Council releases confidential memo laying case for bucking Measure A
The City Council voted Tuesday to release a confidential memo laying out staffers’ case for new rules allowing apartments and other multifamily housing despite voter-approved restrictions put in place by Measure A.
The memo lays out potential legal challenges the city could face – including a lawsuit housing advocates had already threatened to file – if its leaders failed to gain state approval of a new housing element to its general plan that demonstrated the city had sites zoned to allow multifamily housing to be developed. It also detailed ways city staffers could address opposition from Measure A backers.
“Staff anticipates that the Housing Element amendment public process will raise some sensitive issues for the community given the Alameda community’s strong feelings about Measure A,” the eight-page December 1, 2011 memo, authored by Planning Services Manager Andrew Thomas, said.
Thomas said city officials should attempt to steer the discussion away from the merits of Measure A and onto how the city could make changes that would gain state approval of the city’s housing element, which he said must demonstrate the city has enough available land zoned in a way that developers could build all the housing the state has determined Alameda will need. He noted that the city had passed rules in 2009 allowing developers to build apartments if they offered to construct more affordable housing than required, but said the city needed to go farther.
“The issue for public discussion is not whether Measure A is good or bad, the issue for public discussion is how Alameda is going to show the State that Alameda’s (sic) has zoned enough housing for all income levels, including multifamily rental housing,” he wrote.
But the anticipated furor over the zoning changes didn’t come until the week the council first considered adopting them – eight months after public meetings on the proposed changes began.
Thomas proposed a series of public meetings before the Planning Board and City Council “to provide the community with ample time to review and discuss the proposed amendments to the Housing Element prior to adoption” that had the council approving a new housing element this fall. The council approved a new housing element earlier this month.
Thomas, who is not an attorney, noted court settlements imposed by other municipalities that he said had been sued over their failure to adopt a housing element, including an unnamed county he said was required to survey farmworkers’ housing needs and to spend its housing money to meet them and an unspecified city required to increase the amount of redevelopment money it spent on affordable housing.
His memo also listed a lawsuit against development restrictions again Pleasanton – which then-Attorney General Jerry Brown joined – that the city lost, at a cost of $2 million.
City Councilwoman Lena Tam asked her dais-mates to okay the release of the memo Tuesday, saying she wanted the public to understand what council members were thinking when they approved the new multifamily zoning. She also said there was no need for the memo to remain secret since much of what it said had already been discussed at public meetings and had been the subject of media coverage.
“I thought it was important to make sure that the community understood the thinking that the council went through that led to a number of public actions and a number of public meetings that were itemized in this memo,” Tam said.
One resident applauded Tam for requesting the release of the memo and asked for additional documents to be released.
“I would consider asking for any response from the city attorney to the planning department or the council on this issue. From what I’ve read and heard, the council appeared convinced it was legally obligated to adopt and housing element that is inconsistent with Measure A,” resident Robert Sullwold said. (Disclosure: Sullwold is a member of The Alamedan’s advisory committee.)
City Councilman Doug deHaan, who cast the lone vote against passage of the housing element in part because he felt the public didn’t get enough time to review and discuss the changes, said the he had verbally requested it be released before the vote.
“I think it’s extremely important that everyone understands how we moved forward,” deHaan said.
The council approved a housing element in 2009, but state housing officials declined to accept it, offering a nine-page letter listing concerns about the plan, Measure A chief among them. City staffers didn’t get back to work on it until June 2011, Thomas’s memo says. But that summer representatives from Renewed Hope, a housing advocacy group that had sued the city in the past in an effort to get affordable housing built here, told the city they were prepared to sue if city leaders didn’t okay a new housing element that complied with state law.
City officials in the Bay Area and beyond have groaned about and even ignored the state’s housing element law for years, but state lawmakers’ recent decision to tie hundreds of millions of dollars in transportation funding to it has increased interest in addressing it. So have a string of successful lawsuits against Bay Area cities that failed to comply with state law.
Alameda’s latest housing element was three years overdue, and the city had not gained state approval for one since 1991. City leaders took a series of steps aimed at boosting affordable housing production, but state housing officials said that none of them was enough to bring Alameda in compliance with state law.
Even though Alameda is a charter city, which allows city leaders a great deal of control over local laws, if something is considered a matter of statewide importance, state law trumps local rules. Lawmakers have declared the production of affordable housing – the main goal of California’s housing element law – to be such a matter.
The new zoning automatically permits multifamily housing on 10 to-be-developed sites in Alameda only, though opponents of the zoning proposal said they fear it will open the door to unrestrained development on the Island. City leaders said they believe the proposal will protect Measure A, which doesn’t allow construction of anything bigger than a duplex, by inuring the city to a legal challenge which city leaders believe could eliminate the four-decade-old development restrictions for good.
Separately, the council okayed a long-term lease with a private operator who will run the Chuck Corica Golf Complex for as long as the next quarter-century. The council had been considering the move for five years, an effort that culminated with a two-hour discussion about the proposed contract on July 24.