Monday Morning Thoughts: City’s Housing Position Remains Precarious at Best

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

Davis, CA – The city last week gave us an indication of where they are going in order to meet state housing requirements.  They are converting commercially zoned properties into either residential or mixed use in order to meet the immediate needs required by the state.

My column on Sunday called that strategy into question—while at the same time acknowledging that the city really had little choice due to the fact that in order to develop on the periphery, they would have to pass projects with a Measure J.

So instead, the city is effectively robbing Peter to pay Paul.

One problem of course is that the city back in 2019, when an inventory was conducted, only had 124.5 acres of commercially zoned property—and that was not a real number of what’s available.  The good news is that the city has managed to get some good infill commercial projects, but that number has declined and voters have since voted down DISC twice, preventing further expansion of the city’s commercial base.

That’s a problem that has been ongoing for some time and those who argue that the city at this point doesn’t have an economic development plan, have a valid point.

Worse yet, they don’t have a housing plan either, which is why they are ad libbing to get dots on the map in order to get in compliance with the state.

Some have suggested that the city doesn’t need to be looking outside of the borders of Davis to fulfill its housing allotment.  Clearly from a legal standpoint they don’—at least with this RHNA cycle.  I kind of question where they can really get over 500 units of low- and very low-income housing on the land that they are rezoning—but that’s a question and a problem for another day.

In the longer term, their end game strategy on this RHNA cycle clearly points to housing on the periphery.

Some want to argue, well certain coastal cities are not expanding their borders.  But it’s not clear of what relevance that point has for our current position.  San Francisco, for instance, is required to build about 82,000 units over the next eight years, and, while it will have to rezone entire neighborhoods to accommodate 36,000 units, it is also relying to a great degree on things like Angel Island and the huge Shipyard property.

If Davis were to take that approach and do what the cities along the coast are doing, we would be looking at densifying whole neighborhoods for redevelopment.  That’s an expensive process that will produce results not conducive to the current community values.

Why would we take that approach when there are better approaches?

The state has already come in to challenge local communities—not just Huntington Beach and Coronado, but also Elk Grove and San Bernardino.  There are also lawsuits filed by private entities like California YIMBY.

The council to a person over the last year has acknowledged that Davis’ only realistic option is going to be to pursue peripheral development.

Councilmember Bapu Vaitla has taken the approach that the “peripheral parcels … will inevitably be developed.”

He continued, “The parcels that are in question right now, I think it’s magical thinking to think that they won’t be, they will be.”

But he believes that the value of the parcels should be “maximized.”

He argued, “I believe in a growth boundary for Davis.  We’re surrounded by some unique and valuable soils in open space, and I want to preserve that.”

Nevertheless, he and the other councilmembers acknowledge that they will need to go peripheral to meet the state needs.  Vaitla continued last month to push for that housing at the very least to be as dense as possible.

That’s really where the housing debate in Davis should be going—it should no longer be whether we need to grow.  It is now, where and what that housing looks like.  I think that’s a much healthier debate.

However, that direction is not inevitable.  There are those who have vowed to fight all peripheral projects and those who have vowed to fight some peripheral projects.

That’s playing in high tension wires.  Davis voters will vote down the next housing project at their own peril.

The state can and will come in to take out Measure J if it continues to be a barrier to the city meeting its housing obligations.  They have already shown their willingness to challenge local communities which are obstructing housing production.  They have already put the city on notice.

The city has attempted to argue that Measure J is not a barrier to housing.

In a letter to the city, HCD notes, “As recognized in the housing element, Measure J poses a constraint to the development of housing by requiring voter approval of any land use designation change from agricultural, open space, or urban reserve land use to an urban use designation. Since the ordinance was enacted in March of 2000, four of the six proposed rezones have failed.”

The city responded, “While Measure J adds costs, extends processing times, and has been used to halt development projects that would convert agricultural land to urban development, it is only a constraint to meeting housing needs if the city lacks sufficient infill housing sites.”

The city has maintained that it has sufficient infill housing sites—but the state rejected that view twice and now the city is largely tapping out its ability to meet housing needs through infill.

Moreover, as Legal Services pointed out in their letter, “Housing Element Version 2 continues to conclude that Measure J is only a constraint if the City lacks sufficient infill sites. However, a constraint to housing development exists even when the City may be able to demonstrate sufficient sites to address the RHNA.”

They argue that “the City continues to have a duty to remove or further mitigate the impacts of this identified constraint.”

Measure J may yet survive, but it probably won’t if the next project loses a Measure J vote.  Ironically then, those who vow to fight any effort to expand the city outward might actually undercut their best tool for doing so in the future.

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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  1. Todd Edelman

    I’m not clear how current community values are codified in the City’s non-existant general plan update. I’m not clear how it is that nearly all these sites – nearly all birdsong-deficient* due to extreme proximity to I-80 and/or with poor cycling and/or walking connectivity – fulfill or #respect current community values.

    * I just made up this term: Essentialy it means that the closest highway, road etc is louder than the sounds birds make. YES, big cities have this problem too, but there’s value in the tradeoff in a dense city with stuff you want or need to go within walking distance… including large parks with birds. 

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