Housing Crisis Relief within Island’s Reach

Most of the 50 or so Island residents who attended the recent League of Women Voters of Alameda’s forum on relieving the housing crisis weren’t surprised to learn that high costs are keeping more affordable homes from being built. The surprise was that relief from some of those financial barriers is within our reach. 

With Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft, City Manager Eric Levitt and Planning Board member Alan Teague in attendance, four panelists — all housing experts, three of whom live in Alameda — offered a clear path to constructing more affordable homes: public and private investment, objective design-review standards for new homes and an easing of the city’s ban on constructing new multi-family homes.

According to panelist Louis Liss, a project developer for non-profit Eden Housing, Inc., more public money is needed to subsidize developments with affordable homes to meet local and regional needs. With Eden spending more than $600,000 to $700,000 to build each unit of affordable apartment homes for a family at Site A on Alameda Point, Liss and panelist Joe Ernst agreed that current funding models for affordable homes are inadequate and unsustainable. 

Ernst’s company, srmErnst, is supporting the development of hundreds of homes and thousands of square feet of commercial space at Alameda Point. Based on his experience as a commercial developer for 20 years, Ernst also noted that objective design review standards could significantly reduce planning costs for obtaining permits. Complying with layers and layers of regulations and restrictions that seem to change for each project results in higher costs, he said.

Recognizing that government alone cannot fund the needed housing, many businesses, including Google and Facebook, are investing in housing for their own employees and the broader community, according to panelist Xiomara Cisneros, policy director for the Bay Area Council. She said the council, comprising 300 of the largest Bay Area employers, believes the high cost of homes is making it increasingly difficult for many businesses to retain and attract employees at every income level.

Both Rev. Sophia deWitt, program director of the non-profit East Bay Housing Organizations and Cisneros agreed that Alamedans could reduce the cost of new Alameda homes by modifying the City Charter’s ban on multi-family housing to permit the construction of new apartments, condominiums and townhomes throughout the city. This ban has been in the Charter since 1973 and is often referred to as Measure A.

The community is understandably concerned about overcrowding and increased traffic that could come from more development, but much of the negative impact can be mitigated through collaborative planning. Relieving the housing crisis will require both the leadership of city government and the will of the public. 

The League of Women Voters of Alameda hopes the divergent views about residential development can be resolved to address this issue with maximum benefit for all.

 

Susan Hauser is the president of the League of Women Voters of Alameda.