Commentary: Davis Isn’t the Only Place with a Housing Mess, But Emulating Others Doesn’t Seem Viable

Photo by Liz Sanchez-Vegas on Unsplash

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

I keep asking the same question – how is Davis expected to meet state requirements for housing given current barriers to housing?

I ask that because what we have done for the last 25 years has effectively prevented the city from adding housing.  The only significant housing project approved and built since 2000 was Cannery.  The city has added just 700 total units of single family housing over that time.

In early November, the city of Davis looked at ways to prioritize infill.  But even doing so, the city will have to find ways to get peripheral housing built.

The subcommittee tasked with infill—Bapu Vaitla and Vice Mayor Josh Chapman, writes, “To accomplish this estimated number of units (4000 in the next RHNA cycle), the City will require a combination of maximizing infill opportunities, plus looking to peripheral sites.”

A few months ago I asked one of the chief opponents of housing how the city can expect to meet state requirements.  The simple answer they gave was do what the large coastal cities do.

Be careful what you ask for.

For example, San Francisco finds itself in a hot mess this week.  The state has given them until the end of this month to figure out how to comply with state regulations or face set consequences.

A last minute warning from the state on Tuesday, prompted their Board of Supervisors to delay streamlining the city’s process for housing proposals.

The warning was that certain amendments to the legislation – such as one to protect historical buildings, would “impact of the ordinance and undermine the City’s ability to implement (required actions),” a letter from HCD warned the city and county.

Among the goals of the legislation would be reducing hurdles that would save between three and nine months in the process for project approval.

Some of the rules eliminated would be a requirement for approval by the Planning Commission and obligation to notify neighbors and giving them a chance to weigh in.

Last month, HCD issued a long awaited review of San Francisco’s housing policies, blamed the city for its lack of progress, and set deadlines for meeting policy goals, warning the city that it risked decertification of its Housing Element if it did not meet them.

The delay in the vote on Tuesday, prompted Senator Scott Wiener, one of the state’s foremost advocates for housing, to push back against the board of Supervisors.

He noted, “The Board of Supervisors has already missed the deadline set by state housing authorities to come into compliance, and yesterday’s action pushes San Francisco even further past the deadline. The Board committed to taking these actions when it adopted the City’s housing element in January.”

He noted, “If the legislation is not passed by the end of the month, San Francisco risks the loss of significant housing and infrastructure funding and loss of control over local land use.”

Senator Wiener warned, “The Board of Supervisors is playing with fire by continuing to delay compliance with state housing laws — laws designed to end our debilitating housing shortage and all the societal harms that shortage is causing. None of us want San Francisco to suffer the consequences of failure to meet this deadline: Loss of funding and the chaotic builder’s remedy. I urge the Board to quickly pass a compliant reform package without the historic preservation amendment introduced on Monday.”

The situation that the city of Davis faces is complex as well.  The city is attempting to get its Housing Element approved by the state without having to go peripheral – in part because going peripheral requires approval by the voters.

The result is the city is looking at 16 sites that it could potentially rezone to high density or mixed use, with a required 20 units per acre in order to meet density requirements.

At a November 8 Planning Commission meeting, the commission recommended that the City Council approve the elimination of sites 3 and 4 from the list and that the designation for site 16 be Medium High Density Residential.

The City proposes to “revise its site inventory to identify additional sites to accommodate the (revised) shortfall of 496 lower income housing units, as discussed in the Housing Element.”

The City also proposes to “rezone 16 sites and has identified a 753-unit capacity that exceeds the 496 dwelling unit shortfall requirement.”

Looking at what coastal cities are doing seems like a strange approach.  In addition to San Francisco, there is also Berkeley.

In Berkeley, a report from CoStar News, reported, “The neighborhood surrounding the University of California, Berkeley, campus could face significant changes as officials in the East Bay city seek to address a worsening housing shortage by tweaking the local zoning code to allow for taller buildings.”

Their council approved planning code changes that will allow for developments as high as 12 stories.

That would clear the way for upward of 2650 units to be constructed near the university.

In Davis, a proposal for seven stories at the University Commons proved too controversial.

Berkeley was looking at this legislation to address “Berkeley’s housing crunch that officials say is caused by too little supply and increasing affordability challenges for the past several decades.”

Berkeley finds itself in a crunch because, over the last five years, only 1300 units have been completed despite being “one of the more active periods in Berkeley’s development history.”

CoStar reports, “Fewer than 725 units are now moving through various stages of the city’s development pipeline, far below the amount needed to keep up with the more than 10% population gain the city reported in the years since 2010.”

They add, “The city’s dire housing shortage has fueled pricing hikes, and with the university providing housing for less than 25% of its student population, demand for alternatives in the area has added even more pressure to an area already commanding some of the highest rents in the nation.”

CoStar further notes, “A typical apartment in Berkeley commands an average of about $2,700 per month, according to CoStar data. However, properties near the university campus can go for as much as 50% more than those near the city’s borders.”

There is certainly more than one way to crack this nut.  The city of Davis is looking at a combination of infill and peripheral in order to do so.

In addition, the city in January will (finally) begin its awaited process for revising its general plan.

That process is expected to take between 12 and 15 months for visioning and policy development, then another nine to 12 months for an EIR.

That would be best case scenario, with a more realistic timeline of three years from start to finish.

Some folks have suggested waiting to do the Measure J projects until after that process is complete, but that wouldn’t leave much margin for error and frankly, we need the housing like yesterday.

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. David Thompson


    Your quote from the city does not make sense to me but like others the housing numbers get confusing so here is what the city said,
    The City proposes to “revise its site inventory to identify additional sites to accommodate the (revised) shortfall of 496 lower income housing units, as discussed in the Housing Element.”
    The City also proposes to “rezone 16 sites and has identified a 753-unit capacity that exceeds the 496 dwelling unit shortfall requirement.”
    Some clarity is needed.

    Most of the 16 sites identified are available at market price which makes building housing for the very low income households impossible. We have a shortage of 580 VLI units which will only occur on sites of at least two acres cost free. Few of the sites are.




    VL +

    % of














    And if those sites are in the downtown they are not required to do VLI units and only 10% of the units are for only low income.

    We may identify sites where very low income units can be built but they are not sites where very low income units will be built.

    That gap with reality is frightening.

    The truth is that Davis might technically meet the state requirements but we will actually build only a small % of the above goals. The very low income units are where we bring lower income workers and people of color into Davis.

    Redlining was one way of keeping people of color out of our cities. Not actually building VLI units is another later version.
    David J Thompson, my own opinions and not representative of Neighborhood Partners, LLC or Twin Pines Cooperative Foundation.

    1. Richard McCann

      David T’s comment highlights what we really need to acknowledge–it will take many, many more new housing units to finance the VLI/LI units in the RHNA. No sufficiently large development will be 45% low income–that’s just not financially feasible. And the City doesn’t have the money to subsidize this construction.

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