Whither the Big Whites?
We’re referring, of course, to the 18 two‑story single‑family homes, each with four‑plus bedrooms and three‑and‑a‑half bathrooms, located on the northeast corner of the “Historic District” at Alameda Point and occupied years ago by married Naval officers. (The designation usually also encompasses an “admiral’s house” with six bedrooms, located nearby.)
If you’d asked our question 19 years ago, when Council amended the General Plan to add a chapter on Alameda Point, or even six years ago, when it adopted a “specific plan” for the so-called “Main Street Neighborhood” at the Point, you’d have gotten a simple answer: The Big Whites are historic assets, and the focus should be on “preserving” and “rehabilitating” them as part of the overall redevelopment of the former Naval Air Station.
You’d get a quite different answer today.
Since adopting the specific plan, the City has done little, if anything, to refurbish the Big Whites. Indeed, some of those to whom the City has leased the homes have complained that the City hasn’t done much to maintain them, either.
Now, however, staff is working on a new plan: turning the Big Whites (and other residential rental property owned by the City at the Point) into “emergency supportive housing” for the homeless. If Council approves the plan, as many as three of the historic structures that Naval officers, and later working families, called home will become short-term residences for homeless individuals and families.
First revealed last November, the “emergency supportive housing” plan has run into a number of snags, including the decision by the non-profit organization originally tapped to run the program to quit before the project even started. Council was scheduled to review the latest version at its April 5 meeting, but it didn’t get to the item then or at the next meeting. So it will now be May 3, at the earliest, before anyone knows what’s up.
Here’s how we got to this point:
Start with the Alameda Point chapter of the General Plan adopted in 2003.
The area in which the “spacious, historic” Big Whites were located “is being preserved,” the chapter stated. It went on to declare that an “implementing policy” would be to “[p]reserve the Big Whites for their historical significance, and encourage surrounding development that is complementary.” (Another policy was to “[c]onsider the preservation of the Admiral’s House for community and City use.”)
The next major planning document, the “Conceptual Planning Guide” issued in 2013, didn’t alter these policies. To the contrary, it admonished that
Alameda has a reputation as a quiet, friendly island community with a deep appreciation of its architectural legacy and historical elements. Future plans will aim to preserve and reuse, to the extent feasible, buildings and features that reflect the architectural and military history of Alameda Point.
In 2014, Council adopted a new zoning ordinance specifically for Alameda Point. The ordinance required that “[a]ll new construction and modifications to existing buildings within the NAS Alameda Historic District” – which included the Big Whites – “should be consistent with the Guide to Preserving the Character of the Naval Air Station Alameda Historic District” prepared for the City by Page & Turnbull, an architectural firm specializing in historic preservation. It also required that a “master plan” – later called a “specific plan” – be prepared and approved before any development could occur in the Main Street Neighborhood sub-district.
During the process of creating the specific plan, the subject of the Big Whites came up several times. For example, at one Planning Board meeting, Board member Mike Henneberry asked Base Reuse Director Jennifer Ott “what the future holds” for the Big Whites. She replied that the homes “need a lot of rehabilitation, but the intention is to keep and restore them.” Similarly, at a later Council meeting, Councilwoman (now Mayor) Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft asked Redevelopment Project Manager Michelle Giles whether the Big Whites “are staying.” She responded that they were “proposed to stay.”
(At the same meeting, Councilman Frank Matarrese brought up the possibility of “auctioning” the Big Whites “as is” to individual homeowners as a way to raise funds to pay for infrastructure. He got no takers.)
The final version of the specific plan confirmed the assurances given by Ms. Ott and Ms. Giles. It recited the preservation policy expressed in the General Plan and the zoning ordinance. It then set forth five “phasing principles,” one of which was to “maintain and preserve existing uses and historic resources to the extent feasible.” Elaborating, the plan stated that the Big Whites and other nearby buildings
are potentially near- and long-term assets that help create unique character-defining features, and, in some cases, revenue that helps maintain and operate Alameda Point. The phasing of future development should take into consideration the maintenance and preservation of these existing uses to the extent feasible.
Having stated these principles, the specific plan put redevelopment of the area north of West Midway Avenue (where the Big Whites are located) in its second phase. (Relocation of the Alameda Point Collaborative would go first.) In the meantime, the City should “continue to lease” the existing rental units, including the Big Whites and the adjacent former NCO quarters, “until development occurs.”
And that is what the City in fact has been doing. Lorie Curtis, a management analyst in the Community Development Department, was kind enough to provide us with a rent schedule for the Big Whites (as well as for the 18 townhouses and 30 ranch homes that the City also owns and leases at the Point). The current rents for the Big Whites range from $1,900 to $4,000 per month, and the average monthly rent is $3,111. (All of the leases, Ms. Curtis told us, are month-to-month.) Taken together, the 18 homes generate $672,000 in annual revenue at current rates, with the admiral’s house adding another $45,600.
(Ms. Curtis also sent us a cash flow statement covering the period from March 1, 2020, to December 22, 2021, for all of the City-owned residential rental properties at the Point. It showed that the City earned $3,413,076.71 in operating income, which included $3,314,551.68 in rental income, and incurred $1,062,124.63 in operating expense, which included $704,073.70 for maintenance and repair. The result was a net operating profit of $2,350,952.08.)
As far as we can tell, the City has spent very little money on rehabilitating the Big Whites (or any of its other residential rental properties). Indeed, the cash flow statement showed only $115,662.37 for capital improvements from March 2020 through December 2021.
The most recent two-year budget contains a line item of $1.4 million in both fiscal years 2021-22 and 2022-23 for “AP Big Whites Painting,” and Ms. Curtis told us that “we’ve budgeted $2M for this year for the stabilization of lead‑based paint on the exterior and the interior of the 19 historical ‘Big White’ units on top of our regular maintenance budget.” At a community meeting on March 22, her boss, Community Development Director Lisa Maxwell, reported that remediation of lead paint had been completed at one home and “we’re working to get access to a few others.”
The idea of using the Big Whites and other residential rental property at the Point for housing the homeless appears to have arisen out of discussions about how the City should spend the $28.68 million it is getting from the federal government under the American Rescue Plan Act.
Using some of the funds for “supportive transitional” housing was one of the suggestions initially made by staff. The project they had in mind involved spending $2 million to buy and set up “cabin/structures” that would house 20 homeless people. This concept didn’t get much traction, and the next time the issue came up, Councilman John Knox White declared that he was “very interested in pursuing” a “transitional use located at the Big Whites.”
Staff took the hint. (Of course, it’s possible that Mr. Knox White was taking a hint from staff, but that’s not how it usually works.) They devised a program for using two currently unrented Big Whites and one currently unrented townhouse to house 32 homeless individuals. At each home, the bedrooms would be shared by two people, and additional beds would be placed in the living room. The “typical” stay for a program participant would be six months.
Staff “invited” two non-profit organizations – Bay Area Community Services (BACS) and Village of Love – to submit proposals for operating the program. According to the November 16 staff report, BACS got the nod based on its “history operating a comparable housing model, the strength of the written proposal and the high caliber of interview responses.”
Under the BACS proposal, the organization would provide at least one meal per day during the week to program participants as well as food for individual preparation. Participants would receive “intensive housing search assistance” to enable them to find permanent housing. Once they moved into a new home, they’d get up to nine months of “transitional case management” and up to 12 months of “tapering/transitional financial support.”
BACS promised to staff the program 24/7, with a staff member staying overnight in each of the three homes.
A specific program having been developed, staff negotiated a contract calling for BACS to be paid $2,536,047 for its services over two years. ARPA funds would be used to cover this expense. In addition, the money from the feds would pay for $300,000 in repair and remodeling costs. (Staff got a commitment from Alameda County to contribute $30,000 to $45,000 in HEAP funds to offset a portion of these costs.)
The package was ready for presentation to Council on November 2. But there was one step staff had not taken before it sought approval from the elected officials – and the omission threatened to derail the program before it had even begun: No one had sought any input from the residents currently renting the Big Whites or the other City-owned homes in the area.
At Council’s November 16 meeting (the item had been kicked over from November 2), Councilwoman Trish Spencer immediately honed in on the lack of prior communication with people living in the neighborhood. Ms. Maxwell responded that staff didn’t want to hold a community meeting until it “had a program to discuss” – i.e., one approved by Council. But she assured Ms. Spencer that, if Council did approve, staff would convene a session at which residents could offer “feedback.”
This response didn’t satisfy Ms. Spencer, but her motion to delay a decision until after a community meeting had been held was defeated, 2-3. Councilwoman Malia Vella then moved to approve the staff proposal, with direction to hold “more than one” community meeting thereafter. It passed, 4-1.
Of particular note, in light of subsequent events, were the reasons given by Mayor Ashcraft for supporting the staff proposal. Following her custom, Ms. Ashcraft had talked to the mayors of Berkeley and Oakland about BACS, which was running programs in those cities, and both spoke highly of the organization. Working with BACS, “a trusted and experienced provider, gives me a lot of confidence,” she said.
The first promised community meeting occurred on November 29 at the O (née Officers) Club. It quickly turned into what some would describe as a sh**show.
Only two people endorsed the program without qualification. One was Doug Biggs, the executive director of the Alameda Point Collaborative, who was his usual cogent self. The other chose the disparagement approach. She denounced the residents who found flaws in the proposal as the “epitome of NIMBYism,” and even managed to work in a reference to Mario Gonzalez.
But the neighbors weren’t deterred by the insult. The most-often stated complaint was that no one had reached out to the community before staff structured, and Council approved, the program. “What’s the point of having a meeting when you’ve already decided?” one asked.
The residents, many of whom described themselves as members of working families, raised other concerns as well. So many unrelated individuals shouldn’t be crammed into homes designed for single families. Background checks should be conducted on potential program participants. A mechanism should be set up for responding to incidents of drug use or other misbehavior. “I just want to make sure that this community stays safe,” one 16-year-old resident who both lives and works at the Point said.
Jonathan Russell, BACS’ strategic officer, was on the podium, and he apparently didn’t like what he saw and heard. After the meeting, BACS informed staff of its “hesitancy” to move ahead “based on concerns strongly voiced at the community meeting,” and “declined to pursue further work on this project in response to the community reaction.” (We sent an email to Mr. Russell asking for an interview; he did not reply.)
So now it was time for version two.
Staff asked three non-profit organizations that currently are providing services at Alameda Point whether they were interested in running an “emergency supportive housing” program there, too. Only one – Village of Love, the outfit that lost out to BACS the first time around – volunteered for the assignment.
By this time, the number of unrented properties had increased from three to six (three Big Whites, two townhouses, and a ranch home). Staff came up with a set of options for using three of these vacant homes as housing for the homeless. In the one recommended by staff, one home would house 5-6 homeless individuals; the other two each would house a homeless family. Alternatively, all three homes could be used for individuals, with a total of 14-19 beds, or all three could be used for families. Which of the six homes were chosen for the program depended on which of the options was selected.
If an option including families was chosen, Village of Love would seek referrals from “local agencies and non-profits serving or interacting with unhoused families,” including A.U.S.D. If an option including individuals was chosen, Village of Love would “prioritize” seniors and “medically vulnerable” people.
In either event, Village of Love would pick program participants using a “Housing First” approach that eschewed any “preconditions and barriers to entry, such as sobriety, treatment or service participation requirements.” In addition, a prospective participant would not need to show an “official identification, such as a driver’s license” to get into the program. But registered sex offenders appearing on the Megan’s Law database would not be eligible.
Staff hired a consulting firm to moderate a community meeting at which the latest proposal was laid out. Held by Zoom on March 22, this meeting was far less acrimonious than the November 16 meeting had been, but the format made it difficult to get a sense of community sentiment. Afterwards, the consultants prepared what they called “Wallgraphic Notes.” This may be the way it’s done in Silicon Valley, but we found the written summary contained in the staff report to be more comprehensible:
Community members voiced a need to direct resources towards providing immediate support to unhoused individuals, such as hotel vouchers, transit passes and EBT cards, particularly for people at the Main Street encampment. Community members continued to raise concern about the concentration of services at Alameda Point. Community members also commented about removing homes from the rental market, and advocated for improvements to be made to rental homes in the neighborhood. Concerns were raised regarding lead paint in the homes. Questions were also raised regarding the ability to implement this project under guidelines for CEQA, the Historical Advisory Board, and Naval restrictions. Many of these legal and code-related questions were previously addressed in the Fact Sheet produced after the November meeting. A small number of comments were [made] regarding concerns about background checks and how individuals would be selected for the homes, the number of pets to be housed, and how to provide services to those who are resistant to services.
After the meeting, staff put together a package describing the revised proposal for presentation to Council on April 5. Unlike the November staff report, this one did not attach a proposed contract. Instead, staff asked Council to “approve moving forward with” Village of Love. The agenda item didn’t get heard at the April 5 or April 19 meetings. It’s now on the agenda on May 3.
So the answer to the question with which we began remains unknown. At the most recent community meeting, a resident specifically asked Ms. Maxwell whether the proposed program is just the first step in a scheme to turn all, or most, of the City-owned residential rental property at the Point, including the Big Whites, into housing for the homeless as current tenants gradually move out. (Under the “just-cause” ordinance, the City can’t just kick them out, even if wanted to – which it surely doesn’t.)
Ms. Maxwell plainly stated this was not the case: “The intent is not to include additional homes for homeless emergency supportive housing,” she said. “We intend at this point to use three homes, and we’re planning to promptly make that decision and ready those homes for the program and the other homes for leasing on the open market.”
We have no reason not to take Ms. Maxwell at her word. On the other hand . . . suppose whatever program Council eventually approves for “emergency supportive housing” at the Point is wildly successful in assisting the local homeless population. Wouldn’t that create the impetus to expand the program to more of the residential rental units owned by the City? And if that means throwing out the preservation policies decreed by the General Plan, the zoning ordinance, and the specific plan for the Big Whites, well, some may argue that it’s time to leave history in the past.
Main Street Neighborhood specific plan: MSN specific plan (final, 4-17)
Revised proposal: 2022-04-19 staff report re emergency housing @ A.P.
“Wallgraphic Notes”: 2022-04-19 Ex. 2 to staff report – Community Listening Session Notes