Davis’ last days
Robb Davis ends term frustrated over stalled agenda, but supporters laud a compassionate politician whose attempts inspired
In late April, Robb Davis looked at a crowd of more than 60 college students struggling to get by in the city that shares his name. The occasion was a town hall to address the ongoing housing crisis in the city of Davis—one that pushes longtime residents to the streets and forces students and workers to drive their carbon-emitting vehicles through a city that claims to be one of the most environmentally friendly locales in America.
But the Davis that people know from its University of California campus, rich agrarian history and left-leaning reputation is not the city that Robb Davis presided over as mayor these past two years. The college town has been struggling to accommodate residents while making room for newcomers admitted by the university or displaced by Bay Area housing prices.
Robb Davis was elected to the Davis City Council in 2014 on a platform of increasing social services for the less fortunate and boosting the city’s tepid housing stock. Four years later, he felt like he had little to show for it. He didn’t have answers but he had a message.
“We need to decide what we want to be as a city,” he told the young faces in the audience. “I want a city that’s welcoming to students. I want a city with dense high-rise housing close to where people work and go to school. I haven’t been able to achieve that. I’m challenging the next council to figure out a way to get there.”
That was just over two months ago. Time has not softened Davis’ outlook. On a recent June morning, he sat on the patio of Mishka’s Cafe, tucked into a quaint stretch of Second Street, and reflected on four years of frustration and an unrealized agenda. He saddled the blame on an attitude he says is becoming all too common in places divided into haves and have-nots—privilege.
“What we’re experiencing when we get push back on homelessness or more housing is privilege,” Davis told SN&R. “Privilege is being able to say ’I don’t have to deal with that. I want something a certain way, and that’s the way it’s going to be.’”
As first a councilman and then a figurehead mayor, Davis says he tried to challenge that narrative—to little avail. Having officially left office on July 9, Davis—both the man and the city—have to decide what they’re going to be next.
New challenges, old values
As city leaders set out to confront troubling housing and homelessness trends in recent years, the liberal haven has struggled to maintain its political values while answering its new challenges.
Robb Davis thought he was the person for that job. Before he was a politician, Davis spent more than 25 years combating HIV/AIDS and malaria as a child health specialist for NGOs in Afghanistan and Africa, among other public health hot-spots. An international student adviser at UC Davis, he sought to bring homelessness to the forefront of the small town’s political consciousness after he was elected by a wide margin in 2014.
According to the Yolo County Homeless and Poverty Action Coalition, the homeless population increased by 28 percent in the city from 2009 to 2017.
Robb Davis got his turn to be mayor in 2016. The two-year appointment rotates based on seniority and votes, and bestows no special powers. Davis was still just one of five votes on the council, but tried to use his symbolic mantle in a proactive way. Voters weren’t as receptive to his agenda as he hoped. And Davis soon learned that while he shared his city’s name, he did not share its changing identity.
Late last year, Mayor Davis advocated for a ballot measure that would’ve established a $50 annual tax on homeowners and generated an estimated $1.4 million annually to pay for social services and affordable housing to address homelessness. The council decided against placing the measure on the June ballot due to a lack of public support.
In March, Davis was the only dissenting voice on a 4-1 council decision to adopt an aggressive panhandling ordinance, which the mayor described as an attempt to disparage the homeless. (A federal judge last week issued a temporary injunction against a similar ordinance in the city of Sacramento, citing free-speech concerns.)
Rising rents and a dearth of housing options have exacerbated these situations. Average rent for a bedroom in the city surged by over 28 percent during Robb Davis’ term while the city’s vacancy rate hovered around 0.4 percent.
Davis took office under the impression that dense, multifamily, transit-oriented housing would be a hit among the city’s housing-crunched citizenry. Getting such projects approved, he learned, proved difficult. The Nishi Gateway project, which would’ve housed more than 1,500 people, was narrowly voted down by Davis residents in 2016. The council recently approved the Trackside Center infill project and got voter approval for Nishi 2.0, which is set to house over 2,200 students, but both face environmental impact lawsuits.
Neil Ruud, a local political consultant, surmises that an aging and politically stagnant population has something to do with the city’s hesitation.
“I think a lot of the longtime residents here who were once progressive didn’t keep moving forward,” Ruud said. “While they still wear that title as a badge of who they are, they’ve kind of fallen behind the times. … We pay a lot of lip service to inclusivity in this town but our policy doesn’t match it. Robb encountered that paradox in this town.”
Davis’ political adversaries counter that he simply needed to propose better solutions. Alan Pryor, who opposed both the Nishi Gateway project and the social services homeowners tax, says residents have high standards when it comes to public policy.
“The residents here are highly educated, politically savvy, and they plan on being around for a long time,” Pryor said. “They want to see smart growth and policy. We want things done on the citizen’s terms. I think that’s why we get the perception that we’re a hard town to deal with. In many respects it’s true, we’re very demanding. … We have high expectations.”
New era begins
The Davis City Council started a new era on Monday. Robb Davis handed the mayoral reins to Brett Lee, a process improvement engineer for Farm Fresh To You, while the council added two new members. They are LGBTQ activist Gloria Partida and Dan Carson, who chaired the city’s finance and budget commission.
Some community members see Partida, the only woman and person of color on the council, as taking Robb Davis’ role as the political body’s progressive voice. Like him, though, she still represents just one vote.
“It’s going to be rough without Robb’s voice on the dais,” said Sean Raycraft, a Davis resident and community activist. “Gloria, in a lot of ways, will be that voice. I’m optimistic for her.”
Davis expressed faith in his successor and the next council.
“The incoming mayor is someone who understands intuitively how to advance things,” Davis said of Lee. “He’ll get a lot of stuff done. … Housing is going to continue being an issue, homelessness is going to continue being an issue, but I feel pretty confident that the group that’s coming together understands and cares about those issues.”
In spite of Davis’ political frustrations, some say he’s had a successful run. He played a key role in securing a $233,000 grant from Sutter Health to fund supportive housing for the homeless and hired the city’s first homeless outreach coordinator.
Pryor noted that although YIMBY advocates may not be satisfied, the city has seen the approval of more housing units than in decades, most notably The Cannery, Nishi 2.0, Trackside Center and the Lincoln 40 apartments.
While Robb Davis may not have accomplished everything he wanted, it was the trying that counted, said David Greenwald, founder of The People’s Vanguard of Davis, an online news nonprofit covering the city since 2006.
“He cared about everything,” Greenwald said. “He wanted to make Davis the best place he could, and he wore it on his sleeve. He meant the things he was saying. They were heartfelt. He agonized over them. He questioned himself over whether or not he did the right thing. He did it in a very humble and genuine way. This guy is not a politician. He was able to transcend being a politician and still be an effective leader.”
That ability to toe the line between administrator and crusader will be Robb Davis’ true legacy, says Raycraft, a local union shop steward and California Assembly District 4 delegate.
“To some extent, I think, he’s going to think he’s a failure because he didn’t get quite as many of the things done as he wanted,” Raycraft observed. “But that doesn’t mean he hasn’t made a positive impact on the community. There are a lot of people that look up to him, particularly in the younger generation. He’s stood up for those who don’t normally have a voice.”
Post-public life, Robb Davis says, he will continue working at UC Davis and is actively seeking community service opportunities. With no shortage of intellectual expertise to draw from, he suggests that the city’s potential is only limited by its capacity for compassion.
“It’s the gifts of the people in this town that have made it such a great place to live,” Davis said. “It’s privilege that’s kept others from benefiting from it.
“We’ve got people with really amazing experiences and deep knowledge of virtually any issue that comes up,” he continued. “They volunteer their time to help us deal with those issues. We have amazingly gifted people. A lot of cities don’t have that. So I’m optimistic we’ll face the challenges.”