Alameda residents have been largely resistant to new housing construction for decades, but the state is forcing them to change, by requiring the city, and many others, to make it easier for developers to build more housing than ever before. The Del Monte warehouse in Alameda, pictured here on Jan. 12, 2023, is under construction to become an apartment building. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
Near the end of a five-hour meeting in mid-November, the Alameda City Council did something bold: It became the first Bay Area city to adopt an ambitious plan to build more than 5,000 homes and apartments.
“It’s within our grasp to be part of the solution and not part of the problem,” said Alameda Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft. “We’re not kicking the can further down the road. We’re saying the buck stops here.”
These plans — known as “housing elements” — have been required by the state every eight years since the 1960s. But, up until recently, they’ve largely been ignored.
That’s changed as Gov. Gavin Newsom has taken a stronger stance in holding cities accountable for meeting the state’s housing goals. Local governments that don’t present viable plans can now face lawsuits, lose state funding for transportation and affordable housing, or trigger laws that allow developers to build big housing projects, overriding the city’s local zoning rules. In the Bay Area, cities and counties face a looming Jan. 31 deadline, after which those consequences could kick in.
It's surprising that Alameda is the first to adopt such a plan, given its long history of denying development. It even has voter-backed rules in its own charter that prohibit new apartment buildings. That prompted some delicate conversations at City Hall, where local leaders have spent the past two and a half years meeting with residents and explaining how all this new housing could benefit them.
Chris Lonsdale feels it’s a long time coming. He was born in Alameda, coaches the local high school soccer team and teaches fourth and fifth grade in the city. He’s always wanted to buy a home in the city where he was raised, but as housing prices continue to soar, finding his own place on a teacher’s salary feels out of reach.
“It feels like I’m stalled out in life,” he said. “Like you’re just treading water in this place.”
When he was younger, he paid high rents to live in cramped apartments with roommates, but at almost 40, he’s over it. He moved in with his parents around May 2021, and has been saving up for a condo ever since. But supply is scarce, and prices only continue to rise.
If Alameda is able to build all the housing envisioned in its plan, it would drastically transform the character and demography of the city. It could mean people like Lonsdale get to stay in his hometown.
“The amount of housing built over my lifetime seems like it’s been nonexistent,” Lonsdale said. “It’s all single-family homes, not a whole diverse range of housing for people like myself.”
A city frozen in time
The small, quaint East Bay island is lined with tall, ornate Victorians and rows of single-family homes overlooking the bay. It feels frozen in time. And, that’s by design.
A 1972 ballot measure effectively halted new housing construction. The city used to be more economically diverse, but, like many Bay Area cities, which passed rules in the '70s and '80s limiting development, has become increasingly exclusive. That’s presented a challenge as the city seeks to comply with new state guidelines mandating more housing, said City Planner Andrew Thomas.
“Fifty years later, we’re doing our housing element for the city and we’re trying to address issues of equity. If we’re regulating land and saying, ‘Anyone who can’t afford a single-family home, we don’t provide housing for you,’ that’s a problem,” Thomas said.
The population only continued to grow in the decades that followed, and to keep up with demand, developers razed about 1,000 Victorian homes and replaced them with “boxy” apartment buildings. This scared homeowners who were concerned about the “changing character” of the city.
Recently passed state laws that require cities to build more housing have made Measure A effectively moot, but the aftereffects live on today in most of the city’s neighborhoods. The island has two sides: On its eastern flank are single-family homes, high-performing schools and mostly white and Asian residents. On the western side is a now mostly abandoned naval base, few grocery stores and aging apartments that were built by the federal government and repurposed as subsidized housing.
As Alameda sought to plan for future housing, it had to contend with — and in some cases, override — prevailing attitudes about how much development the city should see. And, it received plenty of opposition.
Paul Foreman, 84, has lived in Alameda for the past two decades and fought aggressively against the city’s new housing plan. He owns a two-bedroom condo on a quiet street with single-family homes, Victorian mansions and a few duplexes. There’s a park nearby and a center for older adults three blocks away that provides meals for him five days a week.
The city’s bucolic nature is part of why he loves living here and why he wants it to stay that way.
“It’s not super dense, there are places to park, there are parks to go to, it’s green.” he said. “The city is just going to come along and completely change the character of the neighborhood.”
Foreman does not want to see his neighborhood replaced with ritzy high-rise buildings, which he fears could now happen — though city planners say more duplexes and triplexes, instead of high-rise buildings, could be built on the land where large, single-family houses now stand.
His other big fear? That these new homes won’t actually be affordable.
“I think it’s a very dysfunctional system,” Foreman said. “As far as I’m concerned, the state is avoiding its responsibilities [to build affordable housing].”
Despite his concerns, Alameda is moving forward to enable housing to be built all over the city. The housing element allows almost 1,000 new units to be built in residential neighborhoods like Foreman’s over the next eight years.
“We’re next to Oakland and just across the bay from San Francisco. We’re right in the center of one of the nation’s major urban areas,” said former Alameda City Council member John Knox White. “The idea that we should not participate in providing housing for the jobs that we all travel to is, for me, a little offensive.”
Change is coming
Knox White and Thomas worked hard to pass the city’s housing element. While they both agree with Foreman that affordable housing is important and necessary, they say it’s not realistic to build only subsidized housing when construction costs are so high and funding for affordable housing is limited.
“You have to make the projects financially viable or else they’re not going to be built,” Thomas said. “But at the same time, you want to get as much subsidized, low-income housing as you can. That’s the balance.”
This is why most of Alameda’s housing element includes sites that will have units accessible to a range of income levels: above moderate to very low. One site that excites Knox White and Thomas is called Alameda Point, located on what is now the mostly abandoned remains of the naval base — a huge swath of land that takes up almost a third of the island.
It’s now home to large empty warehouses and miles of unused airstrips. Aside from hosting an antique fair once a month, the space is underutilized and, in the eyes of Knox White and Thomas, could be a great place for housing. In 2015, the city approved a plan for almost 1,000 housing units here, along with retail, residential and commercial space, a sports complex and large public art sculptures.
But, the development highlights the other big challenge city and state planners face when it comes to getting housing built in the Bay Area: Just because it’s possible, doesn’t mean it’s doable.
The redevelopment of Alameda Point has been going slowly and not so smoothly. Construction and labor costs were rising before the pandemic, but now, coupled with inflation, they're only becoming more expensive.
“What we have in our favor is that the city owns the land, so we have a lot more control over our destiny,” Thomas said. “But [there are] no new streets, old infrastructure, old sewer systems that need to be replaced.”
According to Thomas, Alameda Point Partners, the developer working on the project, has come back to the City Council at least six times to renegotiate the deal, partially because of costly city requirements to install public art and contribute to transportation infrastructure. And in the meantime, construction has stalled.
“Now that we’ve solved the housing element issue, we have to figure out how do we not make it so expensive to build,” Knox White said. “Is public art more important than building housing? There’s a big sports complex that might be built in 20 years that every developer has to pay into — is that more important than building the housing we need? These are the tough conversations that folks are going to need to have.”
Alameda led the Bay Area in adopting an ambitious plan to build more housing. But it will all be moot if the housing doesn’t get built. With a potential recession weighing on the economy; labor and construction costs rising; and a long history of slow — or nonexistent — development, some residents say they can’t afford to wait on housing that may or may not get built.
Emily Roscoe is one of them. A first grade teacher at the Bay Farm School, Roscoe moved to the city in 2020 with her husband, a firefighter for the East Bay Regional Park District.
They live in a one-bedroom apartment right across from Crown Beach that has been perfect for just the two of them, but Roscoe wants to start a family soon. Last year, their landlord did major renovations to the property and increased the rent astronomically. Roscoe has two other jobs to keep up with rent.
“I’ve worked every weekend for the past two years,” she said. “Groceries are so expensive now, gas is so expensive, everything is so expensive that I feel like we’re just getting stretched thinner and thinner.”
They looked around the city for a more affordable apartment and found the newly constructed Alta Star Harbor Apartments, which gives preference to Alameda Unified School District employees who live and work in Alameda. But even though it was designed to be affordable for teachers, rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $3,775 — way higher than the $2,400 a month she and her husband currently pay.
“I can’t afford that [new] rent with a partner,” she said. “I feel like we’d have to move to Tracy, but that’s a two-hour commute. I don’t think it’s worth it. It’s just stressful, and we don’t know what to do.”
Roscoe and her husband would love to stay in Alameda. Their parents live here and they want to raise their children around family. But they’re not holding their breath to find affordable housing. In February, they’ll decide whether to stay — or move away.
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