December 6, 2016

Alameda approves multi-family housing after flouting state law for decades

Flickr / kevincollins (CC)

Alameda. Flickr / kevincollins (CC).

On July 17 the City Council voted 4 – 1 to amend the city’s zoning to permit about 2,400 units of such multi-family housing along Clement Avenue and Buena Vista Street; along the northern waterfront; north of Bayport and Shinsei Gardens on the West End; and near the Park and Webster Street business districts. After a nearly two-decade housing campaign by Club activists, this vote represents a sea change in attitude toward housing in Alameda.

The new zoning, implemented as multi-family overlays on existing single-family zoning in strictly limited areas, was adopted as part of Alameda’s revised Housing Element and brings Alameda into compliance with state housing law for the first time in over two decades. It will enable more families of modest means to purchase or rent homes in Alameda. Housing developers, both for-profit and non-profit, will build affordable housing units to take advantage of the density bonuses included in the new overlays. As new families move in, AC Transit will have more incentive to restore bus service along Buena Vista Avenue and improve service along existing lines.

Such affordable multi-unit housing will allow families of service workers who are employed in Alameda to live in the city rather than to face long commutes, with their attendant emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants. Such housing also uses fewer natural resources in its construction.

Since 1973 the city charter had banned multi-family housing. The Council’s vote now makes an exception in just enough limited areas to allow the construction of about 2,400 housing units, a few more than required by state housing law. That law requires Alameda to zone to accommodate the number of units assigned to it by the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG). For decades, the city had ignored state housing law.

Then late last year, President Laura Thomas of Renewed Hope Housing Advocates, an affordable-housing group focused on Alameda, sent the city a letter warning of possible legal action.

Renewed Hope wrote, “We expect a concrete commitment from the City to adopt a housing element in substantial compliance with the law and to rezone sites to address its new and existing housing needs without further delay.”

Over the following months Andrew Thomas, the city’s lead planner, outlined the potential consequences of Alameda’s continued noncompliance with state housing law. If a developer or organization had sued, the city could have lost its ability to permit any type of new construction, commercial or residential. (This happened in Pleasanton, which also incurred millions of dollars in court-related costs.) Without a state-certified housing element, Alameda would also have been increasingly disadvantaged in competing for funds for transit and affordable housing.

A broad array of Alamedans, led by Renewed Hope, which had previously negotiated a settlement with the city requiring that 25% of the housing built at Alameda Point be affordable, helped bring about the change. In July, key supporters including Buena Vista United Methodist Church, the Sierra Club, and nonprofit housing developers all testified in support of multi-family housing at City Council hearings. (For-profit housing developers played no role in this year’s debate.)

The current multi-family overlays are likely to keep the city in compliance with state law until 2021, when the number of housing units assigned to Alameda by ABAG is likely to increase. In the next phase, housing activists must convince Alamedans to permit still more multi-family housing, especially at Alameda Point. Until this change, commercial and residential development in Alameda will continue to be slower, more expensive, less sustainable, and less equitable than in other East Bay communities.

The Sierra Club is working with Renewed Hope to ensure that when new housing is built at Alameda Point, people of all income levels will be able to rent or buy housing there. To join in the consensus-building effort for environmentally and economically sustainable housing at Alameda Point, contact Bill Smith at (510)522-0390 or

Bill Smith

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