By David M. Greenwald
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.