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Measure A Re-cap and Commentary

Almost a month on from the poorly-attended Measure A forum in February and roughly two years into the latest campaign to undo Measure A, the low-density housing restriction in Alameda, it might be a good time to summarize and re-cap some of what we’ve learned. To wit:

House Prices
Measure A critics like to blame Measure A for the high cost of housing. But high-profile national and local turns of events have shown what the true driving factors behind house prices are. First, the sub-prime loan crisis and resultant credit crunch has shown that it was unscrupulous lenders (and real estate agents, and appraisers and mortgage brokers) that fueled the most recent run-up in house prices across the nation, by getting people into loans they really couldn’t afford on houses that they paid too much for. As we see daily in the financial news, that bird is coming home to roost with lenders like Countrywide under FBI investigation.

Locally, we have the school funding crisis and a parcel tax and a grassroots effort to raise money for the schools, in part for our children, but in part, as we’re reminded by people all of the time, both those within and outside of the real estate industry, our home values rest on the quality of our schools, and if we don’t want our home values to drop, we better make sure our schools get fully funded.

So it’s the quality of our schools, and questionable lending practices that have been driving the price of homes in Alameda, and not any constraints imposed by Measure A.

School Children in Alameda

Measure A critics like to say that Measure A is driving away from Alameda families with school children, because of high housing costs. (We just debunked that.) The answer, those Measure A critics say, is to build high-density housing, which is supposedly somehow more affordable to more people, and therefore would allow families with children to live in Alameda. Measure A critics advocate high-density housing clustered around transit hubs. But the MTC Bay Area Travel Survey 2000 reported that in the East Bay “People living close to transit are likely to live in smaller households without children.” and that in their study of the East Bay, only 30% of transit hub households included children, compared to the 42% regional average.
And we know from a 2005 study done by the Public Research Institute of San Francisco State University – a study prompted by the City of San Francisco observing that families were leaving San Francisco en masse – that low-density suburban cities like Fremont, Vallejo, San Jose and Hayward tend to have a large percentage of single family housing AND a large percentage of families with children. Contrasted with that is Berkeley and San Francisco which have a low percentage of families with children, and a low (compared to Fremont etc.) percentage of single family housing.

So what these studies tell us is that families with children in the San Francisco Bay area tend to prefer to live in single family housing when they can, and that if we want to build housing that attracts families with children it should be primarily single family housing.

Low-Income Housing

Measure A critics like to blame Measure A for the dearth of low-income housing in Alameda. But in 1991, the City of Alameda settled a lawsuit (the “Guyton” lawsuit) over low-income housing, and agreed to build 325 homes in Alameda that would be exempt from Measure A’s requirements. To date – 17 years later – only 91 of 325 of those homes have been built.

So the reason we don’t have the low-income housing the Association of Bay Area Governments tells us we should have is because the City of Alameda hasn’t lived up to it’s terms of the Guyton settlement, and not due to constraints imposed by Measure A.

Jobs/Housing Imbalance

Measure A critics like to talk about creating a jobs/housing balance at Alameda Point. But in so doing, they ignore the current massive imbalance we have now. The Housing Element of the current City of Alameda General Plan notes that 71% of the Alameda work force leaves the island each day to go to work. And the City’s annual financial report notes that the top 10 employers in Alameda employ merely 4,000 people, out of a city of 75,000 people, 30,000 households. And the City of Alameda and the school district are two of the top 10 employers. If one believes that creating a jobs/housing balance in Alameda is important to do – despite there being no mechanism to force or ensure people both live and work within Alameda – then the focus for Alameda Point needs to be on creating jobs, not houses, to even out the current imbalance.

So I guess a focus on building thousands of homes on Alameda Point would only exacerbate, and not help fix, the all important jobs/housing imbalance we have today.

Transit

Measure A critics talk about the need to create high-density housing clustered around transit hubs to force people to use public transit instead of their cars. They talk of the need to have all housing within 1/4 or 1/2 mile of the transit node. Data collected from various transit agencies over the years estimates that 50% of Alameda’s commuters head to San Francisco to work, while the other 50% is roughly split between points south and points east of Alameda, which are not well served by transit. The MTC Bay Area Travel Survey 2000 reported that in the case of people commuting to San Francisco from the East Bay, a high percentage of commuters (more than 50%) still take public transit even when the live more than 1/2 mile away from the transit node. Why? Because San Francisco is so difficult to get to by car, living more than 1/2 mile away from the transit node is not a sufficient deterrent to stop people from taking transit to work in San Francisco. In any event, anyone who takes BART into San Francisco is still likely to use their car to get to the BART station, because we don’t have on here in Alameda. As for the other 50% of commuters that don’t work in San Francisco, they’re still going to drive their cars, because those other areas are not as well served by public transit as San Francisco.

So it’s not so terribly important after all to build high-density housing clustered within 1/4 or 1/2 mile of the ferry terminals, because a substantial number of people who work in San Francisco and live in Alameda will still be motivated to take the ferry (or BART) no matter how far away from the terminal they live.

Mixed Use

Measure A critics like to say that Measure A precludes mixed-use residential-over-retail development. Measure A as it stands would allow a structure on a single parcel to have 2 residential units above ground floor retail. I understand why people like mixed-use development, but creating more retail Mc-Jobs is not what many of us have in mind when we think about job creation here in Alameda. Aside from that, there is existing law on the books, (the density bonus law), never implemented in Alameda although state law requires it, that would provide a site-by-site exemption to Measure A where low-income and senior housing is provided, and would allow mixed-use development and multi-family buildings at a slightly higher level of density than Measure A allows. Our City planners know this, because it’s written into the General Plan.

So Measure A is not the barrier to mixed-use development – in a pragmatic way that provides low-income housing – that its critics like to claim.

Re-Use of Alameda Point Multi-family Units

Measure A critics like to say that Measure A would preclude re-use of existing structures at Alameda Point like the Bachelors Enlisted Men Quarters (BEQ). City of Alameda Planning Department staffers are fond of saying this, but I’m not convinced that’s true – section 30-52.1 Rehabilitation or Remodeling of Alameda’s Municipal Code states that “Existing multiple dwelling units may be rehabilitated or remodeled, provided that they comply with the provisions of this chapter. (Ord. No. 2219 N.S.)” and section 30-52.2 Alteration of Multiple Dwelling Units states “Any interpretation of the term built, as used in Article XXVI of the City Charter, notwithstanding, no building shall be altered to increase the number of multiple dwelling units contained therein. (Ord. No. 2219 N.S.)” It appears that this language would support the re-use of the BEQ within the bounds of Measure A, so long as the number of units are not increased. The Alameda Architecture Preservation Society should request a competent arms-length land-use attorney review the Measure A legislation – all of it, not just the charter amendment, but the municipal code as well – and provide an opinion on the matter.

So the claim that the BEQ could not be re-used under Measure A is mis-information at best, and possibly even an outright lie told by people who know better.

One could go on and on – so many of the claims by Measure A critics have been thoroughly debunked by now – but this covers the main issues that Measure A critics have tried to raise over the past couple of years. But Alameda residents are smart enough to see through the smoke screen created by Measure A critics to hide their real agenda – undoing Measure A to allow developers a free ride to maximizing profits at the expense of residents.

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