In our last column, we discussed how more new housing units are expected to be built in Alameda during the next seven years than the regional planners have determined the City needs.
Today, we’ll look at what – for us – is a more important question: Will the number of “affordable” housing units expected to be built during that period satisfy Alameda’s needs?
To put it another way: We take it as a given that a shortage of “affordable” housing – i.e., homes or apartments within the means of lower-income households – now exists in the City. Will the situation get better or worse in the foreseeable future?
The answer is likely to depend on what happens at two specific parcels on the northern waterfront: the 36.36-acre North Housing site located north of the existing Coast Guard housing, and the 8.1-acre Shipways site located off Marina Village Parkway.
All of the residential development projects now in the pipeline, taken together, won’t supply enough “affordable” housing between 2015 and 2023 to meet the increased need for it. Instead, nearly 300 additional “very low” and “low” income housing units will have to be built, and North Housing and Shipways are the only two remaining sites designated by City planners for lower-income housing.
Unfortunately, the only existing commitment to put “affordable” housing on these sites encompasses just 120 units at North Housing. There are no plans on file, and none in the works, to build any more “very low” or “low” income housing on either site.
Unless another project providing “affordable” housing materializes, those more concerned about “affordable” housing than about high-end residential development will just have to keep their fingers crossed.
And they’d be well-advised to keep their eyes on City Hall. If Council and the Planning Board view the “affordable” housing issue only through the lens of the City’s Housing Element, they’ll conclude that Alameda will meet its legal obligations for “very low” and low” income housing with room to spare. That conclusion is true as a matter of state housing element law. But it delivers scant solace as a matter of public policy.
We’ll get to this anomaly in a minute. But first let us lay out the facts about the projected shortfall in housing for lower-income households.
The starting place is the City’s RHNA numbers. The Association of Bay Area Governments assigns to each city within its jurisdiction a share of the state-determined regional housing need in each of four income categories over an eight-year “planning cycle.” For the period between 2015 and 2023, ABAG concluded that Alameda needs the new housing units shown below:
As we reported in our last column, Assistant Community Development Director Andrew Thomas presented a “housing construction forecast” last September showing the number of new housing units that already-approved residential development projects were expected to provide between 2015 and 2023. Previously, we’ve broken down the forecast into “affordable” and “market-rate” components, and the table below summarizes the former:
|Project||Total units|| “Affordable”
Comparing the RHNA targets to the forecast, the prospects for “affordable” housing over the next seven years appear pretty bleak: Of the 622 new “very low” and “low” income units ABAG determined the City needs by 2023, only 247 are expected to be built.
Since the forecast was prepared, two new residential projects have been announced, one for Encinal Terminals, the other for Alameda Landing. (A third subsequently announced project, on Webster Street, contains no “very low” or “low” income housing).
The draft master plan for the Encinal Terminals project submitted to the Planning Board last Monday included 25 “very low” income and 20 “low” income units. No similar plan was presented for Alameda Landing, but Mr. Thomas relayed the developer’s representation that the project would contain 53 “affordable” units, half in the “very low” and “low” income categories.
Updating the table to reflect this data, the “affordable” housing picture gets better, but it is still grim: Even if the two new residential projects are approved and developed, there still will be a 303-unit shortfall between the number of new “very low” and “low” income units ABAG concluded the City needs and the number of units that are expected to be built.
Is there any chance of making up this gap? That’s where North Housing and Shipways come in.
When the City’s planning staff prepared the 2015-23 Housing Element, it identified three sites as being available to supply housing for lower-income households. One was Encinal Terminals; the other two were North Housing and Shipways. We’ve already included Encinal Terminals in the updated projection. As a result, the burden of making up the deficit will fall on the other two sites.
The North Housing parcel will do part of the job: 90 units of housing for the homeless and 30 units of “self-help” housing already are committed to go on the property. But that still leaves around 200 “very low” and “low” units to be built – somewhere – if the supply is to meet the anticipated need.
When we asked Mr. Thomas about current plans for the North Housing site, he responded, “The Navy is actively working on their plans to convey the North Housing site out of federal ownership to the [Alameda] Housing Authority and a portion would be auctioned. The Navy process is always slow, but I would assume some development will occur on that site before 2023.”
For the Shipways site, Mr. Thomas told us, “I have no idea about the status. . . . Nobody has contacted me or the city about it in the last year or so, that I am aware of.”
So there’s the challenge to our City planners and public officials: Find someone willing and able to build around 200 “very low” and “low” income units on the North Housing and Shipways sites. Or find another place those units can be built. Otherwise, despite all of the pricey housing provided by the residential development projects approved to date, the shortage of “affordable” housing will persist well into the future.
But that isn’t the conclusion one would reach by looking solely at the Housing Element.
State housing element law requires the City to prepare a list of sites zoned for residential development, then determine the number of housing units each site can accommodate based on its “realistic capacity” and assign it to one of the four RHNA income categories. As long as the total “realistic capacity” of the sites in each category meets the RHNA target for that category, the City has complied with its legal obligations.
For the 2015-23 Housing Element adopted in 2014, the site inventory showed a total of 1,186 housing units in the “very low” and “low” income categories, far more than the 692-unit RHNA requirement. Since then, the numbers have been adjusted to reflect changes in the inventory. Mr. Thomas recently provided us with an updated table showing a “surplus” of 721 units in the lower-income categories as of April 2016. (By our calculation, the net effect of the two new residential developments announced Monday will be to reduce the surplus slightly, but only to 558 units).
So how can there be a shortage and a surplus at the same time?
The reason is that the numbers and categorizations in the site inventory are based on formulas and presumptions, not on expectations about how many units, in total and by income category, actually will be built on a particular site. For example, any site zoned to permit 30 units per acre “shall be deemed appropriate to accommodate housing for lower income households” and thus may be counted in the “very low” and “low” income categories, regardless of the likelihood that a developer actually would devote the entire site to lower-income housing. (As Mr. Thomas puts it, “Under state housing law, density equals affordability.”)
Thanks to this presumption, when the planners prepared the 2015-23 Housing Element, they were able to treat Encinal Terminals, North Housing, and Shipways as sites available for “very low” and “low” housing, since all are zoned for 30 units per acre, and to count their entire “realistic capacity” toward the RHNA numbers. This created the “surplus,” which has grown as lower-income housing provided by projects not included in the original site inventory – like Alameda Point and Island High – are added to the list. Nevertheless, the Housing Element “surplus” remains an artificial construct.
We’re not accusing Mr. Thomas of trickery; he’s just worked the system. (“Why did you take $250,000 to give a speech at Goldman Sachs, Mrs. Clinton?” “Because that’s what they offered”). And he deserves credit for ensuring that the City is now, and will continue to be, in compliance with the state housing element law.
But let’s not jump to the conclusion that, therefore, all is well. The fact remains: unless the policy makers take action, the residential projects so beloved by the pro-development crowd aren’t going to provide the “affordable” housing the City needs, now or in the future.
RHNA: Final RHNA (2014-2022)
2015-23 Housing Element: 2015-2023 Final Housing Element Background Report
September 2015 forecast: 2015-09-14 staff report to PB re annual H.E. report
Housing Element update: RHNA STATUS – april 16