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Saturday, July 28, 2007

Why Do Democratic City Councils Plan Housing That Republicans Will Live In?

As I confess, the title of this post is not mine. It was in fact donated to me, the name has been erased to protect the guilty. Many would be in fact, surprised to hear the source of this title, particularly people on the city council itself.

The title comes from a debate that stems from the county general plan update proposals and well beyond that. The notion has come down from the county that the city of Davis opposes such growth proposals because this is a rich, white, elitist town. While in a number of ways, that is arguably true, I have argued against this point repeatedly because I think the center of the motivation against growth has been not only about protecting agricultural land and open space, but also procedural points that the city of Davis and not the county use have land use authority on the city edge.

Where this issue begins to gain resonance in terms of housing developments, is that as we look at proposed housing we see designs that are increasingly for less dense, large homes, on large lots. Even affordable housing requirements have a number of problems. The number of set-asides is fairly small. Those that are set aside end up being limited equity homes, which make it easy for an individual to buy a home but difficult for an individual to improve their lot in life and buy another home down the line. The alternative to the limited equity model has been basically the policy whereby a person would purchase a house for a given price and sell it two years later at a market level for a huge expenditure. Needless to say, that is not a sustainable policy and it results in a loss of affordable homes.

However, in between the true affordable limited equity home and the market price home is basically no man's land. If Davis wishes to produce more affordable housing to the average middle income person, this is the bridge they need to gulf. How do you produce the $300,000 to $400,000 home rather than the $150,000 or the $600,000 plus home?

One suggestion has been to build enough homes to increase the supply enough that the housing prices will come down. That is a tricky strategy however because you have no a closed market for homes but rather an open, regional market for homes. That regional demand keeps the prices fairly high across the board. In short, I do not believe you can build your way out of this problem without producing enough problems that reduce the quality of life in Davis.

I do not have great answers on this question, but I do think that large amounts of growth will not solve the problem unless it makes Davis a less desirable destination, which I think is not anyone's goal when they advocate for growth. On the other hand, current housing policies are going to end up creating an elite Davis filled with Republicans.

So I have two suggestions, one of my own and one from another individual. My own suggestions is that we start by building smaller, denser homes on small lots, possibly duplexes in an effort to produce a market of $300,000 to $400,000 homes. As I went around town, there are actually such homes on the market for that value. These would be small homes, two to a lot, that would sell for a lower price than the average home which is far larger.

A second suggestion comes from my source and it is an intriguing idea on how to open up the housing market without large amounts of new growth. It has to do with owner occupancy. The idea is that we require owner occupancy of single-family homes. There are a large amount of homes in town that are not on the market for single-family residences because they are not owner occupied and instead rented out. The effect of that is to take a large number of would-be residences off the housing market. The city would change zoning laws to require owner occupancy. That would mean a large number of property owning companies would need to sell their homes and place them on the market, producing a good amount of homes for a decent price.

There still would be the need for new development, to serve the needs of those who are currently renting in town. There the city would designed new rental units and cooperative living arrangements to enable a place for the current renters of single-family homes to reside. This transition would take some time, but ultimately help free up a large number of homes for home ownership while still providing the current residents of those homes a good and affordable place to live. If done correctly, this could be achieved with a minimal amount of upheaval and controversy.

I think we all agree that current policies are not sustainable. Those of us who have concerns about protection of agricultural land and open space, would still like to be able to provide more affordable housing to residents and potential residents in Davis. However, that housing should not come at some of the huge costs of current policies. Moreover, current growth proposals largely do not address these issues.

One final point, new housing should not look like the cookie-cutter tract homes of many of the new subdivisions and neighborhoods. We need to strongly encourage housing construction that produces good and unique character of neighborhoods, so that they do not look like the mere extension of suburbia that you see in some of Davis' newer neighborhoods and many of Natomas'.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting