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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Housing Element Workshop Brings Growth Debate and Complaints About Process

The city council held a short workshop on the Housing Element Steering Committee’s recommendations along with recommended modifications posed by the Planning Commission and agreed to by the planning staff for the city.

Unfortunately, the Mayor Ruth Asmundson, only scheduled a short period of time for the workshop. It went from 5:00 PM to 6:30, with only a fifteen minute time period for public input. By the time the staff presentation finished, the council had only about five to seven minutes each to speak.

One has to question the usefulness of such a brief discussion on such an important issue. Nevertheless, even the brief time, sharp policies differences erupted between members on the council over the amount and direction of growth.

Councilmember Sue Greenwald questioned why we need these specified new sites. “We have dramatically decreasing home prices right now.” Median home sales prices since 2005 between first quarter of 2006 and first quarter of 2008, we have a 26% decline in home prices according to the Sacramento Bee home sales database. According to the San Francisco Chronicle—“Bay Area home prices plunge 27% in the last year.” She said these numbers are consistent with Davis. “These are areas that are considered higher end and immune to decrease.” Furthermore, she continued with the argument that there is no correlation between new housing permits and housing prices in Davis. Other trends are what are driving the market. She believes that this trend will continue for the next few years. So given the fact that we have already completed our regional fair-share of growth, she does not see the need to grow before 2013.

Councilmember Greenwald also discussed senior housing briefly. “In terms of senior housing, I think we need to separate out housing that is desirable for seniors from senior only housing complexes.” She suggests that a condo-complex downtown would be much more appealing to seniors, than a senior-only complex on the periphery of town.

Mayor Pro Tem Don Saylor on the other hand, argued that we need more growth.
“I think that we do have needs for housing.”
He continued,
“I think there is several categories of need, and when I see the page in the report that you’ve just shared with us, I am concerned that we are not providing virtually any supply or addition. However, you cut it, building 44 in one year and 14 the next year, doesn’t get at the need that I believe that our community has.”
“As we work through this process, from my perspective, I am interested in balancing how we address those community needs for additional housing supply with a careful respect for the character of the community as we change.”
Mayor Ruth Asmundson:
“I also agree with Don, we need to have some housing. We can’t stay at zero housing. There has to be some growth to stay healthy.”
She wants to determine what our housing needs are and she wants them to determine how we grow and how much.
“There has to be growth in Davis to keep us healthy. I always have an analogy you know it’s like a baby. The baby is so cute, so adorable, that you wish that this baby wouldn’t grow. But if this baby doesn’t grow, then this baby will become retarded. And so it’s the same thing with the city.”
Sue Greenwald briefly said that we do not need to grow to be healthy. She cited the example of Pittsburgh, PA, which has declined in population but is now thriving as a city more so than several decades ago. She said we have to be realistic about growth and sustainability. She argued that more growth does not lend itself to sustainability.

A number of members of the public came to speak. Due to the abbreviated speaking period, some only spoke for one minute. Others spoke for two minutes.

Matt Williams made some interesting observations during this time.
“I was taken Mayor Asmundson about your comment about nurturing a child. One of the things that we do when we nurture a child is that we feed it. But we also take it to the doctor and we rid it of parasites. We treat the things that are eating up the city from the inside. One of the biggest effects on our city is UCD—in both positive and negative ways. Growth can happen by adding additional houses. What I’m hearing from Councilman Saylor and you, is that what would seem to be the only way to growth would be to add houses. It would seem to me that if UCD steps up and does what it needs to do. If it helps us rid the city of the negative effect of the university, by skewing the supply and demand curve. Using up all the supply of rental housing for students. Instead accommodates the students on the campus, the way other UCD’s do, we would indeed be able to grow. We would grow with our existing amount of housing. And we would see the people who would be added to the city, be close to the core, contribute to the businesses downtown by being more demand for their services, and their products. And we would end up with a more vibrant Davis.”
A numbers members of the public then came up during the public session of the regularly scheduled meeting to complain both about the timing of the meeting and the very short length of the public comment period for such an important issue.

One of those people was Eileen Samitz who made the point:
“Also the scheduling of these issues… to have a controversial issue like the general plan update, which was affecting the entire community, to schedule it at 5:00, when people like myself have to take off from work to get here… This is not what our city is about. Davis is supposed to be a model of democracy.”
Mayor Ruth Asmundson responded to these complaints from the public.
“Let me just talk a little about the public comment… At first this was supposed to be just a workshop. But we decided to put 15 minutes for those to speak that couldn’t make it to public comment at the regular meeting. If there are needs to have more discussion we’ll have it at the end. What I’m trying to do here is trying to juggle conflicting demands. Some council members don’t want to have too long meetings. Some council members don’t want to have that many meetings. But we are trying to make sure that we are having a healthy public engagement. And we’re going to be looking into how we can do that. The fifteen minute rule, if we have to go on, we have business to take care of. The council met at five o’clock, we have other business to do. I wanted to make sure council had an opportunity to have dinner before too long. And so that’s why the fifteen minutes.”
Councilmember Lamar Heystek asked for a future meeting to discuss some of the operating procedures. He is concerned about council communications being so late in the hour under the new policies.

Councilmember Sue Greenwald also disagreed with the new policy limiting public comment to fifteen minutes.
“I share the concerns that a number of the members of the public had. For example, when you said that initially you were going to have a workshop without any public comment, we always, when we discuss any item, have always had public comment. It’s been understood that it is not something that is at the discretion of the mayor.”
She continued:
“I personally feel that limiting public comment is a huge mistake in terms of time. There’s been very few times when public comment really is very long. And when it does, it’s usually because there is a room full of young children who want to keep a hockey rink open or something. And you’re not going to want to cut them off. I guarantee you. And it’s going to look very bad when you let them talk for a half an hour but you haven’t let other citizens talk for over fifteen minutes. It will look arbitrary and capricious.”
It is unclear what will come of the discussion of process. From a personal standpoint, I have always had much more grave concerns about process issues than policy issues.

From a policy standpoint, there will be future discussion in September on the Housing Element. There is a clear disagreement in the direction that the city needs to go. I think there is some opportunity however, even within that disagreement for consensus building.

There seems to be a joint desire for development in the core. I think the ideas that Matt Williams brought up about the university taking a larger share of the responsibility to house students, faculty, and staff, make a lot of sense. This came up during the campaign. I do not see disagreement on that particularly issue by the council. Mayor Pro Tem Don Saylor, while suggesting that was not enough, did seem to support the idea of more housing on campus. If we begin where there is agreement, we can see a less rancorous council.

On the other hand, if we begin with some of the more controversial proposals, if we push Measure J projects like Covell and Nishe first, then we will see more discord on the council and a stronger divide between those who favor a more measured approach to growth taking into account current housing needs within the city, regional trends, and those who would like to see closer to the 1% growth cap.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting