Guest Commentary: Amending Measure J Is the Only Path to Actually Addressing Our Housing Crisis

by Tim Keller

It was encouraging to me to see a packed room at the interfaith housing event this past week, and although I had to return home to take care of my kids and couldn’t stay to the end, the presentations I was able to see confirmed what many of us already knew to be true:  Housing in Davis (and California in general) is a large and multi-facetted issue.

Housing is hard for: students, the unemployed, the under-employed, for service sector workers, young career adults, university staff…. Basically, unless you have a combined household income over $150k, you are at some level, housing insecure in Davis, (unless you came here 30 years ago).

Simply said, the message is clear: we need a LARGE amount of housing for people at a WIDE range of price points.

There is both a size and a shape of our housing crisis:

Last year when I was doing my top-town investigation of what Davis’ housing needs actually are, I came across the fact that that we have over 20,000 workers commuting into town every day, and that this population was largely comprised of our working middle class.  (That article is here)

This data suggests to me that the SIZE of our unmet housing need is AT LEAST 10,000 housing units (this assumes that only half of our working diaspora might move here if given a choice—so this is a conservative number).

And the SHAPE of that need is also clear: we need housing that is affordable for students / service workers / university staff / and households making under $150k per year, with the majority of it affordable by people making less than $100k per year.  This rules out single-family housing, no matter the lot size, or the gimmick of affordability applied to it.

That knowledge is where the real frustration sets in of course, because the single most significant source of additional housing on the horizon is our Measure J projects, which themselves are comprised largely of single-family homes—precisely the kind of housing we need the least.

This is where I agree wholeheartedly with Alex Aichmore’s column from last week, where he differentiated “housing” from “houses” and with Judy Ennis’ segment of last Thursday’s event talking about missing middle housing.

Yes, there IS a non-trivial portion of both those projects devoted to more affordable housing types.  Village Farms for example is “only” 78% single- family homes by acreage, and does provide for the development of 810 multi-family housing units on the remainder of the land.

But this fact only illustrates just how mis-matched our current housing vision is from the actual size and shape of our housing crisis.  If we approved ALL of the proposed peripheral projects:  Village Farms, Shriners AND the On-The-Curve proposals, we would only net ourselves a total of 3,670 additional housing units… and again, the majority of those would NOT be serving our most unmet need category.

Perhaps most importantly, we would have expended the bulk of our most accessible land for housing purposes in a really inefficient manner.

If you accept my premise that the lower bounds of our target for housing growth need to START at the production of 10,000 units (just to make up for our current deficit), then it is hard to conscience the use of the land in the ways currently proposed.  It would simply be a bad land-use decision.

The biggest problem with the existing Measure J is PLANNING

It is this term “land use” that exposes what I think is the most damaging effect that Measure J has produced, because the mechanism of measure J relies on the developers themselves to plan and propose, and champion their project.   There is no “master planning” being done, no consideration of the wider neighborhood being created, or of the city’s future needs.

In the absence of this master planning function, developers resort to merely proposing projects that satisfy two needs:

1) What they think will pass at the polls

2) What will make them the most money

If you look at the size and shape of both village farms and the shiners proposals, you see this clearly:  they are low-density single-family housing both for profit and to allay concerns about “traffic,” and they both propose parks at their southern edges in order to try to win over voters on the other side of the street who might otherwise be the most rabid opponents.   (These are the worst possible locations for parks by the way because for the sake of making transit effective, the lower parts of these developments along the mace corridor should be the bulk of the medium density housing.  Why are we calling for densifying our arterial corridors elsewhere in the city and then making empty pockets of zero density along THIS particular corridor?)

This is no way to plan a city.  In fact, the natural incentives produced by this system seem to actively reward bad city design and unwise uses of land.

This is why the vision for a Measure J amendment that I have developed over the past year has mostly focused on the planning function and turning those adverse incentives around.

It does not rely just on some density metric, or economic hurdle rate—it proposes a MAP that outlines a series of neighborhoods that are designed to work together; creating critical connections for bike and transit service, and making neighborhoods that integrate better with the rest of the city.

As proposed, Measure J would have an exception that permitted development within the proposed limit line IF and only if the development conformed to that master plan map also adopted at the same time.

That map, in turn, describes a master planned string of medium density housing all situated within walking distance of a transit corridor connecting all of that housing to campus (via downtown) and to the site of the future business park at the other end (still the only rational location for the expansion of our commercial sector)

After conceiving of this map more than a year ago, I have shared it with dozens of my fellow citizens, some of whom are urban planners and transit planners,  and have reached out to outsiders with expertise in urban planning, and I have yet to get any feedback indicating that there is a better way to do this.

These sites are simply the best ones we have, and if we want to produce housing that is also in-line with our concurrent climate mandate to reduce traffic and vehicle miles, then designing a transit line concurrently with our housing is really the only way to go.

But these are the kinds of things that parcel-by-parcel development, designed by developers, would never produce.

We simply can’t do “planning” via measure J.

Only amending measure J allows us to address both the size and shape of our housing crisis.

While the basic premise of the proposed measure J exemption has not changed over the course of the last year, the details have.  I have discussed it with many other members of our community, and those discussions have resulted in significant refinements of the concept leading it to where it is now.

The largest change was when we realized that the sites we are discussing are so large in the north-south orientation, that they were not “walkable” even internally:   For example, even though there is a Nugget shopping center across the street from village farms to the south, a person living even in the middle of that development would still likely drive to that store (because people tend only to walk places if they are a quarter mile or less).

So, while the limit line we are proposing for measure J would indeed stretch across the northern edges of these properties, the higher-density housing that we were proposing be exempted, do not.   It does not make sense at this point to put higher density housing in a place outside of walking distance to the transit line.  That is only a recipe for a lot more traffic.

So the most recent concept just calls for the exemption of the lower 1/3 – 1/2 of these properties as medium-density, transit connected neighborhoods.  Only the orange portions of the properties as depicted in the graphic above.

The rest of the properties there (still within the limit line) can be planned for via the eventual general plan process, but would NOT be develop-able via the amended measure J.

The best news here is this:   Embracing even moderate amounts of density is extremely effective.  For example, if we average only 23 units per acre within these reduced border lines, we will exceed the 10,000 unit goal we are after.   That is about the same density of the housing you see at the south end of the cannery.

Of course, not all of the area would be developed at that density.  I envision slightly higher density in the areas closest to the transit stops and places where there is also commercial service, like the lower edge of Village farms right across from the nugget.  These areas would have a few buildings closer to 50 du/ acre which we already see in many apartment complexes around town, and lesser density in areas in between and tapering off as you go north… but still very little, (if any) single family housing in that overall mix.   It really is a remarkably inefficient use of land.

If 7% of the land in this area is also required to be set aside for capital-A affordable housing via land dedication, then this concept provides a pathway to providing the full spectrum of housing that we are missing.

What is more is that these neighborhoods are likely to be some of the nicest parts of town.

All of the picturesque, walkable cities that we admire around the world, cities like Paris, Vienna, Amsterdam, and Barcelona, are all built with this kind of medium density, and when you have that density, then corner cafés and markets become feasible, urban parks become vibrant neighborhood social spots, and high-frequency transit actually pencils out.

This is the way we SHOULD be building our cities going into the future.   The model of the single-family suburb was discredited decades ago.  It is only laws like Measure J, the economic desires of developers, and entrenched bad habits that keep us developing along that model.

Davis can do better.

By embracing modern urban design principles, not only do we get the right volume of housing, but we get housing that serves the actual population segment that we most need to serve, and we do so in a way that has the least possible impact upon traffic and the environment.

The Measure J amendment as I have presented here is the ONLY path yet presented that achieves all of those goals simultaneously.

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. Matt Williams

    Tim, it was har reading your long article because of the constant glitches in the Vanguard website with the page/screen jumping up and down as new advertisements pop into view obscuring the text, so I apologize if you answered the following question.

    Specifically, what is the next step?  It would seem like creating a detailed “map” for each peripheral parcel is that next step?  How you see those individual maps being created?  Would the individual maps be part of the Measure J Amendment documentation/materials that inform the voters?

    You missed it on Thursday night because you had to go home early, but Bapu Vaitla in the final round of questions answered the “What is the one thing your would like to see happen?” question with the following answer “No more detached homes”  Do you anticipate that the maps will reflect a complete elimination of detached homes?

      1. Matt Williams

        Yes, but with an affordability caveat that the square footage of the units be sized so that they have low enough sale price per unit that is affordable to the members of the Davis workforce.

    1. Tim Keller


      I have found writing anything on the vanguard via my Ipad un-workable…  I feel you.

      Regarding the “next step”. I dont think we need to make “detailed” maps of the zone.  I have drawn lines on a map, and for sure I think that we need to come up with an map which is legally reliable – whatever that means, maybe it needs GPS coordinates at the boundaries…

      I think that if we have zones with minimum densities spelled out, then we can leave it to our own planning comission and the developers ( mostly ) to do the rest.

      I DO of course, have ideas of my own about how I would love to see these properties built.   For example I have doodled with alternatve layouts of the southern edge of village farms where we made a really nice public square around the existing trees there that would feel a lot like sonoma square.

      That and I think that there needs to be a “mini-downtown node”, with its own small shopping center on the north side of the mace curve across from Harper… if you look at the distribution of grocery stores around the rest of the city, it is quite obvious that there is a “gap” in coverage right there…

      I think it would be very interesting to have a conversation with members of the planning comission to learn how much detail should be put into that map.


      Regarding your questions about elimination of detached homes, I have three ways of answering that question:

      1) I think that we should be “concentrating” on missing middle housing and that we should not really be working on creating any more SFH until we actually see a little bit of vacancy appearing in the apartment / condo / co-op market.    Having some vacancy in those housing types is actually quite important because otherwise landlords have no incentive to do anything to keep their properties up to standards.

      2) As we produce more missing middle housing, I think we are going to see a lot of SFH being “freed up” as the increase supply in apartments will force fewer students to have to pack into single family homes and increasing the supply of condos and Co-Ops will also empty nesters to also down-size.   I personally would LOVE a condo in one of these neighborhoods so that I no longer have to take care of my landlords water-wasting lawn,…  A lot normal adults with kids actually DONT think that a single family home is mandatory to have children….

      3) The remainder of the land above these higher density zones Im talking about today… there will probably be single family in the mix up there… someday.   But again, I think that is fodder for the general plan process.    I have left those zones out because they are not in range of the transit line I have envisioned, and single family home = car-served home, and I don’t know if higher density works without that transit line.     I actually think it could- but because of the advent of the e-bike where davis might suddenly actually be as bike able as it is touted to be because with electric bikes you CAN bike around town in summer without arriving drenched in sweat…

      Either way… lets build LOTS of missing-middle housing first and THEN worry about whether we need any addtional single family homes.     Im guessing we would be fine for at least a decade without adding a single additional SHF… just a guess though.

  2. Richard McCann

    I think this states how clearly the incentives embedded in getting past Measure J/R/D are truly perverse and adverse to the interests of our community. Hard choices must be made in expanding our community but we’ve learned in important lesson from the last half century of consultant-led political campaigns that the need to win tramples what’s best. Those hard choices are left behind in the desire to win.

    1. Matt Williams

      Richard, the truly perverse incentive is the pursuit of maximal profits by the developers.  There comes a time when it is becomes time to ask, “When is it that enough wealth is enough?”

      1. Richard McCann

        Reigning in that incentive is precisely why we need government regulation of market behavior that runs counter to community interests. However, given our electoral history of the last half century I don’t see this incentive any more perverse than incentives presented by Measure J/R/D. They are equally challenging. At least the profit-motive incentive is well recognized and acknowledged. We haven’t done the same for the electoral incentive.

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