The Merry-Go-Round recently has seen two dramatically different ways of debating the appropriate method for determining the number of new housing units that should be assigned to the City of Alameda in the next “planning cycle.”
One approach is that adopted by Assistant Community Development Director Andrew Thomas and Paul Foreman of the Alameda Citizens Task Force. It is respectful and relies on reason.
The other is the one taken by Councilman Jim Oddie and Vice Mayor John Knox White. It is demonizing and driven by dogma.
It may be a sign of the times, but isn’t it a sad day for Alamedans when their elected representatives sound more like Donald Trump than Joe Biden? We surely think so.
Here’s the story:
Every eight years, the state Department of Housing and Community Development determines how many new housing units in four income categories “need” to be built in each region in the state over the next “planning cycle.” Each locale, through its “council of governments” – in the case of the Bay Area, the Association of Bay Area Governments – then apportions this quota among the cities and counties within its jurisdiction.
For the 2023-2031 planning cycle, the state assigned 441,176 new housing units to the Bay Area, and it was up to ABAG to divvy them up.
Subject to broad statutory requirements, ABAG has considerable discretion to come up with the exact formula to allocate the RHNA among its member cities. The starting place is to distribute the housing units based on the expected population growth in each city. But the distribution so derived is then adjusted to reflect various priorities the agency deems important. And this is where it gets complicated.
The ABAG Housing Methodology Committee began with a list of 17 possible “factors” to be used in the formula, which it presented to the public at its January 24, 2020, meeting. It then spent the next nine months building a framework. Ultimately, at its October 15 meeting, the ABAG executive board approved a methodology that included only three factors and assigned a specific weighting to each of them.
One of those factors was “Access to High Opportunity,” which assigned more housing units to jurisdictions with high “opportunity index” scores. An ABAG/MTC group called the California Fair Housing Task Force prepares the index, which includes “indicators” related to poverty, adult education, employment, job proximity, median home value, pollution, math proficiency (4th grade), reading proficiency (4th grade), high school graduation rate, student poverty rate, and a filter related to poverty and racial segregation.
The final methodology weighted “Access to High Opportunity” as more important than either of the other two factors, both of which related to how long it took a commuter to get to work. Indeed, for very-low- and low-income housing units, 70 percent of the allocation was based on the “Access to High Opportunity” factor. (By contrast, only 40 percent of the moderate- and above-moderate-income housing was allocated on the same basis.)
One of the other factors on the original list was “Natural Hazards,” which assigned more housing units to jurisdictions with low “natural-hazard risks.” An ABAG/MTC task force prepares a map based on data about wildfire, landslide, earthquake (liquefaction), and/or current or future flood risks, and Bay Area cities are rated according to the percentage of their urbanized area outside the risk zones. This factor, however, didn’t make the final cut, and it wasn’t included in the methodology adopted by the ABAG executive board.
Mr. Foreman from ACT had been following the process closely. In fact, he attended the January 24 meeting which ABAG staff presented the original 17 factors. Thereafter, he sent an email to Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft and City Council noting that Alameda had ranked high on both the “Access to High Opportunity” (positive) and “Natural Hazards” (negative) factors – but that ABAG staff had warned that not all factors would end up in the final formula. “I am not seeking to minimize our RHNA,” he wrote, “but I do want it to reflect both our strengths and weaknesses as a housing site.”
In particular, he wanted to make sure that “natural hazards” remained on the list. Citing a recent article, he noted that the City of Alameda was projected to experience 66 inches of sea-level rise, with a storm surge level of 84 inches, by the year 2100. This obviously affected where, and how much, new housing could be built on the island. The City’s elected officials should contact ABAG staff, he urged, to “express . . . our need to have the natural hazard factor adopted.”
Mr. Foreman never got a response.
In the meantime, the City’s Mr. Thomas also was following the process. We don’t know what input, if any, he had into the development of the ABAG allocation methodology, but we do know that he was watching the bottom line carefully. Which was eminently reasonable, since it would be his job to propose a way for the City to meet whatever RHNA quotas the ABAG formula produced.
From the outset, Mr. Thomas expected the number to be high. On July 7, after the RHNA for the Bay Area had been announced, he reported to Council that, since the region’s allocation had increased by more than 200% from the previous cycle (2015-2023), “it is very likely that the City’s final allocation will also increase by 200%.” If so, the City’s RHNA for the 2023-2031 cycle would be about 3,500 units.
As it turned out, Mr. Thomas had been overly optimistic. When ABAG announced its city-by-city numbers on October 15, Alameda was assigned a whopping 4,896 new housing units.
We don’t know Mr. Thomas’s reaction, but Mr. Foreman was . . . appalled. (He called the number “astronomical and unattainable.”) And so were the Contra Costa County Mayors Association and the mayors of five “Tri-Valley Cities.” The methodology approved by the ABAG board, they believed, assigned too few new housing units to Santa Clara County – where “explosive” job growth had occurred – and too many units to outlying areas. In fact, they claimed, the methodology “will work against key regional planning goals, including those to address GHG emissions by placing housing near jobs and transit centers, instead driving growth outwards, perpetuating sprawl and inefficient growth patterns.”
The Tri-Valley Cities’ mayors asked the ABAG board to consider an alternative methodology that used a different “baseline” and weighted the three factors differently (without adding any new ones). Under their proposal, the weighting for the “Access to High Opportunity” factor would drop from 70 percent to 60 percent for the very-low and low-income categories and from 40 percent to 20 percent for the moderate- and above-moderate income categories. Their alternative, the mayors argued, “will allow for greater emphasis on transit and jobs access, while still maintaining an equity focus.” And, not coincidentally, it would reduce the RHNA quota for each signatory city.
When Mr. Foreman read the letter, he immediately saw that, under the Tri-Valley Cities’ alternative, Alameda’s RHNA would drop from 4,896 new units to 3,252 units – still high, but possibly a more manageable number. This observation led him to urge Council to schedule a discussion at its next meeting about joining the Tri-Valley Cities’ challenge to the ABAG allocation. When City staff declined to put the item on the next Council agenda, Mr. Foreman persuaded Councilman Tony Daysog to submit a referral so that it could at least get a public hearing. And he encouraged similarly minded citizens to send supporting emails.
In addition, Mr. Foreman picked up on the issue he had raised back in February: the importance – to Alameda – of including a “natural hazards” factor in the allocation methodology. In an October 31 email, he made clear that he did not object to the inclusion of the “Access to High Opportunity” factor. “We should be very open to a housing allocation that offers our high resources to new residents,” he wrote, “so long as it also tempers that determination by giving weight to our very high natural hazard factor.”
Mr. Foreman and his fellow correspondents got a prompt response – from Mr. Thomas.
The Assistant Community Development Director began by explaining the interplay between what he called the “equity” factor – i.e., “Access to High Opportunity” – and what he called the “sustainability” factors – i.e., proximity of housing to jobs. If the RHNA was distributed among Bay Area cities based solely on the latter factor, big cities would get the “vast majority” of the new housing units. But those big cities, he argued, “also have the most overcrowded school systems, a large percentage of lower income housing, and the most overused parks and open space systems.”
Accordingly, if ABAG put all of the new housing near jobs, it would be “placing most new housing and new affordable housing in the very cities that have the least resources to provide for those new residents.” And this, he said, would be “inequitable.” So the ABAG planners adjusted the formula to give more of the RHNA to cities “that are close to major job centers (like Alameda and Piedmont), but that also have great schools, parks, etc.”
In his response to Mr. Foreman and others, Mr. Thomas framed the issue this way: Did the Alameda community “care more” about reducing the City’s own RHNA quota than about addressing regional inequities? “It’s an interesting policy question,” Mr. Thomas stated, and “everyone will have a different opinion based upon their personal perspectives and values.”
Mr. Thomas’s response to Mr. Foreman’s other point was equally analytical and non-judgmental. Other cities in the Bay Area also were subject to the natural-hazard risks, albeit different ones, he argued. If the methodology included this as a factor in the formula, it would have to determine which risks were worse than others. But how did the risk of living in the Oakland and Berkeley hills on top of the Hayward fault compare to the risk of living on an island surrounded by water like Alameda? Or how did the risk of building homes in the grasslands or woodlands on the east side of the hills compare to the risk of building them on the shoreline? Mr. Thomas saw no principled basis for making such comparisons.
And neither, he said, did the ABAG planners. They didn’t have the authority to reduce the RHNA to the Bay Area as a whole based on natural-hazard risks, and they saw ranking cities based on these risks as “problematic.” (In his rebuttal, Mr. Foreman suggested that referring to the “Natural Hazards Map” would do the trick.) “They took the position that every city in the bay area has hazards,” Mr. Thomas wrote, and “every city in the bay area has to decide how to manage those risks and mitigate those risks” for itself.
Again, the focus was on policy and pragmatism and the tone was polite. No vitriol was vented. No facts were fabricated. No slurs were slung.
And then the matter went before Council.
After the Mayor had her say, Mr. Oddie was the first Council member to comment. Apparently thinking that he was being humorous, he began by remarking, “Originally, I had three words I was going to [use to] respond to this. But then I realized we have a policy against swearing, so I’m going to use one word, and that’s no.” He then segued into what passed for the substantive portion of his argument. Endorsing the proposal made by the Tri-City Valley mayors, he said, would be “super-insulting to my values” and “insulting to our motto in Alameda that ‘Everyone Belongs Here.’” Why? Because it asked Council to “reject an emphasis on equity and fair housing.”
Except that it didn’t. As we have explained, the proposal did not eliminate the “Access to High Opportunity” factor, it just reduced its weight in the formula. In fact, even after the reduction, this “equity” factor remained the primary determinant for the allocation of very-low- and low-income housing units. And none of the proposal’s proponents argued it shouldn’t be. In fact, the Tri-Valley City mayors, Councilman Daysog, and Mr. Foreman all acknowledged the appropriateness of an “emphasis on equity and fair housing.”
Unfortunately, as he has throughout his six years on Council, Mr. Oddie sought to ascribe malevolent motives to those who didn’t agree with him. “Let’s not kid ourselves,” he said. The alternative allocation methodology was just another “way that people that don’t want housing in Alameda” supported as a means toward their nefarious ends. Well, let’s not kid ourselves. The citizens of Alameda will be entitled to breathe a sigh of relief when effluvia like this disappears from the dais (as is likely to happen in mid-December).
Then came Mr. Knox White, and he picked up where Mr. Oddie had left off.
Mr. Foreman was the first victim. (Like his amanuensis, Mr. Knox White prefers to trash people without using their names but making clear their identities.) The retired judge and lawyer “literally” told the Planning Department that “he doesn’t care about the equity issue as much as he cares about getting [rid of] housing in Alameda.” (Ever hear Mr. Foreman utter those words, Mr. Thomas?) Moreover, he played key roles with such despicable organizations as “Liveable California” and the “No on Z” campaign. (Which, we suppose, he ran out of the basement of a pizza parlor in northwest Washington.)
But Mr. Knox White saved the worst for last. “It seems that every single time I turn around he’s pushing for inequitable outcomes for his own benefit,” the Vice Mayor declared (emphasis supplied). In this regard Mr. Foreman was no different from a typical Trump supporter. “I personally believe,” Mr. Knox White said a minute later, that “we are literally” – there’s that word again – “living in the middle of a national discussion right now with our election, in which half of our country is prioritizing themselves over everybody else because they’re benefiting.”
If Mr. Knox White hadn’t previously crossed the line from criticism to slander, he leapt over it with these remarks. There was a time when they would have entitled Mr. Foreman to challenge him to a duel at 30 paces. (And, though Mr. Foreman is 82 years old, our money would be on him.)
Mr. Knox White was not done. His next targets were . . . the Alameda voters who had turned down Measure Z, the ballot measure to repeal the Charter’s prohibition of multi-family housing and limitation on residential density.
Those voters were fools, he suggested, having been taken in by “false statements and false promises” made by the measure’s opponents. (In contrast, of course, to the truth spoken by Mr. Knox White himself.) What’s worse, they were scofflaws, having signified by their votes that “they do not support us following state law.”
The Vice Mayor ended with what we believe is called a passive-aggressive flourish. The voters were gullible miscreants, but, as a Council member, he was bound to “stand behind” them. So he needed advice from staff about, among other things, just “what communications are going to be necessary now that the City has a policy that is out of compliance with what the state says is required. . . .”
At this point, Mayor Ashcraft had had enough. She asked City Attorney Yibin Shen whether Mr. Knox White was exceeding the scope of the agenda item under consideration. When Mr. Shen gently opined that he was, Mr. Knox White insisted that “this conversation” was “important,” but “if you need me to bring it to a [subsequent] referral, I can do that.” A few minutes later, when asked by Mayor Ashcraft whether he had any other comments to make about the RHNA, he peevishly replied, “Yes – but I’ve been told I can’t.” Mr. Shen just shook his head.
We, too, had had enough. We made it to the end of the meeting and then, hungry for a rational exchange of views, we re-read the Foreman-Thomas correspondence. Then we turned on the TV – and there was Donald Trump. Somehow, he sounded very familiar.
ABAG RHNA methodology: RHNA Methodology Report