Commentary: The Post J Debate

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

Davis, CA – For much of the last nearly 25 years, the debate in Davis has waged over housing versus no housing.  The conversation over housing has been met with fierce opposition to almost any housing project that we have seen—the majority of which have been voted down if they are a Measure J vote.

But the majority of citizens seem to recognize that we need additional housing, that housing is a growing problem, and that the impact of the housing crisis is going to trickle down to our quality of life and our schools.

Backing that up, the state is increasingly breathing down our necks with larger and larger requirements for housing and willingness to use their muscle to attempt to compel local communities to comply with state law.

Quietly emerging is a new debate in this community—what should that housing look like.  And unlike previous debates it’s not a red herring where the perfect or at least unobtainable is posited as a means to block additional housing—this is a legitimate debate over what that housing should look like.

It turns out that not everyone who supports additional housing has the same vision for what that will look like—and guess what—that’s okay.  In fact, it’s healthy.

Take Judy Ennis’ comments on Sunday at the DCAN event.  She is correct to argue that addressing housing and addressing the climate are not two features in conflict.  In fact, one of the biggest factors in climate change is the amount of GHG released in commutes because we have failed to address housing near jobs.

Ennis is among those, however, who believe that reliance on single-family housing contributes to our climate problem.

The majority of housing currently in Davis, she argued, is single-family homes.

“What we have up here at the top is a breakdown of what the housing stock looks like in Davis today. Right now we’re a majority single family homes, 56%, mostly built up in 1980, i.e. potentially not very climate resilient,” she said.

She said, “We know that single family homes have a larger impact in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. We know that that kind of design has a greater climate impact.”

What we don’t have she continued, is what is known as the “missing middle housing.”

She said, “That’s for families starting out. That’s for seniors that want to downsize. That’s for young couples, that’s for groups of people who don’t have children (and) want to live together. That’s for a wide variety of housing options that are accessible, inclusive, and affordable, often by design. And sometimes they’re affordable in terms of ‘big a’ affordability.”

She added, “We need to transition to a city in which single family homes are a minority of our housing supply, and more sustainable housing forms are the majority.”

Tim Keller is another one arguing this point, that we need more dense housing and to move away from single-family homes.

As he pointed out, “We don’t get there by building more single family housing developments.”

I don’t completely agree with Ennis or Keller—but again, that’s okay.  In fact, I would argue it’s healthy.

I probably take more of a middle ground here.  I agree we need more housing for middle income people—the type of people who have children and will help to reduce declining enrollment in our schools.

We certainly need more housing for low-income families in our community.

I also agree there is a connection between the housing crisis and climate change and it has to do with VMT, and the fact that people cannot afford to live near their jobs and not enough live near reliable transit.

But I also believe that we don’t have enough market rate single-family homes in this community.  There is a demand for them.  And so if we only build one type of housing—dense housing—we are going to push people who are in the market for single-family homes to places like Woodland, where they can get larger homes for the same price as smaller more dense homes in Davis.  And then they are having to drive into town to work at UCD or wherever they are working.

The second problem is that it has to be profitable for a private developer to come in and build housing.  You can build very dense housing in places like San Francisco because not only do you not have any other choice, but the cost per unit of even those dense homes is such that they can turn a profit.

But the market realities in Davis are different.

Take Village Farms, which is likely to be the first test for some of these debates.  Right now, critics are arguing that 63 percent of the homes are expensive, market rate single-family homes.  That’s one way to look at it.  Another way to look at it is that 37 percent are middle- and low-income housing.  Fifteen percent for low and very low and another 22 percent for middle income.

Can we do better?  I don’t know.  I’m certainly in favor of finding out.  One reason why I support modifications to Measure J would be to incentivize proposals with higher percentages of low-and middle-income housing.

Right now we are asking developers to spend huge amounts of money to go through the Measure J gauntlet with no assurance of success.  But we can trade predictability and certainty of success and probably reduce the risks for the developer.

At the end of the day, the best way to reduce the cost of housing is to increase the housing supply.  Moreover, what we are doing isn’t working.  We are not getting nearly enough housing in the current process.

What that housing looks like, I look forward to a robust debate.  That’s a discussion I want to have.

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. Tim Keller

    I would agree that we could use more housing across the board, and I think that single family homes have a place in that mix.   I dont think we disagree there.   The real question is: What do we build NOW.

    My position is that we will actually free up a considerable number of single family units BY producing more missing-middle alternatives:

    -Students currently living in groups in single family homes take up a considerable amount of our existing home supply.
    -We also have a large population of empty nesters to retirees who no longer need a 4 bedroom house with a yard who would like to down-size.
    – Hell, even people like me would take a “nice” condo in downtown or in the peripheral corridor neighborhood over some local retail over my current home rental with a yard we don’t need yet are forced to maintain.

    ( In most european cities, people aspire to have a nice / big apartment of condo downtown close to everything… not a McMansion on the outskirts….  THAT particular cultural norm is a holdover from the racist “white flight” of the segregation era that led us to this failed suburban blueprint in the first place.  )

    My position is that we should be focusing on building what we LACK.   One point that is missing from the points made above is that if davis really is only 53% single family housing in terms of units, it is easily 80% single family in terms of land area…  just look at the sea of light yellow in our zoning map.

    That said, in my land use calculations to see how much housing we can fit inside the urban limit line, I still have 30% single family housing by land area.  So Im not taking an absolutist approach here.

    The science is clear:  If we are building with climate in mind, the single family home has to be our lowest priority.  It can still be ON the priority map overall, but it has to be at the lowest tier.

    1. Matt Williams

      My position is that we should be focusing on building what we LACK.


      That is my position as well.  In the ownership market segment we need $500,000 units.  Those are truly affordable.

      Unfortunately, the rental market segment has a built-in structural impediment that makes it impossible to accomplish affordability in that segment.  The reason is simple … UCD students who have no financial restrictions because they are spending their parents’ dollars will always be able to outbid non-students for the rentals.  That means too many dollars are chasing the available supply, which is the textbook definition of price inflation.  If UCD took care of its own housing demand, that hyper inflation factor would be removed from the equation.

      1. Richard McCann

        I don’t think that statement is true. Look at how many students are double bunked in those houses, and how many are food insecure. That points to income and cost constrained students who are not able to bid up rental prices. UCD already houses a higher percentage of its students than almost any other major university, by a wide margin. Those communities are not experiencing extraordinary rental bidding.

        It’s commuters to Sac and elsewhere who can buy houses at inflated prices and outbid more local employees, including those at UCD. Those housing prices then wash into the residential rental market. A landlord has a choice to rent or sell.


        1. Tim Keller

          well… to be sure there are multiple economic levels of students…. we have all seen the international students who drive Maserati’s and other sports cars…   Just. because they are students, doesn’t mean they are poor… 🙂


        2. Matt Williams

          Richard said … “Look at how many students are double bunked in those houses, and how many are food insecure.”

          Okay Richard, I’ll bite … what is the (approximate) number of UCD students who are double bunked in rental houses in the City.  Feel free to include the students who are double bunked in apartments.

          The heterogeneous nature of human societies tells us that virtually all societies/communities have a continuum of residents that range from extreme wealth to extreme poverty, and that continuum is unbroken from one end to the other.

          The fact that there are a meaningful number of income and cost constrained students does not in any way make incorrect the assertion that non-students are regularly being outbid/outcompeted by students for rentals in Davis.  Further, since student renters are very frequently aggregated into roommate/suitemate groups, they have more available time to wait in a rental availability queue groups than non-students typically do.  Those non-student potential renters typically only have two adults (husband/wife mother/father) who can wait in a queue … and typically one or both of those non-students have a job that they have to go to, making waiting hours in a queue impossible.

          1. David Greenwald

            I think you are missing the biggest factor Matt and it’s not wealth of the parents, but the fact that students can rent by the bed and the room whereas a family is going to have to rent an entire unit.

  2. Matt Williams

    But the majority of citizens seem to recognize that we need additional housing, that housing is a growing problem, and that the impact of the housing crisis is going to trickle down to our quality of life and our schools.


    David, that is your personal opinion, but you do not have any statistically valid evidence that 35,000 people in Davis hold that to be true.

    Further, you conflate “housing affordability” with “additional housing”. I believe that a survey that included all 70,000 of the residents of Davis would find that a substantial portion of those 70,000 want housing to become more affordable AND want no additional housing added to Davis … and holding that opinion would be for them all about quality of life.

    You have evolved over time into an  “additional housing zealot” effectively the mirror image of Ron Oertel on the “no housing” side of the spectrum.

    1. David Greenwald

      “David, that is your personal opinion, but you do not have any statistically valid evidence that 35,000 people in Davis hold that to be true.”

      Only if you don’t believe that populations can be accurately sampled by polls and surveys.

        1. Matt Williams

          Tim, the Elements were not ranked in the LWV poll.  Each Element was voted on independently of all the others.  If there was any ranking it was of each respective Element “against” itself.  So 685 of the responses said the Housing Element had a score of 4.  In total in the survey there were 5,710 scores of 4 given by the respondents.  The 685 was less than 12% of that total.

  3. Matt Williams

    To the best of my knowledge there hasn’t been a statistically meaningful poll or survey that has asked “Do you want additional housing in Davis?”

    As I said, you are translating “housing affordability” into “additional housing”. They are separate and different.

    1. Walter Shwe

      As I said, you are translating “housing affordability” into “additional housing”. They are separate and different.

      Supply and demand says they are one and the same unless you want to enact housing price controls.

      1. Matt Williams

        Walter, let’s look at the Supply and Demand statistics for Davis.  According to the City of Davis website “There are 11,925 family households and 12,948 non-family households probably due to the large student population that resides in the city.”  Those numbers are from the 2010 Census, so they are a bit dated, but they are in the ballpark.

        Numerous times over the past decade the “unmet demand” (sometimes referred to as “pent up demand”) for housing in Davis has been reported as being between 10,000 and 13,000 units/households.  That describes a market that is not in equilibrium.  The laws of supply and demand that you anecdotally cite apply to markets that are in equilibrium. Because Davis is so massively out of equilibrium, if 1,000 new units/households are added to the supply, all that does is reduce the unmet demand statistic to between 9,000 and 12,000.  That still is massively out of equilibrium, and the added supply has no effect on the market prices.

      1. Matt Williams

        Richard, that is an impressive array of links, but I’m pretty sure that none of those studies address the kind of unmet (pent up) demand numbers that I described for Walter in my comment above.

    2. David Greenwald

      First of all I don’t agree that they are separate and different. I would argue affordability is a proxy for more housing.

      But second, several of the surveys, including the recent LWV survey specifically found that vast majority prioritized additional housing. There are several internal polls that show about the same thing going back as far as 2018.

      1. Matt Williams

        David, you clearly do not understand what was studied in the LWV poll, and you may not have actually read the report.

        The LWV poll asked a very simple straightforward question about each of 12 Elements of a General Plan.  The poll response for each Element was on a scale of 1 to 4 with 4 being the most important response and 1 being the least important response.  Further, a “Very Important” score of 4 gave absolutely no indication why the Element was important.  If Walter and Eileen an you and I were among the 930 survey participants, I’m almost 100% sure that we all gave the Housing Element a 4.  Very different reasons for that score of 4, but a 4 in each case nonetheless.

        Perhaps you should look before you leap.

  4. David Thompson

    I thank David for his constant pursuit of the topic of housing and affordable housing It is a great service to our community.

    However, I do worry that only a small portion of our community are participating in this dialogue so it is hard to generate solutions which have ample backing to change the direction. Perhaps DCAN can build that coalition of alternatives. For change to occur change agents must step forward.

    I feel some actions and goals are in motion to achieve communal unity as it relates to affordability and climate change so that newer developments should;

    look at who we want to be our neighbors by our choice of projects
    look at how our projects can be less car-centric
    have a smaller % of single family homes
    have a larger % of market rate apartments
    place all multi-family apartments directly on the Unitrans routes
    Incorporate missing middle densities
    incorporate more models of limited equity cooperatives & cohousing,
    set aside more land for low and very low income housing
    pursue what we really need rather than fiddle with what others present to us
    Support permanently affordable middle income SF ownership models
    Get rid of one off lottery bonanzas where the home goes quickly to market price
    The last bonanza gave 52 lucky home owners over $10 million in unearned gain

    My two cents.

    David J Thompson

    Not representative of either Neighborhood Partners, LLC or the Twin Pines Cooperative Foundation



    1. Tim Keller

      David, the topic of Co-Op housing came up at the DCAN event.  I thought of you and the story you told me of Vienna.

      I have heard from one developer that I talked to that condos have a tendency to draw lawsuits from residents, and so some developers avoid building condos for that reason.

      The idea that was raised at DCAN was for the city to get involved as a back-stop financier for cooperative housing…. Im wondering if that model might help A) get more housing of that type built and B) help push down the entry point for ownership types that allow people to have equity participation in their housing.

      Worth pursuing?

  5. Walter Shwe

    The heat continues for cities that fail to comply with state housing laws. NIMBYs lose again.

    Federal judge tosses Huntington Beach’s attempt to exempt itself from state housing laws

    The state has won the latest round in its legal battle to increase housing construction in the Orange County coastal community of Huntington Beach.
    Attorney General Rob Bonta sued Huntington Beach in March after the City Council voted to stop processing applications from homeowners who want to build additional housing units on their property. He said the construction is allowed by state law and can’t be forbidden by local governments.

  6. David Thompson

    Dear Tim, I was dissapointed that I was not informed of the DCAN meeting although I am on the list. Would have loved to contribute.

    Yes Condos have their  construction defect lawsuits up to the first 15 years so are a deterrent to building them. If they could be built they would  fill a very vacant gap in moderate prices ownership.

    The best existing way to do LEHC Co-op housing would be to allow the developers to swap co-op housing for the SF affordables. I think it would be lower cost for the developer. Then we’d get a lower price point per unit for entry level housing and more affordable units per acre.

    Dos Pinos was built by the developer and continues 30 years later to be the lowest cost entry and most affordable ownership housing in Davis. A hundred SF homes were one time only affordable made millions of dollars for the lottery winners or friends of developers and are now all at market.

    Those hundred homes could have been otherwise 10 acres of land hosting 300 units of co-op housing. Now we’re talking permanently affordable!

    David J Thompson, my own opinions and not representative of Neighborhood Partners, LLC or Twin Pines Cooperative Foundation.



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