Momentum builds to ask voters in November to consider repealing the Nixon-era housing limits.
It was a ballot measure intended to preserve Alameda’s quaint, small-town feel within the rapidly growing East Bay. When Alameda voters approved Measure A, the landmark 1973 initiative that essentially limited new construction to single-family homes, they could have not realized the consequences it eventually would have as the city and region subsequently sunk into a brutal housing crisis.
While long-ago proponents of Measure A argued for the preservation of Alameda’s Victorian homes, some of which were being demolished in favor of new housing projects, the initiative significantly depressed housing construction for an entire generation. Yet after the Clinton administration decided to close the Alameda Naval Air Station, long the lifeblood of Alameda, the diminishing housing supply was not readily noticeable. Alameda’s population actually dipped following the base’s closure, falling below 70,000 for the years from 2005-2007. Yet by 2009, it was rebounding rapidly. And as the Bay Area tech economy began to take hold in the East Bay, highly paid workers priced out of San Francisco came looking for housing in Oakland and Alameda. Home prices surged across the East Bay, but in places like Alameda, where Measure A had artificially constrained the supply of housing units, they skyrocketed. The average cost of a single-family home in Alameda now exceeds $1 million.
Although city officials have whittled away at the restrictions imposed by Measure A over the years — primarily to comply with new state housing requirements — Measure A remains on the city’s books. As the housing crisis has raged on in Alameda, accompanied by the growth of a powerful tenants organization on the island, calls for repealing Measure A for good have grown louder. Coming this November, it is increasingly likely Alameda voters will be asked to repeal Measure A.
If a measure to repeal Measure A is indeed put before voters in November, it would represent the third consecutive Alameda election cycle in which tenants have faced off with property owners. In 2016, landlords fought off passage of a rent control measure. Two years later, tenants roared back as voters approved a similar version of rent control. The victory also swept a clear progressive majority onto the city council. With the will of the voters presumably behind Alameda Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft, her very first directive as mayor in December 2018 was to name an ad hoc committee tasked with looking into revisions to the City Charter. Among the possible changes: another look at Measure A in light of the city’s continuing housing crisis.
Based on recent public meetings and discourse in the editorial pages of the Alameda Sun, it’s already clear that Measure A is bound to be relitigated over the course of this year. Was its intent merely to preserve Alameda’s cozy neighborhood character, as long-time residents often argue? Or was it an initiative based on exclusion?
“It’s not discriminatory,” former Alameda Mayor Trish Herrera Spencer said during an Alameda Planning Board hearing last month. “I absolutely oppose any suggestion Measure A was intended to be discriminatory.”
Spencer’s ire, including others at the planning board meeting, was stoked by a city staff report last month by Andrew Thomas, the head of the Alameda Planning, Building, and Transportation Department, that was unusually blunt for a staff-generated public document.
The report referred to the housing restrictions found in Measure A as “Article 26,” its section in the Alameda City Charter.
“Article 26 does not support inclusiveness and equity in Alameda; it fuels displacement,” Thomas wrote. “It discriminates against lower income families and households by prohibiting the housing types they are more likely to be able to afford. Middle and lower income people have found it harder to find housing in Alameda because of Article 26. By prohibiting multifamily housing, Article 26 is ignoring the needs of seniors and residents who wish to age in place, Alameda residents with disabilities that might need, and young families who may not be able to afford a single family detached home or cannot live in a single family detached home.”
Thomas further concluded that Measure A does not support the goals of Alameda’s General Plan, and “limits the city’s ability to address the local and regional affordable housing crisis.” The staff report noted that mixed-use housing in transit-accessible areas is one tool for increasing affordable housing and decreasing traffic. However, Alameda’s two main business corridors — Park and Webster streets — have not seen any new mixed-use housing projects since the time of Measure A’s passage. As a result, the report concluded, Measure A hastens higher greenhouse emissions due to longer car rides and also fails to limit traffic congestion. “Article 26 is arguably making traffic in Alameda worse, not better,” he wrote. Furthermore, Measure A does not preserve the neighborhood character, since many of the buildings lauded as examples of this bygone era of architecture could not be constructed again today under the provisions of Article 26, he continued.
Thomas’ report and his presentation at the Jan. 13 planning board were met with fiery reactions from proponents of Measure A. They accused Thomas, a generally well-liked public servant known in Alameda for his high energy and voluminous explanations of city planning matters, for providing a biased report in favor of repealing Measure A. Another equated Thomas’s presentation to “fake news.”
Yet, momentum toward asking voters to strike Measure A from the City Charter is building, and the report prepared by Thomas appears destined to be the playbook for that effort. The city’s charter revision subcommittee continues to cast its gaze not only toward Measure A, but also a host of other potential revisions, including adding clarity to the charter’s provision on political interference by elected officials. The planning board’s support last month for placing the Measure A repeal on the ballot only added weight to the argument.
Such support is not unanimous, however. Planning Board Chairman Ronald Curtis said wiping Measure A from the charter would have negative effects for the future of Alameda. “Without ‘A’ there will be no protections from upzoning,” Curtis said, before noting the perception the current city council has a pro-growth bent. “How can we trust the council?’ he asked. “If trust was there, there’s no need for Measure A. Measure A is the saving grace for keeping the city on the straight and narrow.”
Alameda is heading toward a reckoning. Will it maintain its reverence for a bygone era or address the Original Sin that has played a part in the region’s ongoing housing crisis? “Times have changed,” Planning Boardmember Hanson Hom, a city planner for four decades, believes that that Measure A achieved its stated goal of preserving the character of Alameda — one reason he chose to move to the island. But times have changed a lot since 1973.
“We’re dealing with a serious housing crisis,” Hom said. “We have climate-change issues. We’re trying to promote more transit-oriented land-uses. How does Alameda respond?”