Alameda voters will soon have a chance to repeal 70s era ban on multi-family housing

Alameda city officials during a City Council meeting conducted remotely on Tuesday night

Alameda’s Measure A, a charter amendment approved by voters in 1973, to ban new multi-family housing in the name of protecting the island community’s small town character, has divided the city’s politics for more than four decades. But with an affordable housing crisis amid a dramatic economic downturn caused by covid-19, Alameda voters will have the opportunity this November to repeal the controversial provision, also known as Article 26.

Alameda beatAlameda officials directed city to staff on Tuesday night to create a ballot statement for the eventual formal decision by the council on July 21 to ask voters to excise Measure A from the city’s books.

A second, less contentious, charter amendment to make several tweaks to the city’s guiding document, including giving Alameda’s newly-created city prosecutor’s office additional powers and clarification for violations of council interference rules in the charter, was moved forward for the fall ballot.

“We have an opportunity before us to correct a 47-year-old mistake,” Alameda Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft said of the proposed repeal of Measure A. She urged Alameda voters to weigh-in on the decision in November. “What this council is doing is simply providing the opportunity for democracy to take place and I’m not sure why anyone should feel threatened by that.”

No other issue cuts to the heart of what it means to be an Alamedan more than Measure A. For long-time residents, the passage of Measure A was intended to protect the city’s prized, but loosely defined, character during a time when vintage homes were being demolished for construction of unimaginative apartment complexes and a proposed housing boom on Bay Farm Island. For others, Measure A also acts an important check against uncontrolled growth, Measure A supporters often argue.

We have an opportunity before us to correct a 47-year-old mistake.-Alameda Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft.

But to others, the charter amendment is viewed as a dog-whistle for Alameda nativists to block the influx of new residents, possibly non-whites, along with a deep distrust of its current city leaders that saw a renaissance during the recent City Hall scandal involving two councilmemebers and a former city manager.

Andrew Thomas, Alameda’s planning director, bluntly told the Alameda City Council on Tuesday that it is imperative that Measure A be removed from the charter. His staff, he said, found the provision to be in direct conflict with state laws that require cities to provide housing for residents at all levels of income. He added Article 26 also violates the city’s policies that support diverse communities.

“We found that Article 26 continues a legacy of exclusionary zoning that discriminates against families based upon income,” Thomas said. Thomas has spoken out publicly against Article 26 several times over the past year, stating that he believes it has a ruinous effect on creating new affordable housing units in Alameda. His stance has made him a target of those who support Measure A. Several public speakers on Tuesday night voiced suspicion over Thomas’s personal intentions to repeal Measure A.

But the rancor Measure A brings up in Alameda politics is nothing new. But with a largely progressive City Council and skyrocketing rents in Alameda fueled, in part, by the stark lack of housing supply, the calculus for the future of Measure A has changed considerably over the past five years.

“This is not a new question, we’ve been debating the merits of Article 26 for years in Alameda. But the events of the last years, I think, caused us to see this issues in a new and clearer light,” Thomas said.

“The compounding impacts of a pandemic and economic disruption have starkly displayed the disproportionate burdens that exist in our society. As planners and leaders of local government, we have roles to play in transitioning to a more just and inclusive place where everyone can participate and prosper regardless of income, race, color, age, or disability.”

Councilmember Tony Daysog, the lone vote against moving the Measure A repeal forward, argued Measure A is not a “racist tool to stifle diversity” since Alameda’s black population has steadily increased from just over two percent in 1970 to an estimated nine percent today.

“Measure A is urban planning by sledgehammer. Measure is not a fine tool of precision like a scalpel in the hands of a surgeon,” Daysog acknowledged. Large planned developments at Bay Farm during the late 1960s and early 1970s, along with the loss of Victorian homes posed threats to the ability of the island to grow responsibly, he added.

Repealing Measure A will give developers free reign to pursue an unchecked housing explosion in Alameda, Daysog warned. “Right now, developers are salivating about even more housing at Alameda Point,” he said.

During an era when public awareness of the laws and monuments constructed long ago to foster white supremacy is at the forefront of public discourse, the future of Measure A appears doubtful, although a fierce campaign for and against the repeal charter amendment is predicted by many this fall and one of the main topics of conversation during the November city council election.

“There are pillars of white supremacy that need to come down. It’s easy to pull down a statue,” Councilmember Jim Oddie said. “It’s even more difficult to change laws that have been put in place perpetuate a segregated society and a segregated system.”

The language in Article 26 of the Alameda City Charter is quite succinct. “There shall be no multiple dwelling units built in the City of Alameda,” the charter states.

While Alameda officials have been able to create end-arounds for building new housing in recent decades, Measure A remains a hindrance for attracting the type of low-income housing developments the city requires to meet its state-mandated goals for creating new housing, Thomas told the council.

The city needs to create up to 2,000 new low-income units, possibly at the Northern Waterfront, Alameda Point, and the South Shore Shopping Center. Harbor Bay is also a possibility for new affordable housing in coming years, Thomas added.

But under the parameters of Measure A, developers are limited to a maximum of 21 units per acre, along with a few extra units derived from density bonuses. But often such constraints fail to pencil out financially for developers hoping to increase the island’s housing stock. Thomas said most developers simply walk away after talking to the city’s planning staff. “Their parting words are usually, “That’s crazy. You can’t build that project with 25 unit’,” Thomas said.

Meanwhile, a second ballot measure seeking to clarify and expand the City Charter was approved for the November ballot on Tuesday. The charter amendment measure asks voters to add clarity to an existing provision against interference by councilmembers in the duties of the city manager. In addition, it hopes to provide the city attorney with the ability to prosecute violations of the city’s laws and state misdemeanors. Gender neutral language will also be added to the City Charter, if the measure is passed by voters in November.