City preparing new housing plan
Alameda’s city leaders are attempting once again to revise the city’s plan for housing to comply with state law and to avoid state funding losses and lawsuits. Alameda’s so-called housing element, which is designed to show that a city’s got enough land zoned in a way that allows its housing needs to be met, has been out of compliance with state law since 1999.
A major feature of the proposed plan is a new zoning designation that would allow apartments to be built in certain areas of town, something that was barred by 1973’s development-limiting Measure A but is being slowly reintroduced through lawsuits and new city development rules. Alameda needs to allow such development to avoid lawsuits and be eligible for a growing list of state funding opportunities, one of the city’s top planners said.
“There’s nothing wrong with Measure A, and there’s nothing wrong with Measure A zoning. You can zone land for single family housing,” planning services manager Andrew Thomas said. “The issue and the problem is, you can’t do it on every single inch of your city. You have to provide some land that facilitates and encourages multifamily rental housing.”
The new multifamily zoning would allow a developer to build apartments and other housing types with up to 30 homes per acre, higher than the 21 per acre allowed by Measure A. If a developer agrees to build more affordable units than they are required by the city to build, they could be allowed to put as many as 40.5 units on an acre, Thomas’s report to the Planning Board says.
The new zoning, which would help city officials show there are places to build more than 2,000 new homes here over the next few years, would apply to a portion of the Alameda Landing site, the North Housing site on Singleton Avenue, the site of the former Chevy’s restaurant on Mariner Square Loop, the former Shipways site, Alameda Marina and the Encinal Terminal and Del Monte sites, whose owner, Peter Wang, has filed for bankruptcy, Thomas said.
Additional sites that could be used for housing include the city’s Corporation Yard on Fortmann Way, the former Island High site on Eagle Avenue, and the former home of Ron Goode Toyota on Park Street. Thomas said Sacramento housing developer Tim Lewis Communities purchased another potential housing site, the former General Services Administration property on McKay Avenue.
One property not on the list is Alameda Point. Affordable housing advocates have criticized the city for including in prior plans it despite the fact that the city didn’t own it yet, though city officials now expect to gain most of the property by the end of this year and are making plans for developing it.
The proposed plan would also designate places where emergency shelters, single-room occupancy, supportive and transitional housing can be built.
City staff are suggesting the Planning Board kick of the 60-day public comment period regarding the proposed changes at its meeting tonight. The Planning Board could then make a recommendation about the housing plan at its meeting May 14.
The new plan is being drafted as the state is exercising an increasing amount of control over local zoning rules and as affordable housing advocates are stepping up pressure on cities that don’t meet housing development numbers doled out by regional planners. The city is required to update its housing plan every seven years.
In August 2010 city leaders in Pleasanton agreed to get rid of a voter-approved cap on the number of homes that could be built there and pay $1.9 million in legal fees after housing activists sued. Alameda has been sued several times by both housing advocates seeking more affordable housing and by at least one developer who didn’t want to build it, and Thomas said in his report to the Planning Board that the city could lose control of development decisions if it is sued again.
A new state law now being implemented by regional and local planners which attempts to mold planning in a way that reduces greenhouse gas emissions, SB 375, ties some state transportation funding to the regional housing plans cities are required to implement.
“Because we don’t have a certified housing element, we get notices of state grants (that say) – right off the bat, don’t even bother applying if you don’t have a certified housing element,” Thomas said.
City leaders upgraded their plan in 2009, but state housing officials said it needed more work in order to comply with the law. A June 15, 2009 letter touched on a list of deficiencies in the plan, including Measure A, which the state’s top housing official said the city should “remove or modify” so that multifamily housing could be built.
The amount of housing Alameda is expected to prepare for has grown in the years since Alameda’s plan was last compliant with state law. About half of the 4,206 homes the city was required to plan for have been built or approved, Thomas’s report to the Planning Board says, and the city will need to show that it can accommodate another 2,282 homes.
Lifting the prohibition on multifamily housing could make it easier to build homes low-income residents can afford at a time when funding for affordable housing is drying up. The city is slated to lose about $2.8 million in redevelopment funds set aside for affordable housing in the wake of a state Supreme Court decision to kill redevelopment, said Debbie Potter, the Alameda Housing Authority’s manager of housing development and programs.
She said the city is also losing 38 percent of its federal HOME funds, a major funding source for affordable housing, and state bond funds the city has used to pay for housing projects are dwindling. Potter, who said affordable housing projects are typically paid for with money from four or five different sources, said lawmakers are working on bills to retain the funding and to create a new, permanent fund for affordable housing.
But Potter said lifting the prohibition on multifamily housing development could make it cheaper for developers to build homes for lower-income Alamedans, since apartments are much cheaper to build than the single family homes and duets that are required under Measure A.
“If there’s more density permitted, it makes it easier for folks to produce as a component of their project,” Potter said.
The city has long required developers to include below market rate homes in their housing developments, but developers may also pay a fee in lieu of affordable homes.
Catellus, for example, built homes for moderate-income residents and paid a fee to the city to fund units for low- and very low-income residents, Potter said. She said the city used the fee money and revenues from other sources to build the Breakers complex and Shinsei Gardens, which serves homeless veterans and other low-income families.
Below-market units have to be affordable for families making 80 percent of the area median income or less. For a family of four, that tops out at $65,350, Thomas wrote.
Since 1999, about a quarter of the affordable housing the city is required to plan for has actually been built or is has been approved, though the draft plan shows additional units that were rehabilitated and others that were preserved through the use of housing choice vouchers, which are available to Alameda’s poorest residents. Three-quarters of the market-rate housing the city was required to plan for has been or approved during that same time frame, the draft housing plan shows.
In 2009, city leaders voted to enact an incentive program for developers who volunteer to build more homes for low-income residents that included an exemption to Measure A for those who could show the units couldn’t be built without it. But the new rules also dropped the amount of affordable units developers need to create in most of the city’s former redevelopment zones from 25 percent of all the homes built to 15 percent.
Potter said that Alameda has built 580 units of affordable housing since the 1980s, though hundreds of units required under a 1990 court settlement in the Guyton vs. Alameda case have not yet been built. The settlement of that case, which claimed the city’s housing policies were discriminatory, allows the city’s Housing Authority to build 325 units of multifamily housing to replace homes that were lost after the owner of an apartment complex converted units that had housed lower income residents to accommodate market-rate renters.
Affordable housing activists said the jury’s still out on whether the housing may actually be built.
“It’s a step in the right direction. (But) we’re reserving judgment,” said Laura Thomas of Renewed Hope, a housing advocacy group that inked a lawsuit settlement with the city in 2001 requiring a quarter of any homes built at Alameda Point to be reserved for lower-income residents.
Thomas, who said some of the criticisms housing advocates made when the city last updated its plan in 2009 still apply, submitted a letter to city officials demanding they have a legally compliant plan in place by January 31 but has not received a response, she said.
Thomas, who questioned whether the city could catch up on its housing numbers after years without a state-approved plan, said the lack of an approved housing plan demonstrates city leaders’ lack of commitment to building affordable housing. “They back down when they see the fury of people who don’t want anything to change in Alameda. And housing to people means change,” she said.
Efforts to organize a 2008 forum about Measure A reportedly provoked a heated response from its supporters. But passage of the density bonus ordinance in 2009 provoked little response and the new rules are set to be used for the first time on the Boatworks project.
Andrew Thomas, the city planner, said the city is required to show it has made it possible for housing to be built, but it doesn’t have to ensure houses are actually constructed.
“If you zone the land at the right density, they will come,” he said.