Density Penalties for Affordable Housing Proximity to S.F. Homes

For an upcoming lecture I’m talking about exclusionary zoning.  As always, I am surrounded by ample examples of whatever I am teaching here in California.

Davis is about to approve Creekside, a small affordable housing complex for seniors.  Roughly 40% of the 70 units will be set aside for formerly homeless individuals and those with special needs. Amazingly, this site is also across the street from a typical California tract, ticky-tack suburban subdivision (one I’ve rented in recently).

Highlighted site across the street from single family tract homes (the red roofs)

This is really remarkable.  Because I’m still in the area, I’m privy to all the ugly vitriol against the proposal on  Much of whats in the proposal for the site is designed to minimize the ‘asthetic impact’ of the site.  This is reflected in the zoning.  The figure below, lifted from a report by city staff to the Davis Planning Commission, compares the previous zoning (left) to the proposal of the site.

What it illustrates to me is that zoned densities do not matter, even in towns where local NIMBYs treat the General Plan like some kind of holy document.  I want to advance the hypothesis that developers take density penalties–voluntary reductions in density below zoned limits–to assuage NIMBYISM.  Presumably, the ‘Density Penalty’ is correlated with proximity to owner occupied housing across space.

Here’s the density penalty for Creekside:

The General Plan density for the site (left) and the project’s attributes (right)

It reminds me of things I’ve seen repeatedly in debates over projects, both market rate and affordable.  Developers appear to sacrifice height and floor space (via expanding front setbacks).  If the site abuts a highway, then developers will absorb all the rear setback and build a sound wall.  The goal appears to be increasing front setbacks–minimizing the ‘aesthetic pain’ of drivers-by.

In a different Davis planning commission meeting, a commissioner strongly criticized a proposed project for its aesthetic damage, saying, among other things, “the people who have to drive by this monstrosity deserve better” and comparing it to Soviet Bloc housing.  See it below:

“Monstrosity… Soviet-style housing… We deserve better! The drivers who pass by deserve better!” –How an insane Davis Planning Commissioner described  this image. 

In both cases, developers emphasized reduced heights and increased setbacks.  To win anything near single family residences, we have to mask density… we have to pay that premium.  Actual densities do not matter.  Populations served often do not appear to matter… maintaining the suburban illusion is apparently something we all must pay for through reductions away from highest and best use!

Published by mattdpalm

Doctoral Student UC Davis USDOT Graduate Eisenhower Fellow 2014-2015

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