Commentary: How Should the City Engage the Community on Housing?

Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

Davis, CA – Several years ago, pre-pandemic, DJUSD was facing mounting pressure to close the compensation gap for DJUSD teachers.  Ultimately, they decided to place another parcel tax on the ballot which ultimately passed with 68 percent of the vote.

But to me what was interesting is that prior to the decision to put the parcel tax on the ballot, the subcommittee then of Joe DiNunzio and Alan Fernandes held a series of public meetings as they worked through the district’s finances, the law, and other issues.

These were not particularly well attended.  Often it was just the two board members, district staff, myself and Enterprise Reporter Jeff Hudson, and occasionally future Board Member Hiram Jackson.

But I think the approach was right—have a public fact-finding session.  This is something the city should consider.  But of course on housing.

I think some believe that the public is well aware of pressure coming down from the state—but I’m not sure they are.  As I have previously reported, I have seen long debates on NextDoor, for instance, that indicate much of the public isn’t aware of a lot of the changes to state law.

While this doesn’t have to be city led, I think there would be an important level of gravitas if it were some sort of formal subcommittee of the council.  Holding the meetings at various times and various locations would be helpful.

It could be used to jumpstart a General Plan update and also direct a public discussion over a possible Measure J amendment as well as a pre-discussion on the two remaining peripheral projects.

Here are some key issues that should be discussed:

  1. State housing laws—including the Housing Element, the roll of HCD, RHNA, and of course changes to things like parking minimums
  2. The Housing Crisis—(a) statewide, (b) local, (c) Measure J and its 25-year impacts
  3. The issue of limited infill space along with the estimates for the 7th RHNA Housing Cycle
  4. Possible considerations for Measure J amendments
  5. Discussion over the two proposed peripheral projects

If done the right way, this could educate the public on what is coming down the pike—as well as serve as a sounding board to get early feedback over what the public is looking for in terms of General Plan Update, their willingness to accept a Measure J amendment and what that would look like, and laying out the potential consequences if the city fails to address its housing crisis.

Unfortunately, if the city is looking at November measures, there is not a huge amount of time.  Moreover, with a General Plan process set to kick off, time is of the essence.

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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22 Comments

  1. Matt Williams

    The Vanguard has published this same article close to 100 times over the past few years, and every one of the various versions of the article suffers from the same flaws … (1) it jumps right into discussing solutions without defining the problem, (2) it fails to see the difference between a “need” and a “want,” and (3) it treats “crisis” as a universal, across-the-board reality rather than as a reality that varies considerably when considered from a state vs. local perspective … and from a demographic cohort to demographic cohort perspective.

    Starting with (3) first.  The housing situation in Davis is very different than the housing situation in California as a whole.  The housing situation in Davis is also very different in the various demographic cohorts … retirees, empty nesters, young families with children, the Davis workforce, Causeway commuters, and UCD students being the six major demographic groups (feel free to suggest others).

    Regarding (2), arguably only two of Davis’ six demographic cohorts can be said to have a “housing need.” All the other four fall into the “want” or even the “nice-to-have” category. And the characteristics/expectations that come with the housing demand of young families with children make owning a newly built home in Davis much less attractive than owning a similarly-priced home seven (7) minutes further away from UC Davis in Springlake rather than Davis, especially when their children can attend Davis schools and participate in Davis extracurricular activities.

    The second demographic group that has a housing need rather than a housing want is the Davis workforce … the people who work in our hotels and restaurants and retail businesses and services and industry and the DJUSD school district.  For the most part in the first three of those groups, the workers do not earn enough to purchase a home … they are looking for affordable rentals.  The small amount of Davis industry has been in Davis for quite a while, and the workers in industry who make enough to own a home already do.  The starting salary for a DJUSD teacher is $55,000 per year, so even with a two-earner household, an affordably priced home is essential to achieve homeownership. Bottom-line, from the Davis workforce the amount of “housing need” is quite small.

    Regarding (1), what is almost never discussed in any of the Vanguard articles is (A) the City’s fiscal condition, and (B) the fact that ownership housing costs the City more in services than it generates in revenues.  That is the result of the P{onzi Scheme nature of ownership housing throughout California … due to the consequences of Proposition 13 coupled with the inability of Cities to keep the rising rate of costs below the rising rate of revenues.  For the City of Davis that means each budget year begins with $14 million more of costs than revenues.  Cities that are continuing their historical rate of housing growth can continue to perpetuate the Ponzi Scheme, but once a City pauses its growth, like Davis has, the Ponzi Scheme comes tumbling down, and all new housing does is dig the fiscal hole deeper and deeper.  That is the true “crisis” for Davis.

      1. Matt Williams

        Eliminating Impact Fees only makes the fiscal crisis worse for localities like the City.  We already start each year with a $14 million shortfall of revenues over expenses.  Reducing fees reduces revenues, which makes the fiscal crisis worse.

        When you look at housing in Davis:
        — Do the people (empty nesters?) fleeing the Bay Area “need” to live in Davis, or “want” to live in Davis?
        — Do the people with jobs across the Causeway in Sacramento “need” to live in Davis, or “want” to live in Davis?
        — Do additional retirees “need” to live in Davis, or “want” to live in Davis?
        — Do young families with children “need” a yard for their children to play in, or “want” a yard to play in?
        — Do UCD students “need” to live in Davis, or “want” to live in Davis?
        — Does the typical member of the Davis workforce making between $15 and $25 per hour “need” an affordable housing cost or “want” an affordable housing cost?

        Because of the anemic job situation in Davis, local jobs do not create a significant amount of housing “need.”

        Because of the incredibly short commute from Springlake to virtually every job in Davis or on the UCD campus, those jobs end up creating more “want” to live in Springlake than “need” to live in Davis.

        1. Walter Shwe

          Do existing residents really need to live in single family homes? Every current Davis resident that dares to tell new residents what kinds of housing they should be forced to reside in should ask themselves this very question.

        2. Walter Shwe

          Who is telling new residents what kind of housing they can live in? 

          You are Matt. You attempt to disguise your true aim, but all of your questions lead in only 1 direction.

        3. Keith Y Echols

           Every current Davis resident that dares to tell new residents what kinds of housing they should be forced to reside in should ask themselves this very question.

          Uh….that’s what Urban PLANNING is.  Ya know where the community gets together and draws these zone things all around the land area of the city….ya know how those zone thingies dictate what and how much can be built…..and ya know what….city codes tell people HOW things can be built.  So…yeah…communities can tell people how they can live in their community.  So for example the General Plan’s land use maps show that if I wanted to live in a 100 story penthouse in the middle of downtown….I can’t…….the community has told me through the General Plan that I can’t do that.  LOL…however Davis being out of compliance with RHNA mandates….well…maybe I should have some plans drawn up.

        4. Walter Shwe

          Uh….that’s what Urban PLANNING is.  Ya know where the community gets together and draws these zone things all around the land area of the city 

          At Matt’s insane level of micromanagement it’s  obviously obstructionism instead of merely urban planning.

        5. Matt Williams

          Walter, where do you see micromanaging?  Asking questions is the antithesis of micromanaging.  Asking questions, especially open ended questions, expands the field of thinking.  Micromanaging narrows the field of thinking.

          Every person who reads and chooses to answer the questions I posed (and many more questions like them) is totally free to formulate their own personal answers to those questions.  That is the essence of critical thinking and critical thinking is at the core of an effective democracy.

          Your imagination and biases cause you to see demons where there are none.

           

      2. Walter Shwe

        When you look at housing in Davis:
        — Do the people (empty nesters?) fleeing the Bay Area “need” to live in Davis, or “want” to live in Davis?
        — Do the people with jobs across the Causeway in Sacramento “need” to live in Davis, or “want” to live in Davis?
        — Do additional retirees “need” to live in Davis, or “want” to live in Davis?
        — Do young families with children “need” a yard for their children to play in, or “want” a yard to play in?
        — Do UCD students “need” to live in Davis, or “want” to live in Davis?
        — Does the typical member of the Davis workforce making between $15 and $25 per hour “need” an affordable housing cost or “want” an affordable housing cost?

        Asking anyone of these “questions” is entirely unncecessary unless you are an obstructionist. I don’t care why anyone moves to Davis or continues to reside in this city unless you happen to be an obstructionist. Frankly it’s none of my business. It should be none of anyone’s business. You falsely assert that the economy and jobs are some kind of a test to determine if anyone is deemed worthy to live in Davis. 

        Specifically housing is the “cart” and the economy and jobs are the “horse.”  Housing by itself is a net loser for the City of Davis … generating more costs than revenue for the City. 

        That means the housing itself that Matt and I occupy are net $$$ losers for the City of Davis. In other words Matt by logical extension doesn’t want anyone living in Davis that doesn’t generate net revenue for the City. Does Matt increase net revenue for the City or is he a money loser?

        1. Keith Y Echols

           In other words Matt by logical extension doesn’t want anyone living in Davis that doesn’t generate net revenue for the City.

          LOL….the city of Vernon, CA tried this.  They had a population of something like 13-90 people that were all city employees over the years.  The rest of the city was all industrial and retail.  They got in trouble in 2006 so the city now has a robust population around 200 (in the middle of LA County).

  2. Don Shor

    — Do the people (empty nesters?) fleeing the Bay Area “need” to live in Davis, or “want” to live in Davis?
    — Do the people with jobs across the Causeway in Sacramento “need” to live in Davis, or “want” to live in Davis?
    — Do additional retirees “need” to live in Davis, or “want” to live in Davis?
    — Do young families with children “need” a yard for their children to play in, or “want” a yard to play in?
    — Do UCD students “need” to live in Davis, or “want” to live in Davis?
    — Does the typical member of the Davis workforce making between $15 and $25 per hour “need” an affordable housing cost or “want” an affordable housing cost?

    All of those people likely consider it a need, and it’s really none of your business whether they do so or not.
    People should stop trying to micromanage what kinds of people live in Davis. Once upon a time, we called that discrimination. We have an inventory shortage in every category of housing. Builders have proposed projects that will meet a broad range of those categories. Talking things to death is a time-tested strategy for blocking housing growth.

    The city doesn’t need to “engage” anybody. Put something on the ballot and let the voters decide. It’s the builder’s job to pay for the election and run the campaign, thus it’s the builders who get to do the engagement.

    1. Keith Y Echols

      Don, I’m trying to straddle the middle on this topic.  You guys know me, I’m the one that keeps derisively referring to the public as the “unwashed masses” or the “hoi polloi”.  It’s my general opinion that Joe Public (myself included) should stay out of DIRECT urban planning and economic decisions because the people are generally ignorant and uniformed.  There’s a reason we have a REPERSENTATIVE form of democracy.  That being said, I think the people need to have their say in the process.  It’s up to the leaders to make sure that it’s not disruptive or an obstruction but they need to be heard and their opinions considered.

      Yes, it’s up to the developers to push forward a project to get it approved.  But that’s problematic in Davis isn’t it?  The public bombards the project with demands (one less story, it’s blocks out sky, it doesn’t have biodegradable framing….) and many (if not all) of these projects fail.  What’s needed is a streamlined process that allows the people to have their say with the city leaders and developers (I’m talking meeting multiple times in a week).  The city leaders negotiate with the developers….city leaders will have more information and considerations than just what the public wants; but it will be up to them to communicate that (as best they can) back to the public.  They need to be able to balance what the builder wants to make the project work for them (in terms of marketability of the project…what kind of units…etc…) with the input/requests/demands of the people.  The project then goes forward with the backing of the city leaders (and hopefully not the same absolutely stubborn clueless tone deaf obliviousness that Dan Carson as he did as the advocate for DISC).  What I’m saying is that pro-development cities have local advocates that help to give builders confidence in moving forward when things get bumpy.  City leaders need to communicate WHY the community needs the development.   Is it up to the developer to tell the community: hey you guys are in trouble with the RHNA mandate.  Or your city is hurting financially and our developer fees will help.  I don’t think any voter wants to hear a developer tell them that.

      So let the people have their say/input.  Speed the process up (probably to a degree that the people with get upset) so that it doesn’t hinder projects.  Have leaders and developers work hand in hand to promote projects that are good for the city.

      Also, planning needs to be going on constantly and concurrently with proposed projects.  Long term planning needs to happen but not hinder currently proposed projects.  City  leaders will try to the best of their ability to get current projects as best inline with future plans.

      1. Matt Williams

        Mark. like Walter your imagination and biases cause you to see demons where there are none.

        I have very clearly articulated what I see as a positive path forward for Davis … in very large agreement with the point(s) Keith Echols has made over and over again … and ironically the points you have made in the past about the local Davis economy.  Specifically housing is the “cart” and the economy and jobs are the “horse.”  Housing by itself is a net loser for the City of Davis … generating more costs than revenue for the City.  That revenue shortfall evaporates only when the new housing provides support for new jobs added to the community.  The US Census shows that Davis hasn’t added any new jobs in over 20 years, and even worse, the mix of jobs has changed such that there are more low paying jobs in hospitality and food service replacing higher paying jobs in other services and industries.

        Having a community economic development plan that clearly pursues adding high paying jobs addresses the community needs.  And the community’s actual housing needs are for affordably priced residences (both rental and ownership) that is targeted toward the lower-paid Davis workforce.

        1. David Greenwald

          While I agree with you that Davis has a clear need for both affordable and missing middle housing, I also think Davis lacks sufficient market rate housing which makes the housing market extremely tight and forces the housing prices up.

        2. Keith Y Echols

          I also think Davis lacks sufficient market rate housing which makes the housing market extremely tight and forces the housing prices up.

          Good god, it’s like I’ve been trying to tell people a thousand years ago that the earth is round and not flat…..but they refuse to let go of their established beliefs.  David, the earth is not flat.

          Again, new home construction tends to exasperate market rate housing prices.  Homebuilders tend to build where they think they can gentrify a place and/or attract new buyers from a more expensive area (like the bay area).  They’re not going to build to the point where home prices stagnate or decrease.  Homebuilders’ intent is for prices to increase.  Let me simplify the equation.  GENTRIFICATION and builder constraint > increased home supply from new construction. 

          So why build new market rate housing?  As Matt says housing is a cost to the community.  Well, near and dear to Matt’s heart is economic development.  So let me tell you a little story;  I once asked my boss (of a developer/homebuilder company….and later a tech company) why he chose a little town near the bay area to start the company.  He said: “because I live here” (I hope Tim is reading this).  This geo-biz development phenomenon holds true around Stanford.  Sandhill Road came about because of it’s proximity to Stanford.  But Sandhill Road VCs continue to operate there (as the majority investments by VCs today are not companies from Stanford) because they all like to hangout together and it’s a really nice area to live.  In other words VCs and tech executives can buy really nice homes in the Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Atherton area. All those start ups and especially the ones that become bona fide businesses all have workers that want homes of varying size and quality.

          So by creating market rate housing; you stand to attract and keep businesses in Davis.  Now here’s sort of a chicken and egg problem here.  Do we push for businesses/economic development planning to come here first and then build out the housing?  Sure in an ideal situation.  But the city needs housing now because of RHNA mandates.  So as I’ve said, economic and urban planning need to happen concurrently as current projects are considered for approval.  Planning should not hold up the short term immediate need for housing.  The mix of market rate housing to be planned for should take into consideration new business development  efforts by the city and current business needs.  The goal is that by the next RHNA cycle to get ahead of the things with a business development plan so that urban planning can follow the biz development plan.

        3. Richard McCann

          Keith’s assessment is on point. Leaving bald, uninformed decision to voters without any type of intervention will lead to undesirable outcomes. As Keith points out, we’ve delegated complex and/or mundane decisions to representatives. We don’t vote on where to put stop signs, nor on how to finance new capital additions to the water system.

          What we want is vote on a set of acceptable standards for new projects that the Council can decide if a development meets those standards. The public then avoids having to become individual CEQA and urban planning experts. The key is to enforce those standards strictly, which hasn’t happened enough here.

          As want vs need, a clear delineation is not possible except for minimum standards of sustenance and shelter, none of which we’re talking about here. Our discussion focal point should not be on what outsiders my desire as demonstrated in their market purchases but rather in what we desire for our community composition. This means that we cannot leave this decision to the marketplace, unless we just want to have the wealthiest people buy in here. And increasingly the wealthiest are also the oldest who bring the least economic vitality (reducing further our tax revenues) and higher costs for services. That’s why we are trying to house 3 demographic groups (not 2) who have lower incomes while meeting desirable traits for the community, mostly with maintaining vitality.

    1. Matt Williams

      Richard, the comparison was need to need.
      As Winston Churchill is reported to have said:
      “Churchill: “Madam, would you sleep with me for five million pounds?” Socialite: “My goodness, Mr. Churchill… Well, I suppose… we would have to discuss terms, of course… ”
      Churchill: “Would you sleep with me for five pounds?”
      Socialite: “Mr. Churchill, what kind of woman do you think I am?!”
      Churchill: “Madam, we’ve already established that. Now we are haggling about the price.”

      1. Richard McCann

        Matt

        Again, it’s not an appropriate comparison. Weinstein committed rape which about exercising power over other individuals, not satiating a “need.” Move on to a different comparison.

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