Community Conversation on Housing: Bapu Vaitla on the Dense Infill and Housing in Davis

Bapu Vaitla – courtesy of Davis Media Access

Editor’s Note: On Thursday, Interfaith Housing Justice of Davis presented “Davis Housing Solutions: A Community Conversation” – a forum at the Davis Community Church.  What follows are the full comments by Councilmember Bapu Vaitla

Full comments by Councilmember Bapu Vaitla

It’s really heartening to see folks who show up for affordable housing are passionate about social equity. And I do think that housing is the social justice issue of our generation here in California. I want to just acknowledge the raw fact about why we’re here, which is because we live in a segregated world. We live in a segregated country, we live in a segregated state and we live in a segregated county. That’s the reality. That’s the reality we have to face. But that is the reality that we can change. Now, I was asked to talk about the housing trust fund and the affordable housing fund and what the priorities are to use those dollars and how we can get more dollars.

I’m only going to spend a minute on that. Sorry to the organizers, just because so many of our speakers have touched on those topics. And specifically to the point of how difficult it is to build permanent supportive housing and housing for extremely low income families. We need dollars for that. We need dollars to subsidize nonprofit developers. We need dollars to acquire land on which that kind of housing can get built. Those dollars. As Kelly laid out, there are a few sources, but we need really much, much higher levels of funding than we’re getting right now from our sources. There are several ways to do that. One is to do so through revenue measures. There will likely be a revenue measure on the ballot this fall. It will be likely a general tax, not one specifically towards housing, but I will say that without that revenue measure passing, it will be very difficult to get funds into the housing trust fund, the affordable housing fund.

So please, please support the revenue measure. Please ask us information about the state of the budget and the fiscal position that we’re in and why we need the revenue measure. I had a couple of things that I want to talk about and they’re both controversial. They’re both a little spicy, which is good getting late, but I realize I don’t have time to talk about both of them. And by the way, just is the mayor’s face nervous right now? No. Okay. I love being a kind of rogue vice mayor. I will say while I have the opportunity and the mic that we have a great mayor right now, a very, very, very good human being who really, really cares about this community.

And there might be issues disagree with him or we disagree sometimes, but very honestly, he really, really cares about the people in this community and I am honored to serve under his leadership. So thank you Josh for who you are. Really the two issues. So I’m going to actually just ask you which one you want to hear about. So the two issues that I’d like to talk about, one is how I really believe that just the people in this room, just the people in this room, if we are unified on an objective on specific objectives, we can pass policy that we want. We can solve the housing crisis. I really believe that an organized group with this much skill in these kind of numbers, but there are tensions within this group. We know that there are tensions between community groups, city staff, council members, between community organizations.

We know that those tensions exist. How do we work together within these tensions if we may not even like each other? Some of us might not even like each other, but how do we still work together? How do we come to the table and have a conversation If we don’t resolve our differences, how do we at least talk about them? What are the vehicles through which that might happen? I have a couple of thoughts about that. That’s one topic that I’d love to talk about. The other is this other controversial topic about infill and peripheral development. What do we need to do as far as changes in zoning and infill and how much peripheral development do we need? And what kind of changes, if any, do we need to the process by which we obtain peripheral development? So let me just take a show of hands.

You don’t have to vote, but who wants to talk about how we work together if we don’t like each other? Okay, I know you do. Colin, who wants to talk about peripheral and infill? Okay. Alright. Maybe you and me we can get a coffee later. Colin. I love that. Oh, that’s great. Yeah. Cool. Amazing. Great. Cool. So on infill the reality, the hard truth is that we need to densify point blank. We need to densify. We cannot be a low density suburb anymore. If we want to solve the housing crisis, we cannot be a low density suburb anymore. We need to become a higher density town. That’s the raw fact of the matter. There are plenty of good models for this everywhere, mostly abroad actually places where density doesn’t mean overcrowding. What it means is walkable communities. It means bikeable communities. It means places where cars are the resource of last resort where there are public spaces where you meet your neighbors, you meet new friends, and where children play safely.

That’s what density could mean. But it’s politically difficult and it’s not politically difficult in the abstract, right? Because when you create the dichotomy of peripheral versus infill, I think all of us in the room would prefer to do this through infill, through meet the housing crisis, through infill. That’s just best practice. That’s just planning best practice. The difficulty is even when you have a receptive city council, the difficulty is when it comes down to the specific parcel level or the project level, there’s always somebody that’s going to be affected. Somebody who moved to Davis because they had a vision of living in a detached single family home in a low density block, in a low density neighborhood. And those voices come out, and I’m not blaming anybody for having that vision, but those voices come out and it becomes really politically difficult to pass a project.

And what I would say in response to that is when you pay attention to the city council calendar and when there’s any kind of housing project on the docket, please show up. Please participate because your voice really matters. I can tell you from personal experience that public comment really sways council members in both directions, right? You’re sort of determined to pay attention to the fact that who you might be hearing are not representative voices and take community interest into account. And it’s really hard not to be swayed by the single voice that’s coming at you. So show up, please. Please show up. Argue for density, argue for infill. Argue for these neighborhoods that we know are best practice. Now peripheral. So the mayor and I are in a subcommittee where we’re trying to explore the potential of how many units we can get through infill at different densities, at different kinds of rezonings across the city.

That work is not done yet, but the sort of picture that’s becoming clear is because even if we upzone the whole city, if we try to create a density overlay that’s higher than we have now, there still it’s up to private developers to redevelop those parcels into something that’s higher density. That’s difficult because it means the, we’re dependent on the pace of redevelopment to attain those housing targets. So we are kind of taking that into stock, trying to figure out at a certain, say, package of zoning reforms, what is the pace of units that will be generated? And the truth, the hard truth is we’re going to need some peripheral development. Let me say it again, we’re going to need some peripheral development. If we want to solve the housing crisis before a generation and a half passes, we’re going to need some peripheral development. The question is what kind of peripheral development?

And I see some developers in the room here and they proposed some projects. And the question is, how are we going to be as a community in a city in a strong negotiating position vis-a-vis developers vis-a-vis all the housing advocates and perhaps no growth advocates, et cetera, to say, this is the vision that we want for our future. And the two word answer for that really is general plan. That’s the process we’re starting. Now, my message on that also is the general plan is going to set the vision for the next generation. It’s going to try to think about within our planning area in a spatially very explicit sense, what are the parcels that are highest priority for agricultural conservation, for habitat value, for open space? And what are the parcels that we really need to develop with housing that makes sense in this city?

What do we want to ask of developers that are offering to develop those parcels in terms of density, in terms of affordable mix or housing mix, in terms of missing middle, in terms of energy, in terms of energy generation onsite and storage. Now again, I’m going to ask for just a quick audience participation thing. And again, this is controversial question, so feel free not to raise your hand for any of these answers if you like, but how many people in the room believe that all growth should be infill, even if it slows the pace of how quickly we attain the housing units? We need how many people in the room believe that all of our housing needs should be satisfied through infill alone, the present city boundaries? Okay, how many people? Yeah, and you don’t have to answer if you feel like these questions need lean a little bit more meat on the bone. But how many people feel like, how many of you know about Measure J by the way? Let me just start there. Okay, it’s great. So how many of you feel that a housing project that has say 50% affordable housing is net zero generates all its energy onsite, has all the battery storage onsite, has other features, say it’s lead platinum certified should be allowed to be built without a vote of the people. How many of you believe that?

How about putting it on the ballot and letting people vote? Which it will have to which it will have to if we propose that it we’ll have to go to voted people. How many people believe that that should be the case? That kind of development should be, yeah. Okay. And no way over there, how many people would support a complete repeal of measures J/R/D? No way. Yeah.

So the point I want to make here is that this is a controversial issue. This is a controversial issue with a lot of difficult, difficult conversations that need to be had. And the general plan process is the vehicle by which we have those conversations. So my request to you is to participate is to show up. We’ve put commissions now in a lead role in this general plan process, apply for commissions beyond commissions, participate in the community engagement events that we have, show up, participate. I’ll stop there with infill and peripheral because I thank my time is running out.

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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  1. Ron Glick

    The lack of leadership by example is palpable. Advocating for dense infill while living in some of the least dense housing in Davis doesn’t pass the smell test. What about infill at the subdivision where the vice mayor lives? The vice mayor talks the talk but doesn’t walk the walk.

    I remember when Robb Davis  moved downtown while working on the downtown plan. That was true leadership by example

  2. Walter Shwe

    The lack of leadership by example is palpable. Advocating for dense infill while living in some of the least dense housing in Davis doesn’t pass the smell test. What about infill at the subdivision where the vice mayor lives? The vice mayor talks the talk but doesn’t walk the walk.
    I remember when Robb Davis  moved downtown while working on the downtown plan. That was true leadership by example

    Not only is it lacking in leadership, it’s plain old blatant hypocrisy. I much prefer to lead by example like Robb Davis especially if I know that others are watching what I choose to do and not do.

  3. Ron Glick

    I wouldn’t go so far as to use the word hypocrisy. I think it more of a do what I say not what I do kind of leadership that is in my opinion less than optimally effective.

    I do worry about two things with what I have heard from the Vice-Mayor. First, I worry about unforeseen and unintended consequences of his policy vision and second I worry about how people will build equity in a landscape of high density infill.

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