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Wednesday, February 13, 2008

News and Commentary: Council Majority Votes To Maintain 1% Growth Guideline

It was a debate steeped in philosophy, maybe a little too much philosophy if one agrees with Councilmember Don Saylor. But at the core of the 1 percent growth guideline are fundamental concerns about what kind of community we want to live in now and in the future.

The lines of the debate were at the same time simple and blurred. The council majority argument was essentially to keep the 1% growth guideline policy in place while at the same time moving their rhetorical position slightly to suggest that the 1% guideline was a cap and not a mandate. This, as we have argued in previously blog entries, represents in itself a glacial movement of the council's stated position in 2005--when they, and specifically Stephen Souza, implored the community to pass Measure X in an effort to remain in compliance with our legal obligations to grow.

At the same time, members of the council majority argued for community support for faster growth rate.

Councilmember Stephen Souza:
“It has been a very slow and steady rate of growth, in fact some would argue too slow.”
However, community members such as Jean Jackman speaking during public comment spoke of a long list of community efforts to slow growth beginning with the Passage of Measure L in 1986 that indicates support for growth at the lowest permissible rate. There was also Measure O which was passed to tax the public in an effort to preserve open space. Measure J gave the public a vote on peripheral growth and finally Measure X put Measure J into action with a fundamentally resounding defeat of a large peripheral project.

To maintain the current levels of growth, the current council majority would seem to have to go against the grain of public opinion and against current trends in the housing market.

Councilmember Souza went on to argue that the system was to be a maximum number, and its goal was to smooth out the growth rate of the city to prevent years of zero growth (which implies it is indeed more than a cap) and a the same time to prevent years of huge growth (which would be more consistent with a cap argument).

It was always a guideline, he argued,
“nowhere does it say it’s a rate.”
And perhaps he is correct, but that was not what he and his colleagues argued in 2005. In fact, I would argue that their entire argument missed the key 800 pound gorilla of Covell Village. During the Covell Village and Measure X debate the argument was exactly what Mr. Souza now claims it is not--that we had to pass Covell Village to meet our 1% growth mandate. It was not treated as an option in 2005, it was not treated as a cap, it was argued that we would be out of compliance if we did not pass Covell Village. Now the tune has changed.

Mr. Souza then goes to a four-year exercise in showing the total numbers of housing permits by year. Why four years? One could argue because it seems likely that during the first portion of the General Plan cycle the majority of projects came through. And so, the half percent cited growth rate during the last four years masks the higher growth rate since 2001.
"I would think that for the vast majority of folks, the growth has not occurred.”
But there is more to this argument that is missing and again it comes down to Covell Village. Mr. Souza and his colleagues are consistently arguing that even with the growth goal of 1% we have not reached it over the last four years. This is an accurate, but misleading statement. If the council majority had had their druthers, their inclination, Covell Village would have passed in 2005. And Covell Village was stopped not by the council majority, but by the voters. So the council majority wants to take credit for the failure of a policy that they fought to the proverbial death to get passed.

Both Mr. Souza and Mr. Saylor argue that this low rate of growth suggests that this indicates that there is no pressure to grow.

Councilmember Saylor:
“Over the last four years, as Mr. Souza outlined, the city has issued 491 building permits, an average of 123 per year or less then a half a percent… If we’re concerned that this one percent growth parameter has resulted in increased pressure for growth in the city, it is difficult to understand why nothing has happened in terms of growth”
But there was pressure for growth in the city. The pressure came from the council majority and a group of developers in 2005. It was hard pressure. It took a long and concerted effort to turn back. It was pressure that was ultimately resisted by this community, but it was pressure nonetheless. Here again, Mr. Saylor rhetorically it seems, is using the fact that they lost the Measure X vote as an argument for there not being growth pressure as the result of their growth policies. There was pressure, the pressure came directly from the council, everyone in this city who was in town during this time, knows it. And, the only reason we did not grow by those 2000 units was that the people of Davis said no, not the council majority.

Councilmember Saylor then goes on to argue that we have increased housing needs--over and above those addressed in 2003, that led to the advocacy for Covell Village.
“In some ways the needs are more significant today than they were in 2003. We continue to have a low apartment vacancy rate for student rentals. It’s at one percent at this point, five percent is described by property managers as reasonable for friction—the frictional moving in and moving out that happens in a healthy economy. Seniors anecdotally are talking very actively—they’re interested in downsizing, but there is no place for them to downsize to. The result is that many continue to live in houses that are too large for their needs. And that means that house is not available to a family with children. We have more commuters now than we had in 2003. The social fabric that we live in, the community that we love, the quality of life that we enjoy here has begun to rand at different places.”
However, lost in this philosophical discussion of our housing needs, is that $10 million question--what happens if we build to accommodate these needs? Where do we put these new buildings? What farmland do we pave over to do so? What will this town look like when we are through? And the last point which is one that Mayor Greenwald raised--what assurances do we have that new housing is going to meet those needs.

It is instructive that the biggest project offered up by this council majority would have decidedly not met those very specific needs. Covell Village was not an affordable housing project. It was a housing project that primarily catered to the upper end--$600,000 homes. What needs would that have filled? Rhetoric is simple to use for the council majority, but at the core, their rhetoric does not meet with reality.

Finally the base of Councilmember Saylor's philosophy:
“We live in Davis for a high quality of life and a sense of community. And when we think about what causes that, how many of us actually think it has to do with how many of us there are.”
We may not explicitly verbalize our character and quality of life in terms of size of city, but would this city look the same with 120,000 people in it. Would we still have the same sense of community? Would we still be able to bike around our town? Would we still be able to walk in our core area of town? Would we still be safe in our homes? Would we still preserve our agricultural heritage?

At the end of the day, needs and affordability are alluring arguments, but we have not made concrete what our community would like. What would our community look like adding developments the size of 1.5 Mace Ranches every seven years. Is that the community we want? Because, that is the implication of the 1% growth rate. And the council says we will not grow at that rate, well that's because they were stopped by the people when they tried.

Mayor Sue Greenwald showed statistical analysis that demonstrated that Davis' housing growth rate had no impact on the cost of housing. The economists argue supply and demand. The problem with housing is that city supply does not necessarily curb demand, because demand is not a closed system that ends in Davis, it's a regional demand. Any increase in housing would be a mere pinprick in a vast system of demand that extends to millions and even tens of millions of people. The charts presented by the Mayor showed that housing demand is inelastic, it is not abated by increased supply. Housing prices went up continuously and show no apparent reaction to the yearly ups and downs of new housing provided by Davis.

I would argue that we bring down the cost of housing in Davis only by making Davis a less desirable place to raise one's family and to live. I have no desire to see that happen.

As Ruth Asmundson argued, affordable housing necessarily means growth. The only way to supply more affordable housing is to build more housing overall. We cannot simply build 100% affordable.

The tough questions were disappointingly not undertaken at this point in time.

However, Councilmember Lamar Heystek laid out from my perspective the crux of the argument:
“When I first ran for the City Council, I knew that this was the bread and butter of our business here at City Hall. I am glad to be here on the council to be part of this discussion twenty-two years after Measure L has been passed. And so I think we have a unique opportunity to reflect in a meaningful fashion the will of the people of Davis when they voted that the growth of Davis be as slow as it is legally permissible. And that the future growth of Davis be concentrated on lands already incorporated into the city with future annexations to be discouraged. There was a small discussion of economics 101, as a renter I can attest to the fact that we live in a community where the vacancy rate can go up, as will rents. And that has always puzzled me. If our solution to market rate affordability is compounded growth, I believe that strategy will fail miserably.”
He then cites language from the resolution that
“the number of units allowable based on the 1% guideline shall increase based on city growth. Built into the current policy is a self-fulfilling prophecy. We currently have a resolution that said that the guideline will call for more units of growth as the city continues to growth. That is, I believe, irresponsible. I believe that the city, in adopting this policy, I respectfully disagree with Councilmember Souza and former Councilmember Puntillo. But I do say that this policy has created artificial pressure on the community. It is incumbent upon us to relieve that pressure if we receive that opportunity—and that opportunity is tonight. I do implore my colleagues to identify the fact that there is a gross disparity—gross relative to our standards—between the SACOG Regional Housing Needs Assessment Allocation as well as our 1% growth guideline as it is currently phrased. To have a policy that calls for more growth than we are otherwise being asked or requested to accommodate, is I think, hypocritical and antithetical to our philosophy as a slow growth community.”
Commenting after the meeting was Eileen Samitz, a member of the HESC who also spoke during the meeting as a member of the public.

She writes to the Vanguard:
"The Council majority's (Saylor, Souza, and Asmundson) action of merely adding a "cap" tonight fell far short of what was needed to protect Davis from accelerated growth. Although it was requested, language that was not added to the Council majority's growth ordinance that also should have been added was: "Davis' growth should not exceed any RHNA number for housing units requested by SACOG".

For instance, our current RHNA number for housing units is only 498 units yet no language change happened tonight to avoid 2,300 units from being built by 2013 which is almost five times more than SACOG's request of Davis. (Note: 2,300 units is 1.5 Mace Ranch developments every 7 years.) In turn, building 2,300 units would motivate SACOG to assign Davis a higher RHNA number for housing units into the future. Clearly, the concept of growing 325 units per year is terribly flawed and is in direct conflict with the citizen-based Measure L "to grow as slow as legally permissible".

The Council majority of Saylor, Souza and Asmundson who voted for the inadequate language change to merely substituted the word "cap" for "guideline, all ran on slow-growth platforms during their Council campaigns. Apparently, they are to be trying to redefine the term "slow-growth". The Council majority-based 1% growth ordinance may sound slow, but is not slow growth. Furthermore, there was never a fiscal study, nor an environmental impact analysis done for this new ordinance, ands most importantly the citizens of Davis never got to vote on this Council majority-generated growth ordinance. This new 1% growth ordinance conflicts directly with our citizen-based 2001 General Plan. Tonight was the night to correct the problems with this growth ordinance, not later."
At the end of the day, I think that the council majority made some good arguments. I am not one that believes we need zero growth. I am also one that recognizes that we need to do a better job of providing housing that people, that families, that students, that faculty can afford. Where I think their arguments fall short is on how we accomplish that. Covell Village would not have accomplished that. The council majority's arguments use that failure ironically to argue that the growth guideline is merely a cap not a goal and not a requirement. This is a marked change from 2005 and it becomes a convenient pressure-valve for them to suggest that we are not growing at 1%--when the fact remains the only reason we are not growing at 1% is that the public said no, not the council.

Finally, particularly Councilmember Saylor argued for some very specific housing needs while Councilmember Souza suggested that we were growing too slowly. What they did not say is where we would put these new student housing units, these new senior housing units, these new family housing units. Are we talking about a new Covell Village? Are we talking about the I-80 corridor? Are we talking about the Northwest Quadrant? Are we talking about Nishi? And if so, what are the impacts of these new developments? Both Councilmember Saylor and Souza opposed county proposals in three of these areas, do they not owe it to the public to be more forthright about where they intend to put all of this new housing that will meet our needs?

In the coming weeks the HESC will come forth with their site proposals, it is my hope that the council majority will then show us where all of this new housing will go as it relates to these sites. It is my guess that that particular discussion will not happen for some time.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting