5 observations on Alameda’s NIMBY vs. Homeless special election

The future of a 3.65-acre federally-owned property in Alameda slated to become a wellness center for homeless seniors in the county, in addition, to supportive services for the homeless Alamedans will be decided on the April 9 special election.

1. Strange Election

Alameda has a history of controversial and divisive ballot measures, but this version may be the strangest ever, not to mention costliest in terms of what proponents hope to achieve. Friends of Crab Cove, the group that qualified Measure B for the April 9 ballot, the initiative hoping to block the Alameda Wellness Center, has no stated plan for what happens next if they are successful at the ballot box. Curiously they were thwarted in an attempt to get an Alameda County Superior Court judge to postpone the special election to November 2020. Meaning, they tried to stop their own initiative from moving forward this spring. Later, Friends of Crab Cove got fined for failing to properly disclosing who is funding the measure. And not to mention, the special election will cost Alameda taxpayers between $530,000 and $780,000 to administer. Those cost projections are likely to be closer to $500,000, according to a City Hall source. Nevertheless, opponents of Measure B have pinned the exorbitant cost of the special election on Friends of Crab Cove. All of this before mentioning, Measure B seems to many as an issue in search of a problem.

2. Anti-government undercurrent

Alamtg councilIn recent years, Alameda has had a knack for raising ballot measures that contain the risks of unintended consequences. Last year’s Measure K, a rent-related initiative funded by area landlords sought to replace an amended rent stabilization ordinance with its original version–a version that did not include just-cause renters protections. If Measure K would have won last November, a number of issues, including the council losing the ability to amend the ordinance without voter approval would have been highly problematic. But that was kind of the point of the measure, to strip authority from a council that landlords believe is too far-left for their tastes. Measure K was soundly defeated last November. But the same anti-government undercurrent exists with Friends of Crab Cove and Measure B. A victory would handcuff the council by not only blocking the wellness center, but potentially forcing them to spend money on park projects for which is there is no allocated money. The city contends the biggest consequence of Measure B passing is it constitutes a take back of property from the Alameda Point Collaborative, the group slated to run the McKay Avenue wellness center. The take back could potentially cost the  city $10-12 million to make Alameda Point Collaborative whole. Alameda has a history of brinkmanship at the ballot box. In the early 1970s, Measure A sought to limit a housing boom by prohibiting no new housing containing two more or adjoining units. Measure A was approved and fast-forward a few generations and Alameda found itself smack in the middle of a raging housing crisis fueled by a limited supply of units on the island.

3. Can’t shoot straight

Measure B’s inherent weakness is its incredible fudging of simple facts. Friends of Crab Cove circulated a petition to qualify for the ballot proclaiming their effort was to “Save Open Space.” The property on McKay Avenue is not open space. As late as 2017, the federally owned property housed the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Marshal’s Office. Periodically, the group has argued that a 2008 ballot measure by the East Bay Regional Park District intended to use the McKay Avenue property to expand the adjacent Crab Cove park area. However, the East Bay Regional Park District has unequivocally said they have no intention to build and maintain open space on this parcel. This raises the question as to why the Friends of Crab Cove’s beef isn’t with the EBRPD Board of Directors? In fact, they did complain to them, but switched to the Alameda City Council. When pressed on these facts, proponents, including former Alameda Mayor Trish Herrera Spencer have framed the issue as a property right infringement against working class and immigrants living in the area. Opponents call it NIMBYism at its most basic level.

4. Spencer Hurting Crab Cove’s Cause

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Trish Herrera Spencer, right, former Alameda mayor, has campaigned strongly for Measure B.

Ostensibly, Friends of Crab Cove is an aggrieved, but small group of Alameda residents Their opponents are more succinct about describing their intentions. They simply call them NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard). Watchers of Alameda politics should know this group and their various rationales for limiting development because they typically aligned themselves under the leadership of Spencer. It’s no surprise that Spencer has lent a significant portion of her early post-mayoral free time to campaign for Measure B. But she’s actually been hurting their case. Spencer’s appearance at an endorsement meeting at the Alameda County Democratic Central Committee in early February was a disaster. During questioning, Spencer admitted the group has no funding plan for building a park at McKay Avenue, in the event Measure B wins on April 9. In addition, she had no clue how the city might replace the funding the wellness center would have offered in support of the homeless. Basically, underlining every point being made by opponents of Measure B. In subsequent appearances, Spencer has appeared even less stable. At one event, she appeared to be on the verge of comically wrestling the microphone away from the executive director of the Alameda Point Collaborative.

 

5. What may happen

The biggest fear for supporters of the wellness center is Alameda voters don’t bother to send in their absentee ballots and treat April 9 like any other Tuesday in early spring. People rarely participate in special elections, especially a bare-bones ballot six months after a grueling November election season. There appears to be a groundswell of opposition to the Crab Cove initiative, particularly by those who view it as an affront to decency and an unfair attack on the weakest among us. But which side is truly energized? The outrage against Measure B or the potential for a strong voting block of McKay Avenue neighbors? Voter turnout could be in the 10-15 percent voters range. What if 1,000 voters near Crab Cove come out and support Measure B based on the vision of homeless encampments offered by Friends of Crab Cove? Such a turnout in a low-participation special election could potential tilt the election. On the political side, a win for Measure B will initiate finger-pointing all over Alameda City Hall. Did the council unwittingly confuse voters by placing the competing Measure A on the same special election ballot that supports the wellness center? The council-backed Measure A is simply a reaffirmation of support for the wellness center. Why did the council waste, at minimum $500,000, on a loser special election that could have gone either way based on low-turnout? But with the rise of progressives in Alameda has come a very strong recent track record for voter engagement. This camp appears again engaged with the issues, the campaign trickery fostered by Friends of Crab Cove, and what inaction means for the homeless and, unfortunately, soon-to-be homeless in Alameda.