      The problem with added housing is that it costs the City more in annual expenses than it generates in annual revenue, and it comes with a substantial balloon payment for infrastructure maintenance when that infrastructure (often originally provided by the developer) reaches the end of its “useful life” (which happens at various times beginning once it reaches 10 years of age).  The City’s current Property Tax ordinances and laws are set so low that expenses greater than revenues is guaranteed.

      Where Don’s Band-Aid needs supplementation is not so much in specific planning steps, but rather in establishing an agreed upon direction for what Davis wants to be in 5, 10, 25, and 50 years.  Right now Davis has no idea what it wants to be … and even more importantly no idea how to pay the bills that come from that “being.”

      A former Chair of the Finance and Budget Commission described Davis as a city/town where the residents have used their “credit card” to promise themselves a very rich and extensive suite of goods and services, but not stepped up with the money necessary to pay for those goods and services.

      If you asked 100 Davis residents what they believe Davis is as a City, you probably would get as many as 50 different answers.  Some would say “Davis is a college town.”  My question to them would be, “How good a job is Davis doing as a college town?”  Some would say Davis is a bedroom community.”  My question to them would be, “How good a job is Davis doing as a bedroom community?”  Some would say “Davis is a hub for the creation of intellectual capital and innovation.”  My question to them would be, “How good a job is Davis doing as that kind of hub?”

      The truth is that by any accountability measure Davis is failing miserably.  Don is correct, more planning will not help address that abject failure.  What is needed to address that is a Vision for Davis that can clearly let its constituents know where it is going … and grab an oar to help it get there.  For 25 years Davis has been lost … and we all have been the losers as a result.

      1. David Greenwald

        I think a lot of people do have a vision for Davis – keeping it the Davis that existed when they moved here. But that’s part of the problem. That vision is not sustainable into the future. I remember the calling creed: a compact city, small town character, surrounding by ag land and open space. The problem is not that we don’t have a vision, the problem is that the vision is not sustainable.

        1. Ron Oertel

          That vision is not sustainable into the future. I remember the calling creed: a compact city, small town character, surrounding by ag land and open space. The problem is not that we don’t have a vision, the problem is that the vision is not sustainable.

          In what way is that not “sustainable”?  And how does an ever-increasing amount of housing make it more “sustainable”?

        2. Ron Oertel

          Where did you come up with the idea that it must be ever increasing?

          History?  Interests which ensure it?

          Read Dan Walters’ latest column, if you want to hear him “lament” the end of growth in California.  And he is by no means “alone”.

          https://calmatters.org/commentary/2023/07/after-growth-california-chronic-stagnation/

          In any case, I’ve never heard you nor anyone else describe the endpoint you have in mind, or why that would (presumably) “then” be sustainable – in your view.

          1. David Greenwald

            Right now the issue is that we don’t have sufficient housing to meet the current needs of the population. What that might look like in 20 to 50 years doesn’t get us to tomorrow. Also, there is no end point. Unless you believe humanity falls off a cliff at some point – in which case, it doesn’t really matter.

        3. Matt Williams

          David, that is not a Vision, because it doesn’t see beyond the immediate present.  In effect it is very similar to the “We are a bedroom community” vision.  Neither are financially sustainable at the current rate of taxation.  The description (I don’t believe it is a Vision) you describe would be financially sustainable if the City annual tax revenues were increased by $2,000 per resident … and the DJUSD annual tax revenues were increased by $1,000 per resident.

          Unfortunately, many of the Davis residents/constituents have a near total lack of trust that their government(s) would spend that additional money in an accountable way that would produce the desired community sustainability.

          Further, adding more houses only makes the problem worse … unless you establish from the get-go that each added bed will include in perpetuity the $2,000 to the City and the$1,000 to DJUSD … inflation adjusted each year.  If that were done then the housing wouldn’t be a dead loser.

          1. David Greenwald

            I’m not saying it is a “vision” – I am saying that’s what many in the community want and as I pointed out, it’s not sustainable.

          2. Don Shor

            Since Prop 13 passed, cities by definition have been unsustainable. In the absence of any viable economic development strategy, raising taxes becomes the only option for keeping funding apace with the increasing costs of providing the services people want. Davis voters have generally been willing to increase parcel taxes. As resources shrink, the voters will have to decide which of the nice things they are willing to let go. But none of that negates the fact that people need places to live and we have a shortage of inventory in nearly all housing categories.

        4. Ron Oertel

          Right now the issue is that we don’t have sufficient housing to meet the current needs of the population.

          What does that mean?  Which population are you referring to, and what amount of housing?

          What that might look like in 20 to 50 years doesn’t get us to tomorrow.

          The population “today” has been declining in California.

          Also, there is no end point.

          You’re advocating for continuous sprawl, just as I said.

          Unless you believe humanity falls off a cliff at some point – in which case, it doesn’t really matter.

          Again, the population has been declining in California, and is not expected to grow.

           

           

           

          1. David Greenwald

            When you post line by line responses, I’m either not going to respond or respond to one point. Here, I will note, the population of California might be declining, and yet we have a housing crisis, which is in fact a proximate cause of the declining population. That therefore doesn’t get you out of the problem no matter how many times you repeat the claim.

        5. Ron Oertel

          When you post line by line responses, I’m either not going to respond or respond to one point.

          There is no other way to determine what you’re talking about.

          Your entire, continuous claim of a “housing crisis” is supposedly built upon the following claim.  Unless you can answer the basic question, “housing crisis” has no meaning:

          David:  Right now the issue is that we don’t have sufficient housing to meet the current needs of the population

          Again, I ask – what does that mean?  Which population are you referring to, and what amount of housing?

          Here, I will note, the population of California might be declining, and yet we have a housing crisis, which is in fact a proximate cause of the declining population

          You haven’t even defined “housing crisis”, or how we’ll now when it’s “solved”.

          And since it’s (supposedly) based upon population size, isn’t a “declining population” helping to solve the claimed “housing crisis”?

           

           

          1. David Greenwald

            There are plenty of ways to do it, it’s not readable for me. So I’m not going to respond. If that matters to you, you can change. If it doesn’t, proceed.

        6. Ron Oertel

          There are plenty of ways to do it, it’s not readable for me. So I’m not going to respond. If that matters to you, you can change. If it doesn’t, proceed.

          How does repeating your own comments make them “not readable” to you?

          My question is repeated twice, above.  And again, your entire claim of a “housing crisis” are based upon claims which you haven’t defined at all.

          So by all means, you can “proceed” with crying “housing crisis” without even defining what that means, or the basis for it.

          But you haven’t provided any reason for anyone to take those claims seriously.

           

        7. Keith Olsen

          How does repeating your own comments make them “not readable” to you?

          It’s readable to everyone else.

          So by all means, you can “proceed” with crying “housing crisis” without even defining what that means, or the basis for it.
          But you haven’t provided any reason for anyone to take those claims seriously.

          That’s because David is dodging the question by claiming it’s “not readable”.

           

        8. Matt Williams

          Don Shor said . . . “ Since Prop 13 passed, cities by definition have been unsustainable. In the absence of any viable economic development strategy, raising taxes becomes the only option for keeping funding apace with the increasing costs of providing the services people want. Davis voters have generally been willing to increase parcel taxes. As resources shrink, the voters will have to decide which of the nice things they are willing to let go. But none of that negates the fact that people need places to live and we have a shortage of inventory in nearly all housing categories.”

          .

          When you find yourself stuck in a deep hole, it is wise to stop digging.  Which is a worse crisis (1) not paying our bills and having Life “foreclose” on Davis by having it crumble around our ears, or (2) having people who would like to live in Davis be able to live in Davis?

          (2) qualifies as a “nice to have.”  (1) qualifies as an “essential need.”

          (2) is reactive thinking (1) if addressed is proactive thinking.

          Someone I really respect recently said “Our community leadership should be thinking and acting 9 to 12 months ahead of City Council.  Instead our community leadership is thinking and acting 9 to 12 minutes after City Council.

  2. Tim Keller

    I have personally suggested we simply pre-approve land prior to going through the development process.  The upside of that is that it would not require any change to Measure J.  The downside of that is that it probably would not have sufficient detail to garner support from the community.

    That isn’t too different from the proposed limit line / J modification concept.   We would essentially be pre-approving What WE want to see being built, and developers have the option of a measure J vote if they want to do something different.

    the difference is what you mention: detail.    Put up a planning drawing of what those neighborhoods would look like, do the math in the number of cars… and let voters pick their preferred option..    we don’t need a full general plan update, but SOME master planning is going to get us a MUCH better outcome than the current proposals which have none.

     

  3. Ron Oertel

    Here’s what’s “not sustainable”, though someone like Barry Broome may disagree:

    There are more people moving to Sacramento from the Bay Area than anywhere else in the country, according to Redfin data. People moving from the Bay Area to Sacramento isn’t a new phenomenon, but COVID-19 sped up a process that experts say was inevitable, and it could have long-lasting effects on the state.

    https://www.msn.com/en-us/money/realestate/there-s-so-much-migration-from-the-bay-area-to-sacramento-it-s-creating-a-megaregion/ar-AA1eAhq1?ocid=hpmsn&cvid=e78628f34cff44a7ac2ddb799435727e&ei=10

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