Sunday Commentary: Davis Can’t Build Up or Out, That’s Why We Are Where We Are

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

Davis, CA – Glancing at the headline, Davis Enterprise Columnist Bob Dunning’s piece from last week caught my attention, “Build up, not out.”

The problem in Davis is it’s just hard to build.

I get it—a lot of people just don’t like change.  But change is inevitable.

Personally I would change the slogan to: build up or build out or Carmelize without the sea.

The reality that we have seen is that people don’t want to build out onto the periphery.  They don’t want to build up either.  And so now we have constrained much of our housing for the past two decades plus, we have built only 700 single-family homes over that time, and now we face the prospect of a housing crisis, rising housing costs, pricing the middle class and families out of Davis, and straining our schools.

In short, this community is changing BECAUSE we didn’t want it to change.

Add to that, now the state is going to force the city’s hand to some extent.  They have required that the city add not only 2100 total units, but 900 of those as affordable.  If you do the math, you quickly realize that the city is likely going to have to go well above 2100 units to accommodate the affordable requirement.

They have put the city into the builder’s remedy status—meaning that a project that qualifies cannot be denied.  That will have limited impact on Davis.

And we have seen elsewhere that the state has filed various lawsuits to compel compliance with state housing laws.

Of course, none of this is discussed in the Dunning column.  It’s too high, it’s too dense, there’s too much affordable housing…

“In addition to a half-dozen proposals from developers who want to build substantial housing projects on the edges of town, several proposals have emerged recently for high-rise apartments in Downtown Davis.  And I do mean high-rise.”

“Being squeezed into tight spaces might be fine for sardines, but it’s not always best for human beings, even if they are ‘close to the Farmers Market.’”

“The ‘Lumberyard’ proposal for a five-story project where Hibbert used to sell wood and wisdom is at 500 G Street, with a seven-story project proposed for the former Regal Cinemas complex at 400 G Street…  The Lumberyard will have a whopping 224 units…”

“Some will be so-called ‘affordable’ apartments, which is pretty much standard procedure if you expect the City Council to even look at your project.”

Unfortunately not much context for the casual reader.  Why are we having to “build up” and build so densely?  Nor is there any hint that even with all of this, we have to build substantial amounts of housing on the periphery in the next few cycles.

This is part of the cost we are going to pay for the way we have done business this century.

A friend of mine often references what they call the Davis bubble.

The bubble is about to blow up.

I’ve been watching the situation around the state for years now, just waiting.  I’m especially interested to see what happens with Elk Grove.  I caught a clip a week or two ago on the TV of the Elk Grove city council meeting and the disgusting display of NIMBYism that unfortunately doesn’t put ours to the kind of shame I would prefer.

Good column in the Bee last week —“Elk Grove is in the crosshairs of California AG Rob Bonta.”

He called on elected leaders “to finally get serious about approving desperately needed affordable housing in the heart of the city.”

He writes, “They’ve already been sued by California Attorney General, Rob Bonta, for violating Senate Bill 35, which streamlines the construction of affordable housing in cities and counties that don’t build enough of it.”

He then calls out Elk Grove.

He writes: “California is in an affordable housing crisis which is a major factor in a homelessness crisis. We are here because cities like Elk Grove spend their time caving to NIMBYs and using their talent and resources to slow-walk affordable housing projects or to kill them. That’s why SB. 35 was passed in the first place, why Bonta sued Elk Grove, and why the governor targeted them.”

And that’s why Governor Newsom this week signed SB 423 into law which makes SB 35 permanent.

That means the builder’s remedy is here to stay.  And soon it will be Davis, not just Elk Grove, in the AG’s crosshairs.

Why?  Because we fight every housing project whether it goes up or out.  We’ve preserved this town as a place that a lot of people can’t afford to live in.  And that’s going to have consequences.

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. Walter Shwe

    California’s widening housing gap defies state efforts to jump-start construction
    “Decades of housing underproduction have contributed to a supply and demand imbalance, resulting in limited housing options available for renters and homeowners, and contributing to millions of households paying a disproportionate share of their income toward housing,” the state budget declares. “These issues contribute to growing numbers of people who are either experiencing or are at risk of homelessness.”

    NIMBYs are unquestionably one of the leading causes of homelessness in California.

  2. wesleysagewalker

    “Being squeezed into tight spaces might be fine for sardines, but it’s not always best for human beings, even if they are ‘close to the Farmers Market.’”


    I don’t understand this line of reasoning. The majority of the world’s population lives in urban areas with much greater density than Davis. Ten million people get along just fine “squeezed into tight spaces” in NYC. Thirteen million in Moscow. This smacks of paternalism and an inability to consider that people may have different preferences.

    Give people choice. If “being squeezed” is so bad, people won’t do it. Why insist on dictating on how others should live their lives? If the author and others prefer more space let them try to acquire it. If others would make different trade offs, let them.

    I believe this reasoning stems from many people’s inability to understand the universal presence of tradeoffs. There are no solutions, only tradeoffs. Preferences are not homogenous. There is no planner or central organizer to impose efficient restrictions on choice.

    Let freedom reign and choice prevail. People need to find real problems to concern themselves with. Apartments are an important part of the housing stock and vertical construction is part of a vibrant society.

    1. David Greenwald

      “The majority of the world’s population lives in urban areas with much greater density than Davis. ”

      This is a critical point that I keep coming back to in these discussions. We act like we are somehow an island unto ourselves. And then we don’t consider the implications long term or even short term for our policies.

      1. Tim Keller

        I have seen this same attitude from others, including developers and citizens who post here… THEY live in single family homes, and seem to like it, or at least they have never lived in anything else and cant imagine living in a more dense form-factor…

        … and so they map that preference onto EVERYONE ELSE, and assume that others must certainly have the same preferences.

        This has to be some kind of mental bias that psychologists have a name for because I have seen it in many places.

        If people like their single family homes they live in right now, then FINE.  Stay there.  Nobody is taking that kind of house from you.  Suburban sprawl is effectively permanent.  Congratulations, you made it in under the wire..

        But there are LOTS of people who dont have those preferences, and we need to provide choice in housing types.

        And guess what… since Davis right now is almost entirely either single family homes or student housing complexes, we have a LOT of catch up to do in the missing-middle catagory:  townhomes and condos, in fact if it pencils out, we should be thinking hard about ONLY allowing those denser forms of housing to be built.

        We have a lot of people in this town I think who would move OUT of single family homes and into these more cost-efficient missing middle properties if given a chance, including empty nesters, and the current occupants of “single-family-dorms”.    In that sense, building missing middle will effectivley ALSO free up some single family housing by providing alternatives to people (like me) who would LOVE to live in the kind of place that Bob Dunning apparently disparages.

        I agree with Wesley:  Let choice prevail.

  3. Walter Shwe

    Despite what some Davis NIMBYs claim, Elk Grove is a nice place to live for many. It has a vibrant local economy and tax base unlike the City of Davis. NIMBYs must shoulder the primary blame for our poor local economy and tax base and our City’s resulting large budget deficit.

  4. Ron Glick

    Davis has been going up along Fifth St and Russell Blvd. Projects along G Street are proceeding apace so I don’t really get the premise of your article. The fact of the matter is that Davis, a city with a growing university on its border, is so far behind in housing construction that going up isn’t going to get this community out of its housing squeeze. What is true is that Davis has so constrained its options for peripheral development with Measure J that we are going to lose local control because Davis can’t meet its growth obligations dictated by the state.

    The saddest part, aside from all the great people who left, is that Davis dithered while the low interest rate window was wide open for the last 15 years and that current rates negatively impact affordability.

    1. David Greenwald

      That’s not really the point. Two housing projects have not gone due to opposition to height. And we have people complaining about the heights in the downtown proposals, but there is not much they can do about it.

      1. Tim Keller

        Reminds me of the DiSC debate… people complained about the location of the project, saying that we should do it “via infill instead” ignoring the fact that infill projects get the same amount of pushback…

        (…and now some of the people who advocated for economic development infill are talking about those same infill sites as potential housing infill sites.)

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