Thursday, April 24, 2014

Just Us in Davis: Cool or uncool?


The ability of Davis to provide affordable housing often has taken a back seat to the questions of controlling the city’s growth. This growth control is described as based on environmental or sustainable development values and part of Davis’ proud status as a “cool city.”

To be sure, the city’s extensive efforts to reduce energy and water consumption and waste generation, to promote biking and walking, and to encourage eating and buying local are impressive.

However, to truly become a cool city, Davis must include the issue of affordable housing in its strategies. This is because, without sufficient affordable housing, Davis is literally “driving up” its greenhouse gas emissions as those priced out of the local housing market commute from other communities to their jobs in Davis. Likewise, for those lower-income residents who are able to live here, their ability to contribute to the economic prosperity of the community is reduced by the burden of their housing costs.

Unfortunately, in its approval of a substantial revision of the city’s inclusionary housing policies earlier this month, the City Council majority may have taken a great leap backward on ensuring that Davis can walk the walk, and not merely talk the talk on sustainability.

In particular, by approving a provision that allows accessory dwelling units (popularly known as “granny flats”) to be counted toward developers’ and the city’s inclusionary housing requirements, the council majority opened the door to reducing, not increasing the supply.

While ADUs have been shown to provide affordable housing options in the San Francisco Bay Area, without clear regulations about the rents of these units, the city may be claiming a greater benefit than is warranted. Even a recent excellent study from UC Berkeley — “Yes in My Backyard: Mobilizing the Market for Secondary Units” — cited by some policy proponents cautions, “a program with a well thought-out policy rationale can fail if it is not well-matched to the appropriate target market.”

Ensuring that ADUs provide affordable housing for the “target market” the city seeks to serve will require a more detailed survey of rents for these units, including an analysis of who has access to this market and under what conditions and price points.

The stakes for getting it right are high. Based on research conducted by professor Chris Benner and colleagues at the UC Davis Center for Regional Change (full disclosure: I direct the center), Davis has been shown to have significant affordable housing problems.
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One study examines the location of affordable housing units relative to the location of low-wage jobs, sometimes called the job-housing fit. Ideally, housing affordable to low-wage workers is available near low-wage jobs. This is a benefit to workers as it allows for shorter commute times and reduced commute costs. It is also a benefit to the broader community and region because by reducing the number and length of commutes, the emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants is also reduced.

Compared to the rest of the Sacramento region, Davis has an extremely skewed job-housing fit, with a much higher proportion of low-wage jobs compared to affordable housing. This translates into higher levels of commuting by low-wage workers into Davis, and this is why without adequate affordable housing, Davis cannot claim to be a truly cool city.

If the environmental argument were not enough, a second study shows that Davis has much higher average (between 29 and 39 percent) of its households paying more than half of household income on housing costs. In comparison, the average for the Sacramento region as a whole is only 19 percent. The implications of this high cost of housing is that even for those who can technically afford to live in Davis, their disposable income to spend in area stores, to pay for enrichment programs for their children, to save for college and so on, is greatly diminished.

Likewise, high housing costs exact a high opportunity cost as many graduates of our secondary and post-secondary schools move away, leading to a brain drain that no community can afford. In fact, if my family and I were in the housing market now, we would not be able to afford the home we currently own.

The City Council is to be applauded for exploring a range of options to respond to the loss of redevelopment funds that formerly contributed the bulk of resources needed for building affordable housing. Its members’ intention to increase the supply of affordable rental units, instead of only home ownership, is likewise a positive step.

While short-term actions are needed to ensure that Davis remains an affordable community for residents, there is also an immediate need to think long-term. Developing rigorous methods to assess the impacts of the council’s recent policy changes on the availability and access to affordable housing, including unintended consequences, would be a first step.

Cool is good, cool and just is better.

— Jonathan London, Ph.D., is a Davis resident and parent. He shares this monthly column with Jann Murray-García. Reach him at

Jonathan London


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