I was partly raised in San Francisco, and partly in Davis, California, a college town which calls itself the Bicycle Capital of the World, about an hour and a half northeast of San Francisco. This is going to be a shade more personal than most of my posts, since my hometown is determined to price out all the kids who graduated from Davis High School, or studied at UC Davis.
The State has a bunch of new laws to end the housing crisis which require each region to plan for and build a ton of new housing between 2021 and 2029. Once the state issues a quota for the region, the cities divide the regional quota amongst themselves. If your city doesn't zone for enough, the State can void your zoning law and sue you into oblivion; if you don't build enough, developers can show up with a big pile of money and build anything that meets the law. In Greater Sacramento, the quota is 153,000 new homes, 62,500 of which has to be low-income housing. (In places where the shortage is worse, you have higher quotas, so greater LA has a quota of 1.3 million.)
Now, the City of Sacramento has done a pretty good job with this. They actually want to build more, so Sac has decided to allow big apartments in the center city and near train stations, and small apartments like you see in the East Coast everywhere else.
But Davis, despite its reputation as an ultraliberal mecca, has no interest in letting poor people live there. And Davis has ridiculously restrictive land use laws which make it illegal to build the kinds of small, cheap apartment buildings you see in Midtown or in Berkeley. Because of that, the city of Davis is trying to weasel out of its legal obligations.
The state housing quotas
Davis's portion of the quota is about 2100 new homes. That's not a whole lot, honestly. You could double Davis's population tomorrow, and you'd get a city about as dense as Berkeley. Davis is famous for not letting anybody build there, often justifying it using environmental reasons. They'll build the Toad Tunnel, but heaven forbid you try to build a new apartment building. The old Hunt-Wesson tomato plant closed over 20 years ago, and they're still not finished building it out. Davis's city council would much rather have students and UCD workers drive in from Woodland or Sac, because if you build new housing in Davis, housing gets cheaper. (The best academic research shows that every new home built lowers rents of existing buildings within 200 yards.)
Thing is, the City still has to put a legally binding plan together that'll pass muster with the State, or else. So, they drafted a plan. Click here if you want to read it. And the tl;dr of the plan is, "lol no, we're not building anything."
1. Ghost homes
To meet the quota, you have to identify housing that's likely to be built between now and 2029, or else change your law to allow more homes. The City's plan says that there's 2,409 homes proposed or approved, which is enough to meet the quota with room to spare.
Plus, they say there's another couple hundred homes worth of capacity in Downtown Davis.
There's only two problems with this. Not every proposed home gets approved, and not every approved home gets built. Especially in Davis. Davis's recent history is full of proposed housing which crashed and burned. There was Covell Village, in 2005; Wildhorse Ranch, in 2009; and DISC, in 2020.
(You know, last year.) The City's plan even gives a summary of all the proposed developments which have crashed and burned.
Likewise, the City counts a bunch of ghost developments which are approved but probably won't get built. If you look at the list of approved developments, there's two that really stand out.
Davis plans to meet 1/3 of its whole quota - 803 apartments - with just two developments, Nishi Student Apartments and Chiles Ranch. Nishi is supposed to provide 700 apartments. But Nishi got approved three years ago, and today, it's still an empty lot.
Same for Chiles Ranch, where there's supposed to be 108 new homes. Chiles Ranch was approved in 2009, back when Barack Obama had just started his first term, Donald Trump was a third-rate celebrity, and Miley Cyrus was still playing Hannah Montana. It's an empty lot today.
2. 35 percent of zero is zero
The City also says they'll require a bunch of new affordable housing to be built because the City currently requires between 5 and 25% of new condos and single-family homes to be below-market-rate, and 25-35% for rentals.
Thing is, this setup just doesn't work. During the 2013-21 quota period, Davis managed to build 260 units of low-income affordable housing, and was short of its quota by 1/3. In the 2021-29 quota period, Davis is supposed to build 920 units of low-income housing. That's 3 1/2 times as many units. Since the City has no intention of reforming its affordable housing law or legalizing more apartments, there's no way Davis meets its targets.
By having an affordable housing requirement that high, nothing gets built. And that's the point. Rich Davis liberals can say they have a strong affordable housing law, while simultaneously making sure that housing stays expensive. 35% of zero is still zero.
3. Mandatory suburbia
The other thing about Davis is, most of Davis is mandatory suburbia. The city zoning law requires suburban style homes to be built - and the city's mandatory minimum parking law means that virtually everything new has to be a strip mall. (No, for real. Every 300 square feet of retail space requires 400 square feet of parking.) In most of Davis, it's illegal to build something like Midtown Sacramento. It's a bunch of arcane legal requirements that you'd have to be a land use lawyer or in the construction business to pick up on.
- have more than one house on a lot plus a cottage
- have a front yard smaller than 20', and a back yard smaller than 25'.
- have less than two parking spaces per house (yes, in Davis, which is supposed to be the bike capital of the world)
- have a lot less than 6000 square feet
Now, if you go to Midtown, you see:
- plenty of lots have two, four, or even six units
- most are built right up to the street; some are built all the way to the back of the lot
- some have one parking space, some have two parking spaces, some don't have any off-street parking at all
- some lots are 8000 or 9000 square feet, but others are as small as 2000.
Davis's rules are dumb, but it's the law. And it's why so much of Davis is expensive tract homes from the 1950s and 1960s. The City won't give you a permit if you want to tear down a 70-year-old tract home and build an apartment building, you can't sell off the front or the back yards for housing even though there's enough space, and you can't even cut up an existing structure for use as multiple apartments, like in the old days.
OK, so what would it look like if Davis actually wanted to build more homes?
Basically, Davis would just crib its housing plan from its neighbor across the Causeway. Sacramento's plan to meet its quotas is to allow big apartment buildings by train stations, smaller apartments citywide, and to eliminate most of the laws which require big yards, big lots, and lots of parking spaces. On top of that, Sac has a policy where if a proposed building meets the law, they'll give you a permit in 60-90 days. In Davis, they'll make you go through roughly 92,000 public hearings where the neighbors bitch and moan at you for that.
Davis can do this. It can allow more housing, do something about the housing shortage, and make it so ordinary Davis High grads and UCD grads can afford to stay in town. But the City Council doesn't want to. And they ought to be ashamed of themselves.