Like many cities in the inner Bay Area, Alameda staunchly resisted the construction of new housing during the second half of the 20th century. Alamedans even went so far as to enshrine a ban on new apartments and condos in the city’s charter when they overwhelmingly approved Measure A in 1973. And in the decades afterward, city residents and political leaders used Measure A to keep the Island’s population in check and fend off housing proposals – even as California and the region’s population skyrocketed via suburban sprawl.
In 1970, Alameda’s population was 71,000, and 40 years later, in 2010, it was nearly unchanged – 74,000. By contrast, the Bay Area’s population soared from 4.6 million to 7.2 million in that same time span.
In the past few years, state lawmakers – concerned about the extreme shortage of new housing in many of California’s urban areas, out-of-control home prices and rents, and greenhouse gas emissions – have enacted new legislation aimed at circumventing local anti-growth laws like Measure A. These new laws require cities and counties to build their share of new housing, regardless of whether they have no-growth rules on the books. They also make it easy for developers and pro-housing groups to sue cities that violate the new housing laws.
In other words, they’re making local initiatives like Measure A increasingly obsolete.
“Measure A has been eroded when you look at what the state has done,” said Alameda Councilmember Malia Vella, noting that Alameda has built very little housing since Measure A went into effect. “The bad news is: Yes, we are behind, and now we have to build more housing.”
Alameda city planner Andrew Thomas noted that Measure A’s authority started to erode in 2012, when the state told the city that it had to identify sites around the Island that would accommodate about 2,000 units of housing by 2023. In response, the Alameda City Council adopted a state-mandated Housing Element, listing 11 large sites that would allow multiunit housing – regardless of Measure A’s ban. “That totally blew Measure A out of the water for those sites,” Thomas said.
The sites include the Encinal Terminals, a spot on the estuary where developer Tim Lewis Communities is proposing to construct 589 units of housing in accordance with Alameda’s 2015-2023 Housing Element.
However, until last year, California’s new housing mandate had no real enforcement mechanisms. As a result, many cities found excuses for not building more housing or simply ignored state law. But then last September, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a package of housing legislation that included two key new laws – SB 35 by state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, and SB 167 by state Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley – that added teeth to California’s housing mandate. SB 35 strengthened the mandate and SB 167 strengthened the California Housing Accountability Act by allowing pro-housing groups and developers to more easily sue cities – and force cities to pay all court costs – if they block housing proposals that comply with their Housing Elements or zoning rules.
“They’re simply going to have to build it,” said Skinner in a recent interview, referring to cities like Alameda and new housing. Skinner represents Alameda, Oakland, Berkeley, and Richmond in the Senate. Assemblymember Rob Bonta, D-Alameda, also voted for the new state housing laws.
Victoria Fierce, executive director of the California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund, a pro-housing group that has sued several Bay Area cities for rejecting zoning-compliant housing, said her organization intends to take any city that violates SB 167 to court. “We’ll be there to enforce the state’s housing laws,” she vowed. Her group twice defeated Berkeley in court after the city tried to reject zoning-compliant housing.
The new laws, in other words, mean Alameda has no choice but to greenlight development proposals that comply with its Housing Element, regardless of what Measure A says, Thomas noted. Otherwise, Alameda will get sued and likely will lose in court – just like Berkeley did. “We’ve seen a lot of local control laws go by the way side – or at least trumped,” Vella added.
Moreover, the power of local no-growth laws like Measure A is expected to diminish further in the years ahead. California lawmakers increasingly recognize that, in order to ease the state’s housing shortage, cities will have to build much more new housing than what was mandated in 2012. The nonpartisan state Legislative Analyst’s Office noted in a 2015 report that California should have added 3.3 million more units of housing from 1980 to 2010 to keep up with demand.
Thomas thinks Alameda’s next Housing Element, which it must adopt in the next few years, will have to include thousands more units than the one the council OK’d in 2014. “I’m predicting that it’s going to be very large – much higher than what we have ever seen before,” he said.
In addition, Wiener and Skinner are co-sponsoring new housing legislation this year – SB 827 – that would add even more housing and make Measure A irrelevant in at least two commercial districts on the Island. In an effort to help the state reduce greenhouse gas emissions and meet its climate change goals, SB 827 seeks to foster the creation of large amounts of housing near major transit hubs and corridors, like BART stations and bus lines, so that people will commute via transit rather than drive long distances from outer suburbs. The bill seeks to override local zoning rules and laws like Measure A to allow apartments and condo projects of up to 55 to 85 feet in height near transit. Thomas said that, if enacted, SB 827 would open up much of the areas around Park and Webster streets to this so-called transit-oriented development.
For decades, some Alamedans have fiercely opposed new housing on the grounds that traffic is already bad enough and allowing more apartments and condos will only make it worse. Because it’s an island, Alameda has a limited number of entry and exit points for commuters.
Vella said she thinks that if California is going to require Alameda and other cities to build lots more housing – and if courts enforce that requirement – then the state should provide those cities with additional funds to alleviate congestion. She and others have been advocating over the past year for a new pedestrian and bicycle bridge to be built over the estuary, connecting Alameda Point to Oakland’s Jack London Square.
“We’re going to need to help people get around without automobiles,” she said.
This report was originally published by our sister publication, Alameda Magazine.