Sunday Commentary: Davis Has a Housing Problem – And It’s Not Just Spelled with a ‘J’

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

Davis, CA – I’m tired of people saying things like Davis has plenty of single-family homes.  No, we don’t.

Look, I don’t dispute the facts here, Judy Ennis last week was right when she said, “Right now we’re a majority single family homes, 56%, mostly built up in 1980, i.e. potentially not very climate resilient.”

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 (who) want to live together.”

She’s not wrong on this point and we do need more missing middle housing and more affordable housing.  But, at the same time, we just need more housing.

Earlier this year, the city released the data that showed that the city has only built 700 units of single-family housing since 2008.  Worse yet, in a typical month only about 30 to 55 housing units (much of NOT single-family housing) go on the market and they only last about a week on the market.

We don’t have enough housing.

The finger immediately gets pointed toward Measure J.  I agree with that finger.  The data is indisputable.  Early this year, we noted a report from 1990 that showed that Davis would “stop” growing after 2010.

But in fact, because Measure J blocked additional housing, Davis essentially stopped in 2000 rather than 2010 and instead of going from 61,000 in 1997 to 75,000 by 2010, a 23 percent change, we have grown only to just under 67,000, 9000 or 13 percent less than the original projections.

That is substantial.  And it cannot be ignored.  And the fact that the city is looking at putting a potential ballot measure to at least loosen Measure J’s hold on housing is essential and important.

But there is another story to be told.  And we can tell it in three projects.  But it’s hard to build housing in Davis—even with projects that are not Measure J projects.

None of these are what we might call “game changers.”  By that I mean, none of them are going to actually solve the city’s housing crisis.  None of them are going to help the city get its RHNA certified this cycle or next cycle.

But I think we would be remiss to ignore this problem.  Because it points to a larger problem—even if we were to get rid of Measure J tomorrow, could we get enough housing?

The largest housing project of single-family homes approved since 2000 was Cannery.  It’s mostly built out—at least its housing is.  But it took a 3-2 vote and the insistence on two crossings which quite nearly killed the project.

You want to argue that it’s not a great project—I agree.  I was opposed to it at the time.  But that’s how thin the margin is to get housing approved even without a Measure J vote.

Then there’s Chiles Ranch.  It was approved back in 2009 on 3-2 vote over the vehement objections of the neighbors. It has come back so many times.

At some point, the city and the council have to ask why that’s the case.  We need housing.  Why can’t you build it?

The developer offered a number of excuses and reasons back in 2022, but at the end of the day, we have to get housing in Davis, and this is an entitled project that requires no action by the council or the voters.

The good news is that this project is entitled for housing and could at least conceivably proceed.

That’s better than the other two projects…

Second, we have the University Commons.  Most of the regular readers by now are familiar with this one.

Rather than rehash most of the story, here’s what hurts about this: it’s across the street from the university and it is on a block full of student housing.

And then there is this factor: as the city looks for opportunities for infill, one of the top efforts will be looking at and incorporating mixed use.

The subcommittee a few weeks ago noted, “The City has several neighborhood shopping centers that provide prime opportunities for incorporation of mixed use, especially for residential development above retail.”

At the same time, the experience of University Commons serves as a cautionary tale.

Nevertheless, the council could “prioritize development and incorporation of a zoning overlay onto neighborhood shopping centers to allow mixed use by right, but would require mixed use (integration of some minimum amount of residential) when a major renovation is done.”

See what the city is potentially doing there?  The city had no leverage on University Commons because the project was zoned for commercial and they were under no obligation to change that.  This would require shopping centers—which are increasingly underutilized—to build housing.  That would give the council much more in the way of a stick.

But University Commons, given its size and proximity to the university, still stings.

Finally, the most recent failure has been Trackside.  As we reported yesterday, the site that was the source of neighborhood angst and lawsuits has finally sold but now it won’t be housing.

I wasn’t a big fan of the luxury rental housing concept, but there was a possibility that the project might convert to affordable housing—that would be helpful.

As a retail spot, it’s another lost opportunity.

Again, the size of Trackside mitigates the actual losses here.

BUT, once again, we are left with a process that simply doesn’t work.  We can point our fingers in a lot of different directions in all three of these—neighborhood opposition, also the city and city council, not to mention the applicants themselves share some blame here.

The bottom line, however, is that the city’s margin for error is razor thin and it appears if there are any problems, housing just can’t happen—even when we desperately need it.

This bears a lot of scrutiny moving forward because it suggests, even absent Measure J, housing is not easy to build in Davis.

I think a lot of people believe that if we just get rid of Measure J, we solve our housing problem. This analysis suggests potentially otherwise.

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. Don Shor

    The subcommittee a few weeks ago noted, “The City has several neighborhood shopping centers that provide prime opportunities for incorporation of mixed use, especially for residential development above retail.”

    Historically the owners of these small and often moribund shopping centers have been extremely risk averse. Plenty of good examples here in Davis and Woodland.

    Even when their retail sites are apparently failing, they don’t seem to be willing to invest in improvements. In some cases the owners can be very hard to reach. These properties are often part of a larger portfolio and they can often use the losses for accounting purposes.

    Reciprocal easement agreements with their larger retail tenants may preclude any competition or even loss of parking.

    A big factor in likelihood of investment interest is the perception of how easy a community will be to work with.

    “For its plan to build apartments at Westlake, Kimco had to receive approval from the Daly City Council, which it did twice. …

    PREIT, a real estate investment trust that owns 18 malls, formed a team that included a planner and traffic engineer to help with its approval process. In Moorestown, it moved forward with the process because it saw a “fairly progressive political environment,” said Joseph F. Coradino, the trust’s chief executive. In August 2021, the Town Council voted unanimously to approve the redevelopment plan.”

    Who is going to pay for all the planning, engineering, and up-front costs in a city with the track record that Davis has?

    I put the likelihood of mixed-use development on any of the city’s shopping centers as very low.

  2. Tim Keller

    I think you spell the city’s housing problems with a P… for PLANNING.

    I think if we had a planning process that was significantly ahead of the game, then all of this would be a lot easier.

    If we had a proactive plan for densification of our downtown adjacent properties, none of the trackside mess would have happened.

    If we had been clear as a city that we really wanted vertical mixed use at the U-Mall, and we werent making requests and then shaving off the number of floors etc at the last minute, that might have gone better too.

    Of course Measure J process is entirely planned-by-developer, and as noted previously by Davids’ reporting, that process really is, THE planning process for peripoheral projects.

    The gap in our planning direction creates uncertainty and significant opportunity for “nimbyism”, which would be much easier to deal with if the neighbor’s concerns had been addressed during a formal planning process 5 years prior.

    To Don’s point I would agree… uncertainty kills projects.   If we have projects around which the entitlement pathway is clear, neighbor objections have been listened to, and the city is ready to sign off, and not ask the developer to jump through hoops that arent disclosed up-font…  Then I think we will have better response.

    Fixing J is absolutley necessary, but it is NOT a magic bullet, and I dont think anyone has pitched is as such.   But if we CAN fix it, it will put the onus back on the city to actually do some master planning.


    The other thing that I think the J modification gets us that is important to understand the importance of is TIME.   If you tell the neighbors of old east davis that their entire neighborhood is going to be zoned for projects like trackside starting tomorrow, you are going to be in for a fight I suspect.

    But if we have peripheral projects to develop while we figure out how to densify, that process gets a LOT easier.   If you tell that same neighborhood that their zoning is going to be changing in 20-30 years,   well past the average 16 years that most people spend in a home… then you give them plenty of time to figure out what they want to do.

    1. David Greenwald

      I do worry about the planning as panacea approach. I get the need for a planning process. I support a planning process. The city is planning to launch the General Plan update (finally) in January, but I worry that there is too much of a divide to produce a workable consensus and anything we plan will have to be difficult and thus contentious. Maybe I’m a pessimist about this, but that’s my read.

      1. Tim Keller

        Agreed, there is no panacea.   But is there is no way to produce consensus OTHER than going through the process and having the conversations.   People might still bitterly disagree at the end, but that is how democracy works.

        Planning at the ballot-box perhpierally, or on a property-by-property basis for infill is just about the least effective way you could think of doing it.

        There will still be fights, but they will be better than the current status quo.

  3. Tim Keller

    I’m tired of people saying things like Davis has plenty of single-family homes.  No, we don’t.

    I stand by the sentiment, although it is meant to be a slight exaggeration.   Single family homes can be part of the mix, but not the dominant part of the mix.

    Pointing out that “housing” does not mean “houses”. is important because all of society, or regulations, our developers and our cultural norms are ALL aligned at making just more single family homes – a paradigm we KNOW has failed, and the projects being proposed ARE predominantly single family homes, even the tiny “starter homes” with no yards being proposed in the center of Village farms are doing everything they can to avoid being a responsible form of housing…

    We have a real estate market that incentivized to build single family McMansions for the most affluent buyers out to the horizon, and doesn’t care about the traffic / environmental /  economic / social impacts of what is built.
    We have a planet, a workforce, A city’s bottom line,  and a community that really needs us to do something smarter instead.

    1. David Greenwald

      I think one of the conversation points should be: what should the housing mix be?

      For example, Village Farms, is like 63 percent sfh and 37 percent affordable and middle income.

      Clearly you don’t think that’s ideal, but what would be in your estimation?

      And then the second part of that – what’s viable to actually build?

      I feel like part of the problem has been we get into these negotiations between the council and the development team, they hash out an agreement and then the development team ends up not being able to either finance it or find a builder and so it doesn’t get built. So we need to figure out a way to meet the needs of the community while recognizing economic realities.

      1. Tim Keller

        Clearly you don’t think that’s ideal, but what would be in your estimation?

        It not for me to decide of course, and I don’t know an “ideal” exists either… it changes based on location and context…. but that context isn’t that hard to describe, so maybe lets explore that, and work into the “how much single family housing” question from the other side.

        The difficult thing with the sustainable housing issue is that you are really talking about a SYSTEM of design elements that work together, and the most simply you can make the conversation is to say:  “Sustainability is about both housing density AND Transit”

        (Not much of a catchy soundbyte… and that is perhaps why this is so hard.)

        The way to back into “how much single family housing” is to answer the following first:

        1) Where are the transit lines and the stops along those lines?

        2) Where is the land that is within a quarter mile of those transit stops?

        I showed my thoughts of what this area of land looks like in my image from my article on the 8th.

        To have effective transit we need at least 15-20 du / acre within the range of the transit line.   Outside of that, the effectiveness of the transit falls off.   That is why you see that I have orange in the zones around the transit lines and then yellow once you get outside of the quarter mile radius circles that I drew there.

        I’m okay with single family housing in these non-arterial areas, because unless you are willing to have a branch line for the transit, it is a bad idea to have them be any denser.

        But then you have the real question:  Should we build the low density housing outside of that transit-served corridor just for the sake of filling out the rest of the property?  Or maybe we shouldn’t build that part of it at all?

        We have discussed the multiple reasons why single family housing is a bad idea… its a legitimate question.   The best answer that I can give, and the one I might be inclined to agree with is the idea that if the more sustainable / affordable segments of the project force the entire proposition underwater economically, then perhaps it is okay to develop some single family units expressly for the purpose of underwriting everything else.   I would go along with that proposition willingly.

        Not a short answer… but hopefully that makes sense.

        1. Tim Keller

          By the way… E-Bikes and other micromobility options are going to change this landscape SIGNIFICANTLY…

          Part of why I have specified that transit line to be for transit and bikes ( but not cars ). Is because the prospect of taking a bike for most in-town trips is much much more viable with the advent of things like electric assisted cargo bikes.

          For people who use the “bike superhighway” that I have envisioned, they will be able to get downtown or onto campus just as fast as using transit and FASTER than driving a car because you don’t have to circle looking for parking and then walk the last few blocks.

          (I have raced friends a couple of times from Inventopia (in East Davis) to an event on campus, with me on my onewheel ( a self-balancing e-skateboard ) and them in a car, and I win every time because I roll straight up to the event and walk inside with my board….   zero parking and walking.    Not paying for parking is a nice bonus )

          When you are taking a bike or one of these other small electric vehicles you also avoid the “last mile” problem that exists when you have to walk to a transit stop, so the quarter-mile threshold around the transit path is likely much larger when you are trying to incentivize not just the mass transit service, but are also including personal mobility platforms.

        2. Todd Edelman

          Tim: I addressed quite a few issues related to your transportation concepts for northeast Davis in your earlier post and I appreciate that you responded to some of them.

          It’s unfortunately too easy to draw a line on a map – even in a concept – and state that’s going to be a “cycling superhighway” with proof a race between some micromobility devices and a car. What you envision – a straight line to  F St. or perhaps a converted California Northern ROW – and then down towards campus is, however, probably enough for current politicians and staff to agree that this stuff on the periphery is good for bikes! Also, as you can see.. no one except me is engaging you on this point. That’s because all the elected and paid people don’t understand these things, and because the experts are totally burnt out: There’s been literally zero innovation in mobility in Davis for years that was initiated by elected or hired people. The “road diet” on 5th is a good thing, but it’s not an inclusive place to ride a bike. Staff fought the park-your-bike-in-the-street-like-a-motorcycle solution for e-bike share even after it was happening organically and including when I created a detail proposal for it…. and the came out and supported it with no credit to anyone. Mace Blvd is now like it was 4 or 5 years ago, minus trees and with some very inconsistent bike infrastructure, and lots and lots of signs and then also lots of missing signs. There was simply no one on staff who had the expertise to evaluate this (or the gravitas to stop it if they noticed its huge, continued problems.).

          And light rail of some sort will not have success based mainly on one destination. Making it – and bikes – run unfettered will be a huge undertaking. It will require a huge amount of parking removal along the route. And see below about cars…

          The bigger elephant in the proverbial mixed-use room is – again – no mention of car parking: In response you need to acknowledge that “parking minimums” is only one part of the deal: “Parking maximums” is the other: Any cars at all these new places will be driven a lot: To anywhere in town where there’s free parking, when it’s raining, when it’s really hot, to Woodland, to Sacramento, when there are a few that need to go at the same time. Sure, overall VMT may decrease – assuming that many new residents would have commuted from further away, BUT this is not the only primary criteria of an efficient, joyous and safe mobility system: Even one car per household in all these places makes Davis less safe, more noisy, worse in mobility equity. Say: “Nope!”.

        3. Walter Shwe

          What about all of the false and fake environmentalists that literally drive their vehicles everywhere including on Interstate 80? They refuse to use public and mass transit on a regular basis but still falsely assert that public and mass transit are viable alternatives to enlarging I-80. Some of the commenters here and several on that other site fall into this outright hypocritical category.

        4. Tim Keller

          Todd, I appreciate the commentary, and freely admit that the concept I have put forward needs significant refinement.   I have said as much and have invited people to chime in with other ideas, so Im glad to have your feedback.

          One thing that I think is important is that we not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.  The neighborhoods and urban planning practices I have proposed are common in the netherlands, in Freiburg Germany and many other places, but they are a BIG departure from the car-centric mindset that has dominated even our supposedly bike-friendly town.

          I have heared from a local transit planner that someone had once worked out how to weave a bike path down the train track right-of-way, so you arent the first person to raise that   I havennt included that in the line I drew, but if it is possible, it is one way to even further divorce this bike path from mixing with automotive traffic.    Adding ideas and details onto this can only improve the concept.

          And yes, parking maximums need to be a thing with all of this.  THAT is what would make this housing really selective for local workers only, and not out-commuters.

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