Council releases confidential memo laying case for bucking Measure A

Council releases confidential memo laying case for bucking Measure A

Michele Ellson

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.

Related: In bypassing Measure A, council seeks compliance with state law


Mpomeroy's picture
Submitted by Mpomeroy on Wed, Aug 1, 2012

The letter sent from the dept of housing to the city of Alameda in June of 2009 which requested revisions to the housing plan, copied Laura Thomas of Renewed Hope. I wonder if she is one of the people "threatening to sue" the city. A large part of the council meeting allowed for Andrew Thomas to explain how many notices had been posted regarding these upcoming changes to the housing element, in order to absolved the city of the charge that they had not let people know what was going on. And yet the notices themselves were under the radar because of the way they were worded. If they had wanted real input from residents there certainly are ways to get people's attention. Any mention of measure A in the headline would have done the trick. And why did it take two years to start this process, necessitating this "hurry up and get it done"mentality.?

Mpomeroy's picture
Submitted by Mpomeroy on Wed, Aug 1, 2012

THe real question should be, why is Alameda, and island with very limited ingress and egress routes, not given some sort of density exemption based on what we who live there see as a traffic problem that threatens our quality of life? Why are we comparing ourselves to Pleasanton? and not Tiburon? Thomas said that "Alameda does not get to decide" how many low income units it builds. I see a problem with that kind of thinking. The last time our allocation of housing was challenged with the state was 2006. Isn't it about time to try that again?

Submitted by Bill 2-Wheel Smith on Sat, Aug 4, 2012

All who favor inclusive and transparent government owe a thank you to Councilmembers Doug deHaan and Lena Tam. Councilmember DeHaan notified more citizens who opposed select staff recommended revisions in the discussions regarding the recent adoption of a new housing element and Lena Tam initiated the release of the confidential memo that is the subject of this blog post, which made the revision process more transparent. Had the targeted notification of residents who opposed any waivers to the City charter ban on multi-family housing and the release of the memo occurred while the housing element was still being considered by the Planning Commission, our governmental process would have been still more inclusive and less divisive.

The process for approving the housing element illustrates several opportunities to make our governmental processes for controversial issues, such as the City Charter restrictions on housing, more inclusive, transparent, and cordial. I suggest that we persuade staff and Council to include discussions of the essence of controversial issues in notices for public hearings, rather than obscuring that essence behind technical jargon in the agenda titles. I also suggest that we persuade our councilmembers that they are each individually responsible for informing all citizens, not just those who agree with the councilmember, of pending City actions, especially if those actions are controversial. With these changes, our public meetings would be more constructive and cordial and we would eliminate much of the divisive "gotcha power politics" (I got it done before you noticed) that leave citizens with little recourse other than recall petitions, recruiting new council candidates and law suits.

Had staff and Council sought more public input before they made the decision at a December 2011 meeting to change the decades-old City policy of not complying with State housing law, those who wanted the City to continue to defy State law would have been involved throughout the process, not just at the very end. Evidently staff and the Council didn't think that they, working with environmental and housing groups, had the resources to convince Alameda voters to sanction the thousands of units of multi-family housing necessary to comply with state housing law. Now council members who supported the housing element and are subjected to recall will have to make their case directly to the voters during the campaign season without the aid of formal hearings on the housing element.

Consequently, rather than take the pros and cons of multi-family housing directly to citizens, the staff and Council apparently agreed at the December 2011 meeting that "the focus of the discussion with HCD and the community should not be whether Measure A is bad or good, but rather, the discussion needs to focus on the difference between "zoning that facilitates" multi-family housing (as required by HCD) and Alameda's zoning which allows multifamily housing with a discretionary "waiver" under certain conditions." In other words, staff and council hoped that by focusing the discussion on the technicalities of zoning, that, at the very least, the emotional temperature of the discussions on permitting multi-family housing would be lowered and the emotional question of whether or not Alamedans wanted thousands of units of multi-family housing would be avoided.

By limiting agenda announcements to technical descriptions of the subject, the City made it harder for those Alamedans who oppose large numbers of multi-family housing units to realize that the discussion about the "difference between 'zoning that facilitates' multi-family housing and Alameda's [current] zoning which allows multi-family housing," was about granting developers and property owners the right to develop thousands of multi-family housing units. Only the small number of residents who lived near areas to be rezoned received explicit notice that the rezoning would permit the construction of multi-family housing in the City, possibly with a focus on only the multi-family housing to be constructed in their neighborhood, not the total multi-family housing to be constructed in the entire City. The bulk of Alameda residents who did not live near an area rezoned for multi-family housing, had to rely on word of mouth or personal e-mails, as few follow City agendas closely and fewer still would have known that the housing element item on an agenda was actually about permitting thousands of multi-family homes in Alameda.

You may ask why I, as the confidential memo points out one of the housing activists that reminded the City in 2011 that it needed to comply with State housing laws, would support a more open, transparent and inclusive process when the current process resulted in the permitting of thousands of new multi-family housing units in Alameda for decades. I support such an improved government process both because I generally advocate for good government and because state housing laws alone will not suffice to provide the housing needed to build a more sustainable and prosperous Alameda in the future. Broad citizen support is necessary to build the housing necessary to secure a prosperous and sustainable future.

By cutting short the public discussion on the housing element, our City has forfeited a rare and valuable opportunity to promote civil discussions between those who support and those who oppose multi-family housing. Councilmembers DeHaan and Tam are to be commended for extending, even if belatedly, the discussion and involving more citizens.