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How To Manage Growth In Alameda?

Demolition begins on WWII era buildings in 2012, to make way for Alameda Landing. (File Photo)

Demolition begins on WWII era buildings in 2012, to make way for Alameda Landing. (File Photo)

For communities to grow, they need to move beyond looking at a jobs-to-housing ratio, and start looking at the jobs-to-housing fit. So says Peter Cohen, co-director of the San Francisco-based Council of Community Housing Organizations.

Cohen made the point in a lengthy telephone discussion over the weekend regarding growth, development, and affordable housing. He pointed to a study published last year, “Job growth, housing affordability, and commuting in the Bay area,” prepared by academics for the Bay Area Regional Prosperity Plan Housing Working Group.

“Some research has been done on the notion of a jobs-to-housing fit, not just x-jobs by y-housing, but trying to understand job profile and wages, and what the need is on housing to match those jobs,” he explained. “Not surprisingly, many cities in the Bay area have a poor fit. That’s why you have the chaos of people commuting all over the place even though there is job growth.”

The authors of the study summarize the findings by saying they, “also suggest that improving jobs-housing fit can contribute to reduced commute travel, improving overall regional environmental performance.”

Alameda’s jobs-to-housing fit was the underlying issue behind one resident’s mind when he recently told the planning board that the city needs to focus on creating higher-paying jobs so people can afford million-dollar homes that are being built.

Cohen explained that, “real estate development and housing policy are two different things, with no connection to one another, except that something happens on the ground. Creating urban places we are proud of is disconnected from the real estate development agenda and we’re all vexed on how to make that happen.”

He argues that growth – job growth, housing development (popular political rhetorical issues) – creates a need for affordable housing along with the market rate housing that it delivers. Growth brings a need for workers in all sectors and at all income levels. But it’s fallacy, Cohen says, to say that market rate housing is needed to fund affordable housing.

“We have taken the position that there are certain types of affordable housing that can only be built with public subsidy,” Cohen said. “Housing for people with low enough incomes, or for very specific public needs, are very much dependent on public resources. We’ll never get private development to pay for it. But we’ve seen a continuing retreat from state and federal investment in housing.”

“As a complement,” Cohen continued, “we expect private developers to do their fair share. But there’s a question about how much should they be expected to do relative to the need. Stopping all development is not realistic nor makes sense. So I do think we should be squeezing as much out of private development as possible. The battle for capturing benefits from private development is ongoing and we should always be pushing for the edge of the envelope when asking private development to do more to build affordable housing.”

Action Alameda News asked Cohen about the Alameda Development Corporation, a local Alameda non-profit that enjoys a rent-free lease for space at City Hall West.

The non-profit’s website does not list the principals, but according to 2014 IRS filings, the latest on Guidestar, Alameda Development Corporation is headed by Helen Sause, formerly deputy director for the San Francisco redevelopment agency.

Sause, and treasurer Diane Lichtenstein, were previously affiliated with HOMES, a different local Alameda group that argued for the elimination of “Measure A,” a 1973 voter-approved charter amendment that limited the construction of multifamily units in Alameda. (Since 1979, the state density bonus law has permitted developers to sidestep the measure when building affordable housing.)

Sause’s agency does community outreach through the Alameda Home Team, something it calls the educational arm of Alameda Development Corporation.

The Home Team’s website, like HOMES did before it, faults Measure A, but without calling it out by name. The Home Team website lists Sause and Lichtenstein on the board of directors, as well as Angela Hockabout, who once held a leadership role with the Alameda Renters Coalition, which is likely to succeed in placing a local rent control measure on the ballot this November.

“Agencies like that are built on a pro-growth model,” Cohen said. “Growth is not necessarily bad, it just needs to be done right. Secondary units done right. Transportation done right. Infrastructure done right. Those redevelopment areas in San Francisco that have been most successful are the ones where all those different pieces are hard wired into the redevelopment plan – infrastructure, amenities, housing. Then it comes down to execution. Without that, you get unintended consequences as happened with urban renewal in San Francisco in the 1960s. Dislocating people, dislocating small businesses, the unraveling of the social fabric. Growth can also be very damaging if not done right. We have a history that shows us that.”

Part of the problem, according to Cohen, is that the timing of transit and pedestrian improvements, new parks, new infrastructure, is often out of synch with new home construction, and those elements are driven by different funding sources and agencies. Further, “there is zero incentive for private development to do any of the infrastructure and amenity investments, because they don’t make any money off it.”

This disjointed timing is what causes people to become cautious and sometimes paranoid about development, Cohen said. The lack of trust gets labeled NIMBYism. “If you aren’t unconditionally pro-growth, you must be a NIMBY. There is no room for in between for considering concerns. It gets much more driven by the technocratic expertise of planners and developers. Driven by a rather pedantic argument of ‘you must accept growth’ and some finger wagging at the NIMBYs,” he said.

“It feels as though the dialog has turned into an extremely simplistic yes growth/no growth oppositional conversation. That’s a false narrative. the reality is that there a lot of folks much more in the grey space willing to embrace growth and development but taking the time to get it right,” Cohen said.

“On the other side of it,” he continued. “I don’t want it to sound as though we can just overly validate concerns about growth. I do think that there can be, at times, an endless resistance of hemming and hawing. I think there’s a mid-point where we can ensure things are done right, where all of the infrastructure is spelled out, the sources of funding, affordability needs and so on. I don’t think you have to force that to take a protracted amount of time. We need to recognize the value of having the right kind of development and growth in a community. It’s very subjective. To just say ‘no it’s never good enough’ gets to an untenable position.”

Community Forum

Early this month, the Alameda Home Team hosted a forum on development, “Alameda In The Making.” Some of city planner Andrew Thomas’s comments from that presentation were reported on the Nextdoor Alameda Internet forum.

A constantly recurring theme in Alameda development debates is the obvious fact that Alameda is an island with a fixed number of pedestrian and vehicle access points to Oakland. A February 2014 planning department presentation to the planning board noted that Alameda has a 0.71 jobs to housing ratio – only 24,070 jobs for 37,799 employed residents.

Asked to confirm his comments and re-state them for the record, Thomas wrote, “there is no federal, state, or local money to build another bridge for more cars, and there is no neighborhood in Oakland that is going to be supportive of a new bridge dumping cars into their neighborhood because Alameda wants another bridge. Nor is there an Alameda neighborhood that wants to be the on-ramp or off ramp for a new bridge. The residents of Grand Street did not even want a bus line on their street, how do you think they are going to feel about being the on ramp for a new bridge to Coast Guard Island and the region? I bet they would not be supportive. Furthermore, even if we did build a bridge, it would just lead to the I-880 freeway which is already at capacity and is only projected to get more congested as the Bay Area continues to grow, so another bridge would just be another back up.

“Given all that, ‘the solution’ is to move more people over the existing bridges and over the water in larger vehicles. This means more people in ferries, more people in buses, etc. A single bus takes up about 50-90 feet of space in the tubes. It can carry 30-50 people. A single car with a single person in it takes up about 20-30 feet of space. Using ferries, water shuttles and water taxis is even better. They don’t take up any space in the tubes or on the bridges.

“Our requirements on new housing are designed to support families and households that want to use transit and want to do less driving. Households and families that want to drive a lot and don’t want to use transit are not going to be happy with our requirements for annual fees for transit, limited parking, etc. So yes, I would advise them to find a home where they would be happier, maybe Livermore or Antioch, where they will need to drive everywhere. They will be much happier there.”

Job Creation

Separately, last week, before discussing a jobs-to-housing fit approach to planning with Peter Cohen, Action Alameda News asked city manager Jill Keimach to explain what city officials are doing to create more jobs in Alameda, to reduce the number of people traveling across the tubes and bridges each day.

Keimach wrote back, “The council is focused as much as possible on the creation of jobs, rather than housing. In this market where housing is so profitable to property owners it is difficult from a staff perspective to compel commercial construction since staff must react to and analyze the application that is submitted and really only has persuasion to effect change.

“The planning board and city council assist greatly in the effort by approving revisions on plans that further the objective for job creation, although the revisions are only realized when both sides get something out of the negotiation, such as the creation of jobs for the city and a return on investment for the property owner/developer. The property owners/developers need to be convinced that the investment they put into their property will result in actual leases so they minimize the risk of their significant investment.

“In areas like Alameda Point Site B, however, the city can go further in the effort to create high quality jobs. At Site B, staff has recommended, and the planning board and city council have approved, both zoning regulations that require office and research and development businesses and have also approved leases on city owned properties that reflect the vision for job creation.

“The leases the council has approved in the three months I have been here include leases for maker space, Google, and Natel Energy. These are research and development companies that are creating great jobs now and in the future. Natel, for example, said that they plan to hire 200 or so employees in the next five years. This effort isn’t new and isn’t because of my work here. It reflects the council’s vision (which in turn reflects the community vision) and is a continuation of a number of efforts to bring in businesses like SemiFreddies, Wind River, VF Outdoor, and McGuire and Hester and support the expansion of businesses such as Penumbra, Perforce, and Polarion Software. It’s important to note that amenities such as restaurants, coffee houses, retail outlets and convenient access to transit, as well as housing for employees, is critical to office/professional employers locating and expanding their companies.

“Economic development staff works closely with the owners of the Marina Village and Harbor Bay Business Parks to market their office space to professional employers and the new owners of Marina Village have increased the occupancy rate dramatically over the last 18 months. We work with area brokers to market our business parks and Site B and, through our Alameda at Your Service program, provide fast track plan checking and approval for commercial projects.

“Economic development staff also works with the school district to implement its Career Technical Education program which is designed to prepare students for high wage, high demand, high growth jobs by connecting the Alameda Unified School District with Alameda-based businesses. We also work closely with the College of Alameda to train students to fill in-demand jobs in Alameda. The College of Alameda One-Stop Employment Center is part of the larger Alameda County Workforce Development Board network of job placement and training programs. Some of the key challenges we hear from brokers and professional businesses is the lack of convenient access to public transit and a desire for more amenities such as hotels, conference/meeting facilities, and higher-end restaurants. We are hoping that the Citywide Transportation Plan will provide recommendations regarding improvements to the City’s transit services in an effort to address this issue.

So in short, I think we are striving all for the same thing, to improve the job/housing balance in Alameda in order to have great jobs available to our residents and minimize traffic congestion. We are also working to encourage other ways to commute rather than everyone driving off island and although I think this is where many in the community and the council and staff want to end up, it can’t be solved overnight and it certainly isn’t going to happen with one simple solution. It is complicated and often messy, as are most important things worth pursuing.”

Governor’s By-rights Bill

Peter Cohen is a signator, along with more than 60 other organizations, to a letter addressed to the state legislature, opposing an effort by California governor Jerry Brown to give developers approval of projects “by right” without public or environmental review.

The letter opens with, “this proposal represents a huge give-away to the real estate industry and at the particular expense of low-income residents and communities of color.”

“We weren’t anticipating the governor’s bill,” Cohen said. “We have enough on our plate already including gentrification and displacement in San Francisco. It’s taken up a lot of oxygen over the past two weeks. The governor has taken advantage of, real or perceived, NIMBYism. Resistance to development is public enemy number one, the main obstruction to development. And now this kind of attack on NIMBYism, and that’s what’s happening in Sacramento.”

According to Cohen, Brown has said he’s holding up money for affordable housing until he gets his bill. “But we’ll have a chance to impact it. Many communities are pushing back strongly against it.”

Cohen said that just Thursday night there was an agreement to pull the “by right” issue off the state budget rider, and proceed with a more deliberative process through the legislature.

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