A couple of weeks ago, a polling firm hired by the City presented Council with the results of a telephone survey of 600 Alamedans likely to vote in this November’s election.
The primary purpose of the survey was to gauge public support for two possible tax measures – raising the sales tax by half a cent and broadening the coverage of the utility users’ tax. The survey found a majority favoring both measures.
But this finding wasn’t what interested us the most.
Instead, we were intrigued by the answers to questions the survey posed about the “problems facing the City of Alameda” and the “ways in which funds generated by [a tax measure] could be spent.” Taking the results at face value (more on that later), the poll reveals what ordinary citizens – as distinguished from, say, the executive board of the Alameda City Democratic Club – view as the City’s major problems and what voters want their elected officials to do about them.
In particular, the survey offers a clue about the extent to which the electorate truly endorses some of the “causes” advocated regularly – and often passionately – before Council. For this reason it may provide a useful guide to any candidate running this November who believes that issues actually matter in a local election.
The pollsters read lists containing 11 “problems” to respondents and asked how “serious” the respondent thought each was. Of the 11 items, there were four that more than 25 percent of likely voters deemed an “extremely” or “very” serious problem.
Topping the list – with 72 percent of respondents calling it “extremely” or “very” serious – was “current drought conditions in California.” Unfortunately, even the most powerful of our public officials haven’t figured it out yet how to make it rain, so there isn’t much the City can do about this issue.
The second highest ranked problem – with 69 percent regarding it as “extremely” or “very” serious – was “the cost of housing.” This response should come as no surprise, given the Bay Area economy, but its policy ramifications are not entirely clear.
We wouldn’t fault housing advocates like Renewed Hope if they construed the poll as implying public support for their agenda: As “everyone knows,” they would argue, the way to reduce the cost of housing is to . . . build more housing. If Alamedans are so worried about housing costs, they’ll endorse further residential development – right?
The problems ranked next highest in the survey lead to the opposite conclusion. The No. 3 concern was “[t]raffic and congestion on local streets and roads” (47 percent considered it an “extremely” or “very” serious problem), followed by “[t]oo much growth and development” (38 percent). It’s difficult to believe that Alamedans who are troubled by gridlocked traffic and unbridled development would favor building more houses as the solution to rising housing costs.
Likewise, a survey identifying the “cost of housing” as a serious problem might be interpreted to signal public support for measures whose goal is to rein in housing costs. If so, one could infer that voters will rally behind the initiative proposed by the Alameda Renters Coalition to cap annual rent increases at 65 percent of the increase in the Consumer Price Index.
Again, not necessarily.
In addition to the question about “problems,” the consultants read respondents lists of 30 “spending priorities” for which funds generated by the tax measures (and, presumably, existing tax revenues) could be used. Of the 30 items, all but five were considered “extremely” or “very” important by more than half of likely voters.
Smack in the middle of the spending priority list (17th out of 30 in the summary prepared by the polling firm) was “[a]ddressing the cost of rental housing,” which 62 percent of respondents deemed “extremely” or “very” important. Having listened for the last few months to speakers at Council meetings insist that the “rental crisis” is the paramount issue in the City, we’d have expected that the need to “address” exorbitant rents would have ranked higher than this.
Which caused us to wonder: Could it be that the electorate in general doesn’t share the same zeal for “tenant protection” as the membership of ARC? If so, the survey may cause concern for proponents of the rent-control initiative – and consternation for the candidates whose political consultants have advised them to trumpet their support for the measure on the campaign trail.
In response to our request for comment, Eric Strimling, an ARC steering committee member, told us that the middling ranking given to controlling rents simply reflected the extent to which the public has been deceived. He elaborated:
Alamedans are very worried about the high cost of housing but don’t know what can be done about it. We are about to offer them a solution. Rent control has worked in cities all over California, and in the Bay Area, and it will work in Alameda.
The problem that Alamedans have with perceiving this solution is the long propaganda war fought by powerful real estate interests to convince people that Rent Control is bad. . . . The truth is that Rent Control stabilizes real estate markets. It levels off the booms and busts and creates predictable profits over the long term. It also stabilizes the lives of tenants, who are the majority of Alameda citizens. No longer would students be ripped out of their classrooms mid-year because some out-of- town investor needed to satisfy his profit targets. My neighbor’s daughter just moved back home, after ten years on her own, because her local landlord raised her rent too high. Rent control will stabilize family life in Alameda; it will stabilize our schools; it will stabilize landlord profits.
And yet, we are told it is so bad that we can’t even consider it as a solution. That is why, I believe, the survey came back the way that it did.
The survey also contains some illuminating, and somewhat equivocal, responses on two other “causes” with fervent adherents among Alamedans: parks and bicycles.
Based only on the questions about spending priorities, one might conclude that likely voters continue to favor devoting municipal resources to the City’s recreation and parks program. A majority of respondents considered it “extremely” or “very” important to:
- Maintain neighborhood parks (70 percent);
- Maintain City parks (64 percent);
- Maintain recreation programs (58 percent); and
- Repair aging and deteriorating play structures and facilities at City parks (51 percent).
Unfortunately for park supporters, the survey didn’t stop there. Instead, the polling firm asked a specific question: Should the City impose a $25 per parcel tax, providing about $500,000 annually, to repair, maintain, and improve existing park facilities and open new ones?
Only 22 percent of likely voters said they would “definitely” vote for such a tax, and 23 percent said they “probably” would. On the other hand, 26 percent “definitely,” and 14 percent “probably,” would oppose it. Since a two-thirds majority is required to pass a parcel tax, the hypothetical park subsidy would fail rather resoundingly.
At the Council meeting at which the survey results were presented, Mayor Trish Spencer offered a simple explanation for the responses to this question. “It’s connected to the parcel tax,” she said. “I actually think that is the issue as opposed to the public not being willing to pay additional moneys to support our parks.”
We also asked Bill Delaney, vice chair of the Recreation and Parks Commission and president of the Alameda Friends of the Parks, to comment. Mr. Delaney attributed the responses partially to incomplete information. “If we were to communicate effectively over time the amount of resources required to keep parks open for everyone,” he said, “the results may have been different.” Mr. Delaney continued:
I was pleased that the 600 people that were surveyed felt that the city and the parks specifically were viewed as “excellent” or “good.” They also felt that their neighborhoods were moving in the “right direction.”
Our parks are in their neighborhoods, thus I was surprised that they did not connect the two items. No matter where you live in Alameda, you are no more than a 15 minute walk from one of our 22 parks.
Much like schools, city safety services, and other services that benefit residents, supplemental revenue is needed to support them. The 27-acre Jean Sweeney Open Space park that is moving forward with designs is an example of a park that will need maintenance support. The size of this park is twice the size of Washington Park; thus it will require a lot of attention. If people want these types of areas for their children, their parents and themselves, they need to step up and get involved with helping the city maintain them.
We spent the 20th century building with steel and glass. The 21st century has to be focused on the space we have left to build open space and recreational areas for the well-being of everyone.
The survey also included on the list of spending priorities three proposals benefiting bicyclists. But of the five items that got the lowest ranking in the poll – i.e., those that less than half of respondents considered “extremely” or “very” important – two were bike-related: “increasing the number of bicycle lanes” (29th out of 30 – only re-opening City Hall on Fridays polled worse – with just 25 percent regarding it as “extremely” or “very” important), and “improving bicycle safety” (26th out of 30, with 46 percent in the top two categories). The other bike-related objective fared only slightly better: 52 percent viewed “creating a safe space on our streets for bicyclists and pedestrians” as “extremely” or “very” important.
A cynic might interpret these results as suggesting a lack of widespread public support for the “complete streets” agenda. But that’s not how Michele Ellson, the former editor of The Alamedan and a current board member of Bike Walk Alameda, views them.
“The purpose of this survey was to figure out what would help the city sell a tax measure on the ballot and [was] not necessarily a referendum on bike lanes and pedestrian improvements,” Ms. Ellson told us in response to our request for comment. She continued:
That said, the results make it clear that Alamedans value safer streets for people who walk and bike by an overwhelming margin (85 percent say that it’s at least somewhat important), and that the majority believe that doing so is extremely or very important. More than half of the people polled think increasing the number of bike lanes in Alameda is at least somewhat important. . . .
I would say these survey results reinforce the overwhelming support Alamedans showed, in writing and in person at the City Council and Transportation Commission, for the Central Avenue Complete Street project – and also generally the notion that Alamedans do want to see the city make improvements to the Island’s transportation network that make it safer for people to bike and walk.
Having served on The Alamedan’s original advisory board, we respect Ms. Ellson’s opinions highly. Still . . . if it’s a matter of priorities – and that’s what the list purports to be – the idea of spending money on bike-related improvements doesn’t seem to inspire the same enthusiasm among likely voters that more prosaic items – like repairing storm drains (ranked 8th out of 30) and fixing potholes (10th out of 30) – do. So congratulations, Bike Walk Alameda, on that 5-0 Council vote approving the Central Avenue project.
Which brings us to our caveat.
Assistant City Manager Liz Warmerdam told us that all of the 11 “problems” listed in the survey, except for the one about the drought, were taken from a similar poll done in 2008. She also said that the polling firm suggested most of the 30 spending priorities, which staff “adjusted based on what we’ve observed in the community to be issues of interest.” Staff then added items that were “current hot topics that are important to Alameda, such as the cost of housing, trees, traffic, parks, bike lanes, etc.”
This strikes us as a perfectly rational approach. But there may be other problems that Alamedans would have identified, or other potential spending priorities that they would have endorsed, had they found their way onto the list. The survey doesn’t tell us, for example, how many voters believe dominance of local campaign funding by union-affiliated political action committees is an “extremely serious,” “very serious” or “somewhat serious” problem – or if they don’t regard it as a problem at all. When Hillary or Bernie gets elected and appoints a Supreme Court justice who’ll vote to overturn Citizens United, this is information we’d like to have.
In addition, the rankings derived from the survey results are based on the responses to each choice individually rather than relative to its alternatives. We can only speculate about the hierarchy that would have emerged had the respondents been given a list of 10 spending proposals and asked to rank them from 1 to 10. Do Alamedans really believe “providing programs for youth and young adults” is just as important as “improving public transit to address traffic congestion,” and more important than “addressing the cost of rental housing”? That’s what the rankings based on the percentages of respondents who considered these three items to be “extremely” or “very” important imply. (The first two tied for 15th out of 30; the third ranked 17th). We’re not so sure.
We don’t mean to argue that the survey is flawed for these reasons. The information it provides is valuable – but the implications are not always as clear as we’d like them to be.
A final point. The poll may not provide data that unequivocally bolsters the causes promoted by housing advocates, renters, or park and bicycle supporters, but there is one group for whom it does furnish ammunition.
The spending priorities receiving the highest combined “extremely” and “very” important percentages are, in order: “maintaining 911 emergency medical response times,” “maintaining 911 response times to fire emergencies,” “maintaining 911 police response times” and “maintaining police response to violent crimes.” These responses should enable the fire and police departments to oppose any attempt to reduce their staffing or facilities, and even to argue for increasing spending in these areas. All the firefighters and cops would need to do is to pitch the proposal in terms of preserving existing “response times,” and the politicians will be apt to go along – regardless of how much the City will have to spend.
If you don’t like that outcome, blame the survey.
Staff report: 2016-03-01 staff report re revenue survey
Polling firm presentation: 2016-03-01 Presentation