Low population growth in Davis is symptomatic of low development rates and rising cost of housing

Statewide housing crisis hits Davis hard

By LEVI GOLDSTEIN [email protected]

Davis has traditionally been a city with low population growth, according to Barbara Archer, communications and customer service manager for the City of Davis. In June 1986, an advisory measure was approved, calling on Davis to grow as slowly as legally possible, according to Section IV Chapter 1 page 45 of the general plan of the city.

This measure still influences the decisions of the municipal council today. According to a item published in The Sacramento Bee, the 2020 census found population growth in Davis was only 2% over the past decade. However, council members and citizens of Davis worry that the slow rate of growth is less controlled by the city today than it was in the 20th century.

Housing development is a major factor in population growth rates, which is not the responsibility of the city, according to Sherri Metzker, Davis’s chief city planner.

“We’re not in the housing construction business,” Metzker said. “That’s what developers do. […] We are mandated by the State of California to provide sufficient available land that is zoned for housing. […] This does not necessarily guarantee the construction of housing. […] The rest is left to the market.

Rising construction costs mean developers are finding it increasingly difficult to make housing development projects economically viable, according to Metzker, which means fewer projects are coming to city council for approval.

“The cost of land has gone up a lot,” Metzker said. “The cost of construction materials has increased dramatically and we no longer have the labor pool that we had before. All of these things combined have driven up the price of housing. […] If the price gets too exorbitant when people just can’t afford to buy it, [the developer] won’t build it. Ultimately, it is an economic transaction.

Bill Pride, Executive Director of Davis Community Meals and Housing, also observed a decline in development due to economic difficulties.

“I think the cost of housing is extremely high, unfortunately, to build housing in almost any place,” Pride said. “Finding this money to build housing to house people is really difficult.”

The state of the housing market has a significant impact on low-income and homeless people. Pride is particularly concerned about the lack of housing in general.

“There just aren’t enough homes to meet the demand,” Pride said. “It’s not just for affordable housing, it’s for housing everywhere.”

Davis Community Meals and Housing was founded in 1991 as a soup kitchen. Today, it has expanded to include programs such as a walk-in resource centre, part-time employment support, transitional housing and street outreach. The organization focuses on reducing homelessness and helping people meet their long-term financial needs.

Davis Community Meals and Housing regularly counts the homeless in Yolo County, and the data shows that there has been a significant increase in the homeless population over the past 4 years, according to Pride. This may be the result of increased purchase and rental prices.

“The developer will just pass [the building] cost into the selling price,” Metzker said. “The main reason developers build homes is so they can make money. They are not very altruistic in the sense that they do it for the public good.

Having resided in Davis for a long time, Pride has seen the effects of rising prices firsthand.

“It’s a very tough housing market for anyone to get into,” Pride said. “One of the most common complaints I’ve heard from people in the city over the past few years is that a lot of people who have been here for many years, who have raised their families here and their children have gone to school here, they suddenly discover that their own children cannot afford to move back.

Affordable housing at controlled prices is also very important for low-income and homeless people.

“The vast majority of homeless people can’t afford market-priced housing unless a miracle happens, frankly,” Pride said.

According to Metzker, changes in state policy have greatly affected the extent to which the city can intervene in the market to ensure affordable housing exists.

“Before 2012, there was a program where we got an extra portion of the sales tax revenue, and that money went into a pot that was used to build affordable housing,” Metzker said. “While we were in the middle of the recession, the State of California decided it didn’t have enough money to balance its budget, so it scrapped redevelopment. They did not replace that money. And so now the city no longer has the capacity to contribute financially as it did before.

The City of Davis is continuously working to cultivate a safer housing market. On Tuesday, January 11, council approved a development of 30 semi-detached single-family homes on East Pole Line Road. The compact design saves a lot of space, a revolutionary arrangement that can prove to be an effective solution to the lack of vacant residences in Davis. The project also includes 3 affordable units, in accordance with city policy inclusive housing ordinance (Municipal Code 18.05).

According to Metzker, however, the only reason the developer could afford to include low-income housing is because the land already has infrastructure installed from the previous building that existed there.

“The Inclusive Housing Ordinance says you have to have a certain amount of affordable housing in any residential project,” Metzker said. “The problem is that most developers, once they take all of that into account, the project doesn’t take shape. And then they don’t build it.

Rising construction costs and purchase prices, lack of development, and political tension surrounding the crisis are not just problems in Davis. The state of the housing market reflects a larger pattern that Metzker and Pride recognized statewide.

“Davis is unfortunately probably [among] the worst,” Pride said. “And that’s odd, given that Davis has probably been one of the most proactive jurisdictions when it comes to building affordable housing.”

Thus, Pride believes that if the city’s efforts can alleviate the problem, permanent change must come from state policy.

“I think one of the real hurdles has to do with very political reasons,” Pride said. “One way or another, affordable housing must be taken out of the expenditures for which the government obliges the public purse.”

The solution may even have to be at the global economic level.

“If anything, we need to make housing a lot cheaper, a way to build it so it’s not so expensive,” Pride said. “With the homeless population growing so rapidly, we have to build thousands of homes each year, if not more. And that’s just not happening because the cost is just too high.

Slow population growth in Davis is a symptom of a larger housing crisis. Outside the city, the population size is growing rapidly and housing development cannot keep up with demand. Additionally, rising prices are compounding the state’s homelessness problem. Davis is just one example of how cities in California can be affected by a statewide problem.

Written by: Lévi Goldstein — [email protected]