Commentary: Is Measure J a Constraint on Housing?

Covell site in 2005

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

Davis, CA – As I have noted elsewhere, the city has proposed to evaluate whether it should put an amendment to Measure J on the ballot as soon as November or no later than November 2026.

City Council members have already expressed specific concerns about the availability of infill sites to meet the city’s housing needs starting in 2030.  Moreover, given the lack of success of housing projects undergoing a Measure J vote, there is a feeling—at least by some—that Measure J either has to go or has to be modified to better allow the city to meet its housing needs.

It is my belief that without some sort of amendment to Measure J and if the next project or projects go down to defeat, either the state of California (HCD or the AG) or an outside entity like Legal Services or California Yimby, will initiate a lawsuit that would argue that Measure J is an unlawful constraint on housing.

Some have argued that the state cannot compel the city of Davis to annex land—that is perhaps true.  But looking at state law, the issue appears to be whether a land use control acts as a constraint on housing.

The authority here rests in Government Code section 65583, subdivision (a)(5).  This requires an “analysis of potential and actual governmental constraints upon the maintenance, improvement, or development of housing for all income levels.”

The section refers specifically to “land use control.”

And notes, “The analysis shall also demonstrate local efforts to remove governmental constraints that hinder the locality from meeting its share of the regional housing need…”

In the Second Version of the City’s Housing Element, it noted, “The city of Davis will complete a comprehensive review of the following policies to evaluate the cumulative impact on residential development… Measure J.”

Here it is required to evaluate “whether the cumulative requirements are a constraint on housing development.”

The city acknowledged that it did not undertake this review “prior to the preparation of the 2021-2029 Housing Element Update. However, with the passage of SB 330, the City understands the importance of an evaluation of its growth management measures to ensure that they do not conflict with State law. The City’s 2021-2029 Housing Element Update evaluates whether these policies serve a constraint to meeting the City’s housing goals and includes related policies as appropriate.”

After lengthy analysis, the city concludes, “While Measure J adds costs, extends processing times, and has been used to halt development projects that would convert agricultural land to urban development, it is only a constraint to meeting housing needs if the city lacks sufficient infill housing sites.”

The city continues that, at that point, “there is not currently (2021) enough land designated for residential development to meet the sixth-cycle RHNA.”

However, the city simply needed to “rezone additional sites to meet the RHNA” and they were able to identify “sufficient candidate rezone sites within its limits to meet the RHNA, averting the need for a Measure J vote.”

We will come back to this point shortly because it’s really critical to understanding why Measure J will soon be imperiled.

In response, on December 8, 2021, the HCD writes, “As recognized in the housing element, Measure J poses a constraint to the development of housing by requiring voter approval of any land use designation change from agricultural, open space, or urban reserve land use to an urban use designation. Since the ordinance was enacted in March of 2000, four of the six proposed rezones have failed. As the element has identified the need for rezoning to accommodate a shortfall of sites to accommodate the housing need, the element should clarify if any of the candidate sites to rezone would be subject to this measure and provide analysis on the constraints that this measure might impose on the development of these sites.”

From this interchange, it seems that both sides agree that Measure J poses a constraint on housing.  The city is arguing that’s not a problem because the city has sufficient space to add infill in this cycle.

Not everyone agrees with this conclusion, by the way.  In their letter to the city, Legal Services argues this is in fact a “false conclusion.”

Their letter for instance notes, “Housing Element Version 2 states that it is speculative that Measure J/R/D will limit housing supply or affordability even though it will add cost and time to the development review process.”

They argue, “The City Council’s recent decision to not put any of the five peripheral development proposals on the ballot for November 2024 proves that Measure J/R/D does limit housing supply because it adds time to the development review process.”

Further, Legal Services argue that “a constraint to housing development exists even when the City may be able to demonstrate sufficient sites to address the RHNA.”

That’s probably a more aggressive argument than I would make.  But that doesn’t seem to save Measure J.

The problem is that even if you believe the city has sufficient infill sites to meet its “current housing need,” no one believes they have sufficient housing sites to meet future housing need.

In December, then-Mayor Will Arnold warned, “I would just say to those who have said that we will be able to meet our next RHNA cycle numbers without going outside of the city limits… I suggest they tune in or watch the recording of this meeting as we really try to meet our current requirements simply with infill and the difficulty we’re having in doing so.”

Councilmember Bapu Vaitla has said similar things, as has City Manager Mike Webb.

There are probably going to be two triggers to a formal effort to end Measure J.  The first will be a defeat of the next ballot measure and that would be combined with either a decision not to amendment Measure J or a defeat of an effort to amend Measure J.

The lawsuit will claim that Measure J is a constraint on housing and that the city has failed in its attempts to mitigate that constraint on housing.

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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11 Comments

  1. Tim Keller

    I think occam’s razor applies here:  The simplest and most obvious analysis is the correct one.

    Arguing that measure J Doesn’t restrict growth requires a massive logical dodge especially given that in the real world we WOULD have a lot more housing if measure J didn’t exist.   Its hard to dispute that.

    It reminds me of the arguments that people make when they bring up the fact that the University isn’t legally within the city limits:   Most of the time, it’s a distinction without a difference.

    1. Matt Williams

      Good analogy Tim … especially since the fact that the University isn’t legally within the city limits is almost 100% of the time a distinction with a massive difference … millions of dollars a year massive.

    2. Keith Y Echols

      It reminds me of the arguments that people make when they bring up the fact that the University isn’t legally within the city limits:   Most of the time, it’s a distinction without a difference.

      What in the world does that mean?  When brought up in the talk about housing and the local economy it has to do with jurisdiction and civic responsibilities.  City limits exist for a reason.  Who gets what tax money to support and pay for what housing.  The added benefits that UCD does or does not bestow is worth the paper that mythical agreement is written on.

      1. Tim Keller

        This is not a new conversation with Me, Matt (and Richard.. ) but I would clarify and summarize it thusly:

        There are some issues where the distinction makes an important difference, and others where it doesn’t.    There is no doubt that Davis is what it is precisely because of the university, and that without the university, Davis woud be Dixon or woodland.   The fact that the university isn’t IN the city legally just isn’t important relative to that fact.

        Of course, when it comes to “jurisdiction” and sharing of resources, and when one of the two entities makes a decision that imposes costs on the other… YES it is relevant.  I would agree.

      2. Richard McCann

        If UCD was within the city limits, the City still wouldn’t get much tax revenue-state property is tax exempt (and many UCD buildings around town are also tax exempt now.) In fact, the City’s net costs might rise because it would be compelled to offer public safety services that UCD now provides itself. Berkeley demanded compensation from UCB precisely for this reason. In or out of the City boundaries really makes no difference. It’s the obvious economic flows between UCD and the City that matter.

        1. Keith Y Echols

           In fact, the City’s net costs might rise because it would be compelled to offer public safety services that UCD now provides itself. 

          Uh…that pretty much states what I said….and proves that city limits matter.

          The obvious economic flows are there anyway and they’re as reliable as the paper they’re written on; regardless of student housing policies by the city.  It’s not like UCD is going anywhere.  UCD wasn’t going to build their medical center or aggie square in Davis anyway.  Now if they want to work out something with the city for a tech innovation center of some sort…yeah we can work with them….maybe set up a student district with housing,  some student focused retail and entertainment.

        2. Richard McCann

          Keith

          I don’t understand your position. You’ve been saying that having UCD within the City limits would provide more tax revenue to pay for City services. But now you’re agreeing that it may not be fiscally beneficial to have UCD within city limits. My point is that in essence it really doesn’t matter, and the City benefits from higher property tax revenues due to the presence of both UCD as a job center and students at tenants. We get substantially more property tax revenue than Woodland at Matt found.

  2. Keith Y Echols

    Their letter for instance notes, “Housing Element Version 2 states that it is speculative that Measure J/R/D will limit housing supply or affordability even though it will add cost and time to the development review process.

    That’s idiotic.  Of course it’s speculative to a degree.  Any guess about the impacts of something in future is speculative to a degree.  But I’d say we have 20 years of history of failed projects to provide enough data to support the conclusion that yes Measure J impacts housing production….and by extension affordability.

    They argue, “The City Council’s recent decision to not put any of the five peripheral development proposals on the ballot for November 2024 proves that Measure J/R/D does limit housing supply because it adds time to the development review process.”

    They’ve got a point.  But then if there was no Measure J, then the council wouldn’t have to put developments on the ballot.

    Further, Legal Services argue that “a constraint to housing development exists even when the City may be able to demonstrate sufficient sites to address the RHNA.”

    I’m not sure what the argument being made here is.  Are they saying that Measure J isn’t a constraint because the city already has/demonstrates constraints on infill development?  If that’s the case, then their argument is basically 2 wrongs making a right.  It’s like saying you’re damned either way (community resistance to development) so why bother removing or adjusting Measure J?

    The problem is that even if you believe the city has sufficient infill sites to meet its “current housing need,” no one believes they have sufficient housing sites to meet future housing need.

    I mean in simplistic basic theory the “infill crowd” isn’t wrong.  Sure you could build out the existing infill lots and redevelop underutilized buildings/houses into high density dwellings and over (a long period of) time create your mini-Manhattan.  But of course the infill crowd doesn’t consider how high density development will happen and the impact of that happening.  To fully force nothing but infill you’d have to have home prices in the area along with commutes become unbearable.  So living in Woodland, Dixon or West Sac would have to be come cost prohibitive as well as commuting become prohibitive as well.  That would drive up pricing and make living in Davis a premium despite living in higher density housing.  That’s if you work at the university because new jobs actually in Davis aren’t developing because of lack of development for businesses to grow and inhabit.  So you’ll just get a stagnant and dying local economy….remember all those nice people that work at UCD or in Sac are spending most of their money elsewhere because the retail offering in Davis will continue to be subpar to the rest of the region.  Then there’s the cost and impact of new infrastructure to manage the traffic from all these new high density residential units.  So yeah, more people, more traffic, less resources….not a great formula for future quality of life in Davis.

    1. Richard McCann

      That would drive up pricing and make living in Davis a premium despite living in higher density housing.  

      Davis already commands a 55% housing price premium over those other cities so clearly people prefer to live in Davis over those other cities for the distinctive attributes. Those outside likely would prefer to like here in higher density housing, perhaps at less than the 55% premium.

      We already have high traffic impacts from the 20,000 people commuting into Davis and the 20,000 commuting out. The point is to create a better housing job balance so the current traffic impacts subside.

      1. Keith Y Echols

        The median list price for Davis in 12/23 was $845,596 and $523,938 so it’s a 38% difference.  The percentage difference has actually shrunken a bit over the years.  In sept 2015 (as far back as the data went) it was a 46% difference.

         

  3. Richard McCann

    As of last summer it was 55% when I did the calculations and that had been consistent for many years. It appears that the housing market is a bit volatile right now. I’ve gone as far back at 1996.

    Here’s what I calculated last June:

    Zillow Home Values – 6/27/23

    City
    Value
    Davis Premium
    % Davis Premium

    Davis
    $865,745

    Woodland
    $531,542
    $334,203
    63%

    West Sacramento
    $516,004
    $349,741
    68%

    Dixon
    $581,820
    $283,925
    49%

    Vacaville
    $601,636
    $264,109
    44%

    Non-Davis Average
    $557,751
    $307,995
    55%

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