Those who have been striving to put before Alameda voters a ballot measure repealing Measure A in its entirety – not just its prohibition of multi-family housing but also its restriction on residential density – will get their last chance at Tuesday’s Council meeting.
Ordinarily, the Merry-Go-Round wouldn’t give them much of a chance of success.
After all, two separate Council subcommittees, representing four of the five Council members, now have considered the repeal issue. The first, consisting of Vice Mayor John Knox White and Councilman Tony Daysog, rendered a split decision: Mr. Knox White supported repealing all of Measure A; Mr. Daysog opposed repealing any of it. And then the second, consisting of Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft and Councilman Jim Oddie, recommended that the voters be asked to jettison only the provision banning multi-family housing; the density limitation would stay in place for the time being.
Since a majority of affirmative votes is required to put a Council-sponsored initiative on the ballot, the stated opposition by three Council members to getting rid of Measure A entirely would seem to doom the effort to seek voter consent for a complete repeal.
But Mr. Knox White, who abandoned his coyness during the campaign to become the leading proponent – the position he always seeks – of removing Measure A from the City Charter altogether, and his chief ally among City staff, Planning Director Andrew Thomas, haven’t given up. Indeed, Mr. Thomas, who published a scathing critique of Measure A last December, makes one final pitch in the staff report to be presented to Council Tuesday for repealing the density limitation as well as the multi-family prohibition.
As we see it, Mr. Thomas’s most recent argument is unlikely to change the minds of the recalcitrant Council members. Nevertheless, there might be a way to get their votes for complete repeal anyway with an approach focused less on analysis and more on emotion. We call the Crashing Symbols strategy, and we’ll get to it in a minute.
But, first, Mr. Thomas’s latest.
One of the reasons for repealing Measure A’s density limitations, Mr. Thomas contended in his December 2019 “evaluation,” was that those restrictions made it more difficult for the City to meet its share of the Regional Housing Needs Assessment assigned by the state. (The RHNA requires each city to “make available” residential sites sufficient to “accommodate” a specified number of units in each of four income categories.) The logic was impeccable: a 10-acre site zoned for 21 units per acre under Measure A would produce 210 units that the City could count toward the RHNA. But if the site was re-zoned to 30 units per acre, it would produce 300 units to apply against the quota.
In 2012, Mr. Thomas (aided, no doubt, by former City Manager John Russo) devised a clever scheme for boosting the unit total for RHNA purposes even though Measure A remained on the books: Staff got Council to pass an ordinance creating a “multi-family overlay” permitting a density of 30 units per acre, which it then slapped on 17 sites, many of which formerly had been zoned for 21 units per acre. Voila, the City’s residential site inventory now contained 2,525 units, which was more than enough to meet the RHNA quota. This enabled the City to submit a housing element acceptable to the state.
At the time, no one on staff or Council argued that this maneuver was consistent with Measure A. By the same token, no one admitted it conflicted with the Charter provision, either. Instead, staff argued that the state law requiring a city to adopt a housing element satisfying the RHNA in effect pre-empted the Charter. We weren’t so sure – but the issue was never litigated.
The next RHNA cycle – for the period from 2023 to 2031 – is coming up, and, in the most recent staff report, Mr. Thomas uses that fact to double down on his argument against Measure A’s density limitations. Rather than having to go through another site-by-site process similar to the one used in 2012, he suggests, Council should get voters to repeal those restrictions entirely. Then, it can zone whatever parcels it wishes to 30 units per acre – which Mr. Thomas says is necessary to qualify a site as “low income” under state law – or to whatever density it chooses. The more parcels that are zoned at higher densities, the more units will be included in the City’s residential site inventory – and the easier it will become to satisfy the new RHNA.
And that’s where the kicker comes in. The City of Alameda won’t get its RHNA allocation for the 2023-31 period until early 2021. Nevertheless, Mr. Thomas states in the latest staff report that he expects that new quota will be approximately double the 1,723 units assigned for the 2014-22 period. Indeed, the guess he throws out is that the City will need to show that it can “accommodate” between 3,500 and 4,000 new units in the next eight years, of which about half must be “low-income” units. There will be no way the City can meet that target, he argues, without being able to zone a host of properties at densities of 30 units per acre or greater. To facilitate doing so, Measure A’s density limitations should be eliminated altogether.
(We asked Mr. Thomas where he would recommend putting the additional units if Measure A’s density restrictions were gone. He told us that his “current thinking” is that the inventory of “available” residential sites for the 2023‑31 period would include the 425 units at Alameda Point remaining on the residential-development cap; Shipways; Encinal Terminals; the sites on the northern waterfront that haven’t been developed by 2023 – i.e., Boatworks and a portion of Alameda Marina; and the Southshore Shopping Center. But he went on to caution that even if all of these sites were zoned at 30 units per acre, that wouldn’t enable the City to meet the higher RHNA he expects; rather, densities of 40 or 50 units per acre would be necessary.)
Perhaps Mr. Thomas’s last-ditch effort will convince two Councilmembers to join Mr. Knox White in voting to put a measure repealing Measure A in its entirety – including the density limitations – on the November ballot. But, at bottom, the current pitch is just another, albeit more urgent, version of the argument Mr. Thomas made in December 2019. It hasn’t managed to attract enough votes for immediate complete repeal so far. Why would it do so now?
Moreover, we think the comment submitted by the Alameda Citizens Task Force makes a valid point: if the City must zone additional properties at 30 units per acre in order to meet the expected new RHNA requirement, it can do so selectively rather than across the board. Outright repeal of Measure A isn’t necessary; a multi-family overlay ordinance, version 2, followed by re-zoning a handful of properties, would accomplish the desired result. It may be more cumbersome to do it that way, but Mr. Thomas is a creative fellow.
If the advocates for completely repealing Measure A are going to succeed, we don’t think it will be on the merits. Instead, to get the required majority, a different approach – the Crashing Symbols strategy – will be necessary. In essence, the proponents will need to make the issue all about race.
We’re not sure she’d appreciate receiving credit from the likes of us, but we got this idea from a comment posted by Laura Thomas, the co-founder of Renewed Hope and long-time housing advocate, on Blogging Bayport Alameda a couple of weeks ago.
According to Ms. Thomas, she had met a month before with Mayor Ashcraft and her political consultant. “[T]he strongest argument for doing away with Measure A,” Ms. Thomas told them, “was racial justice, that it was essentially a stain on our city’s history for how it had re-enforced exclusion.” At the time the Mayor and her consultant “were more interested in the argument for increasing the supply of housing,” Ms. Thomas reported. But then came the killing of George Floyd and the resultant nationwide protests against “systemic” racism. Now, “[e]veryone is jumping on the racial justice band wagon,” Ms. Thomas wrote. “The argument for how zoning laws and no-growth controls is institutional racism writ large will be much stronger and will actually begin to come into focus for many people who would never have been able to connect the dots.”
So there’s the game plan for the advocates of complete repeal: get a majority of Council members to “jump on the racial justice bandwagon” by characterizing Measure A as “institutional racism writ large.”
With all due respect to Ms. Thomas, we regard labeling Measure A “racist” as a bit of a stretch. Even Rasheed Shabazz, who has spoken and written prolifically on the topic, acknowledges that “there does not appear to be direct evidence of racist intent” behind the Charter provision. And both Mayor Ashcraft and Councilman Oddie already are on record rejecting the notion that the Alamedans who proposed, and voted for, Measure A in 1973 and 1991 acted out of racial bias.
The fallback position taken by Ms. Thomas and Mr. Shabazz, among others, is that Measure A is racist because, regardless of its purpose, it had the effect of keeping blacks out of Alameda. But this contention is flawed, factually and logically.
As Councilman Tony Daysog frequently points out, the black population in Alameda in fact has increased significantly – both in absolute numbers and as a percentage of the total population –since 1973, when the multi-family prohibition was adopted, and 1991, when the density limitations were added. (According to U.S. census data, 1,869 blacks, representing 2.6 percent of the total population, lived in the City of Alameda in 1970; by 2010, the numbers had risen to 4,759 and 6.4 percent). If anything, Alameda has become more, not less, “diverse” since Measure A went into effect.
Moreover, by restricting new residential development to single-family homes and duplexes, Measure A may well have had the effect of keeping poor people from moving to Alameda. But that is an impact on a group defined by economics, not by race, and we refuse to equate “poor” with “black.” In this regard, we are not alone: When he worked for the State Assembly, Mr. Oddie recently told his colleagues, “we were always told by people [to] stop linking race and poverty.” Call Measure A anti-poor, if you wish; but that’s not the same as anti-black.
But for purposes of getting a majority of Council votes, it doesn’t really matter whether characterizing Measure A as racist is factual and logical. What matters is whether the Charter provision can be made into a symbol of racism (systemic or otherwise). If Measure A represents, as Ms. Thomas put it, a “stain on our city’s history,” it can be said to deserve the same fate as other racist symbols, such as statutes of Confederate generals (or even, in San Francisco, Ulysses S. Grant and Francis Scott Key). The statutes ought to be torn off their pedestals; Measure A ought to be torn out of the Charter.
Once one accepts the characterization of Measure A as symbolizing racism, removing it from the Charter can be justified on the same basis as, say, removing the name of Henry Haight from an elementary school. It was Mr. Shabazz who successfully made the case a few years ago that, because Haight had made racist remarks in his inaugural address as California governor in 1867, his name didn’t belong on an Alameda school. If Measure A truly is a symbol of racism, it likewise doesn’t belong in the City Charter.
This kind of argument relying solely on symbolism might very well work to get the necessary two additional votes from Councilwoman Malia Vella and Mr. Oddie, both of whom are running for re-election and counting on “progressive” support. The two Council members already have demonstrated their fondness for slogans that can be delivered as sound bites (“Housing is a basic human right!”). Striking at symbols really takes no more thought than spouting out slogans.
Ms. Vella is vying with Mr. Knox White (and likely Council candidate Amos White) to be seen as leading the battle to eradicate “systemic” racism wherever it rears its ugly head in the city of Alameda. If Measure A can be put into that category, even if only symbolically, advocating its removal from the Charter would give her just as much cred as pushing to “de-fund” the police department.
For his part, Mr. Oddie has to be worried about being left out of the movement du jour. Portraying himself as “Just Cause Jim” may have worked in 2016, but the times have changed. Indeed, this week the Twitter trolls and their favorite blogger pilloried the Councilman for being insufficiently “anti-racist” in his remarks at Monday’s Council meeting. Redemption may be just a vote to repeal Measure A away.
If both Ms. Vella and Mr. Oddie get onboard, Mayor Ashcraft’s position becomes irrelevant. If not, her vote will be decisive.
We don’t know, of course, what advice the political consultant she brought to her meeting with Ms. Thomas is giving her. But Ms. Ashcraft doesn’t have an election to worry about for another two years, and she doesn’t seem to be in any hurry to get rid of Measure A in its entirety. By nature, she is positively Biden-esq: reform, not revolution, is the best way to go. And that’s the way she has approached the Measure A issue.
Consider the reason given by her and Mr. Oddie for not recommending immediate repeal of the Charter provision in toto: the City shouldn’t make any changes to the density limitations until a “comprehensive public planning process” has taken place. And note how she was moved, in her meandering oral remarks on June 2, to utter the cliché favored by both former Mayor Marie Gilmore and herself: “What I would ask is not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”
Moreover, Ms. Ashcraft has a better sense than some of her colleagues of the extent to which the electorate can be moved in a “progressive” direction. Even groups like A.C.T. and the Alameda Architectural Preservation Society don’t oppose repeal of Measure A’s multi-family prohibition; it’s the density limitation they want to preserve (in some form). The Mayor might fear that pushing for complete repeal will generate enough opposition to the ballot measure that the advocates for reforming Measure A will end up with nothing. “What I would ask,” we can imagine her saying, “is not to throw the baby out with the bath water.”
“Evaluation” by Andrew Thomas: 2019-12-09 staff evaluation of Measure A
July 7, 2020 staff report: 2020-07-07 staff report re ballot measure