Guest Comment: Davis must build more housing to avoid municipal stagnation


by Jackson Mills

Healthy cities are consistent growth machines. They continually attract new residents while supporting their existing population which contributes to the local economy. The revenue a city derives from this population base is then used to fund and expand essential services, such as education, public safety, health care, energy, water, transportation, and more. Moreover. These improved services then attract more new residents to the city, further stimulating spending and development.

This is a healthy cycle for cities, allowing them to grow at a steady pace and make tangible improvements to services and attractions that enhance quality of life. What happens, however, when a community hijacks this growth process? What happens when you try to freeze a city in a given period and prevent this cycle from happening? We don’t have to go far to find answers.

Over the past 20 years, the town of Davis has largely ceased to grow. According to the U.S. Census, the city experienced a 10-year population growth of 30.5% from 1990 to 2000. This fell to 8.8% from 2000 to 2010, and from 2005 to 2010 the total growth was less than 2%. This slow pace continued over the following decade, with 1.9% total growth between 2010 and 2020.

Davis’ stagnant population growth stems from the fact that the city has stopped building significant levels of housing. The city grew at a brisk pace from the 1970s through the 1990s, but new housing construction plummeted around the turn of the century. From 2010 to 2020, only 1,200 units were built, an increase of 4.6%, or less than half a percentage point per year.

This was due to a variety of factors. One of the most notable was the passage of Measure J in 2000, which required a citywide vote on any development project requiring the annexation of land adjacent to the city. The measure was later expanded with Measures R in 2010 and Measure D in 2020. Measure J allowed Davis residents to cancel key housing development proposals over the past two decades, as seen most recently the rejection of the Davis Innovation and Sustainability Campus in 2020. .

Only two projects – Bretton Woods in 2018 and Nishi in 2018 (after failing at the polls in 2016) – have been approved by voters since Measure J was passed. Both have been subject to lawsuits brought against them by disgruntled residents seeking to prevent any new development from being built. As of 2022, no housing units have been materialized from J/R/D measurement projects.

If Davis cannot develop farmland, the only other option is infill development. But attempts to build within the city limits have been ruthlessly bogged down by residents and community organizers who hide behind claims to preserve the character of the neighborhood in question.

Take, for example, the development of the Trackside Center. This four-story mixed-use building was approved by the Davis City Council in 2017, but surprisingly construction hasn’t started nearly five years later. The development was blocked in a lawsuit brought by members of the Old East Davis community who decided to spend half a decade blocking new retail businesses and new neighbors from their neighborhood. That only ended after the state Supreme Court declined to reconsider the case in April 2022.

Here we see the fundamental reason why Davis has struggled to build housing over the past two decades. Residents have a unique and immense power to determine the fate of a new development; no matter how or where the city tries to build, every new project is one trial or one vote away from being delayed for years, or never being built at all. To say the least, this is an incredibly unsustainable situation.

The consequences of not building are rooted in the basic economy: as the supply of housing in Davis has shrunk, the demand for available and affordable housing has exploded. This dichotomy has spurred a skyrocketing rise in housing prices: the median home value in Davis has risen from $450,000 in 2012 to over $875,000 in 2022. An average household income of around $200,000 is needed to afford a home at that value, which only one estimates 11.2% of Yolo County households and 13.3% of California households do, according to the American Community Survey.

The skyrocketing demand for housing in Davis without sufficient supply has led to a historically low rental vacancy rate. From 2014 to 2019, 0.5% of rentals were vacant on average at any given time; for context, healthy housing markets tend to have vacancy rates of five to eight percent. Davis’ low vacancy rate is a symbol of an exclusive housing market that comes at the expense of anyone trying to find rental accommodations.

Davis is facing a housing affordability crisis like never before in its history. This is not unique, as many cities in California have seen housing costs soar over the past decade. What’s different about Davis are the measurements and ordinances that have made it nearly impossible for the city to build enough housing in the 21st century. This includes Measure J as well as the one percent growth cap passed in 2006, which requires the city not to increase its population beyond one percent per year.

Families are a group particularly hard hit by the Davis housing crisis. It is generally accepted that Davis is a great place to raise a family, with its outstanding schools, numerous parks and green spaces, easy access to goods and services, and proximity to Sacramento’s major employment centers. The city also has a vested interest in meeting the needs of families, who contribute significantly to local government revenue through sales tax and property taxes.

But the ongoing housing crisis means a growing number of families cannot afford to live in Davis. As a result, Davis schools are facing declining enrollment that threatens to cut state funding within a few years. School district officials warn that the district faces declining enrollment for the foreseeable future. This increasingly untenable situation will force cuts to essential education programs and teachers — and could even herald school closures — unless residents vote to raise parcel taxes or find other sources. funding to avoid these cuts. The district’s recent strategy of importing students from outside Davis is not a viable long-term solution to this deepening crisis.

Education isn’t the only institution that will suffer if Davis doesn’t build enough housing. Cities that lack the necessary tax base and sources of revenue face budgetary challenges that can have a significant impact on the quality of education, access to transport, maintenance of infrastructure, health and public safety resources. With the ever-increasing cost of living and services caught in a cycle of chronic underfunding and inadequacy, it becomes very difficult for cities to improve their situation.

What results from this vicious circle are cities that function as exhibitions for the wealthy to enjoy among themselves. They cannot be inhabited by huge swathes of the general population, and are viewed as increasingly undesirable by outsiders who view them. Davis is closer to that reality than we think.

One group I have yet to mention is the students, who will nevertheless play a significant role in determining Davis’s prospects. A core tenet among community members who have strongly opposed the new development at Davis is that UC Davis should do more to house its students on campus. It’s a cynical way to shift the responsibility from the city to the university to solve the housing crisis on its own. He is also unaware that UC Davis has, in fact, done a lot to accommodate its growing student population, including the completion of West Village which has 5,475 beds.

Consistency of student residence in Davis would normally protect against some of the economic and institutional issues that will plague the city without a change in the status quo. But because the university is not within the city limits, students living on campus are not a functional property tax base that Davis can rely on.

If Davis does not build enough housing and UC Davis continues to build more housing, an increasing number of students will live on campus rather than in the city. This is a lost tax base that the city could otherwise benefit from. Any argument that the university should accommodate more students is an argument for the reduction in significant income Davis would receive if those students remained in the city itself.

The city cannot rely on any particular group of people or any other quick fix to avoid the costs associated with insufficient housing construction; it just needs to build more housing. We have to recognize that the desire of longtime residents and community members to keep Davis unchanged is starting to aggravate the town.

Davis’ neighborhoods cannot be museums for the rich and retired, with exhibits that never change. The city’s well-regarded municipal services and institutions will suffer unless we take meaningful action to address our housing crisis. Measure J and the 1% growth cap are inconsistent with Davis’ housing needs and must be reformed if there is even any hope of making housing more accessible and affordable.

Davis is a vibrant, diverse and culturally rich city. We should do everything in our power to preserve these qualities which are an integral part of the character of the city. All are at risk in the absence of effective municipal housing policies that ensure the addition of sufficient units to make housing more accessible and affordable. We owe it to ourselves, our current and future neighbors and the city we love to ensure that the next generation of families, students, changemakers and everyone else can live and thrive. at Davies.

Jackson Mills is a student at UC Davis, director of political affairs for the Davis College Democrats and a bus driver for ASUCD Unitrans.

Melissa C. Keyes