I see now that it’s been over two months since I last posted. My apologies, it’s been busy, mostly with the issues surrounded the Albany bulb. It’s a not a good time to comment on what is happening regarding the bulb, with yet another lawsuit in the works. Besides, anything I say now will soon be outdated, so let’s just see how it turns out.
The reality is that the bulb will someday be turned over to the park district, and while the current controversy may affect the timing and the cost, it won’t affect the final outcome. The Albany Patch has had some good coverage, in chronological order (here, here, here).
In the long run, it is important to keep in mind that the price tag for the city’s various waterfront-related “activities” since 1999 is now up to almost $1.3 million, if you include the $650,000 spent on the Voices to Vision process, the $60,000 allocated so far to the Berkeley Food and Housing Project, and the $570,000 the council just approved for a temporary homeless shelter at the bulb. That last item includes the cost of cleaning up the bulb, including the biohazards—mostly human waste and discarded hypodermic needles.
All this to get us back to where we were in 1999, when a much smaller homeless encampment was removed. Hindsight is always 20/20, but I think the taxpayers are owed an explanation of why this situation was allowed to spin out of control, if only so that we don’t make the same mistakes again. I can think of a lot good things the city could do with $1.3 million.
THE NEXT ELECTION
Elections are only one year away. We will need to find two new city council members. I’m hoping we can find two new members with broad public sector skill sets and a good grasp of the formal and informal institutions in Albany.
Often in small cities like Albany, candidates are drawn from local single-interest groups. I am skeptical that single-issue candidates make good council members (at least at first, since there is a lot of formal and informal on-the-job training). The variety of issues a city council must deal with requires a broad perspective and an interest in the well-being of all residents, including those that haven’t been born yet.
AFFORDABLE HOUSING AND MEASURE D
There is another issue brewing for the next election, and that issue is affordable housing. Although many Albany residents conflate this issue with the homeless encampment on the bulb, to me the two issues are separate.
In the process of completing the housing element section of the general plan, we have learned that we are at a disadvantage because Albany is a small, built-out city. Many of the potential building sites can only accommodate projects with a ten units or less. Affordable housing developers prefer to develop larger projects to capture economies of scale. For example, here is some good news about a 90-unit project in Oakland.
There are many changes that the council can make unilaterally to encourage development of all sorts—commercial, retail and housing—including affordable housing. The council has already begin to do so as part of the general plan process.
However, one thing the council cannot do is overturn Measure D, a measure approved by the voters in 1978 that requires very generous amounts of parking for residential areas in Albany. The parking requirements make it difficult to build multi-family housing near public transit corridors or to convert detached garages and other structures to in-law apartments. Some folks in town tell me that was really the unspoken purpose of Measure D.
The council has requested a study of Measure D by a committee drawn from members of our Planning and Zoning, Traffic and Safety, and Sustainability commissions. The council heard during our last meeting that Measure D revisions can be placed on the ballot for next November’s election if the revisions come in the form of a voter initiative, which will require signatures from more than ten percent of Albany’s registered voters.
A council-originated proposal to revise Measure D would require expensive environmental review of $50K to $100K. It would mostly like not appear on the ballot until Nov. 2016. If Albany residents would like to see Measure D revised soon, and I hope they do, we need to start planning to gather signatures and place an initiative on the Nov. 2014 ballot.
AFFORDABLE SENIOR HOUSING SHOULD BE A PRIORITY
If and when Albany is in a position to develop affordable housing, I think affordable senior housing is the way to go. There are four good reasons for this:
1) Economics and demographics: Due to the aging of the baby boom generation, and the economic collapse that started in 2008, many boomers are nearing retirement age without adequate savings. There is a coming epidemic of senior poverty, and Albany won’t escape this trend. San Mateo County is beginning to address the issue (here). Also see this NYT article (here).
2) Albany is sympathetic to the needs of seniors: The city already runs a senior center and we provide senior exemptions for parcel taxes. As affordable housing goes, senior housing is a relatively easy sell. Seniors are generally not considered to be troublesome neighbors. Let’s not forget how ferocious NIMBYism can be in Albany.
3) State law provides for “density bonuses” for senior and affordable housing: State law can trump local ordinances like Measure D. So even if we cannot reform Measure D, multi-unit senior housing might still be possible.
4) Seniors don’t add kids to our crowded school district: New housing projects, whether affordable or not, will face opposition from community members who are concerned about class size in Albany schools. If new housing is perceived to be a threat to the quality of our schools, it will be a tough sell. See these recent Albany Patch articles (here, here, here)
UC learned about Albany’s crowded schools when it started to develop the mixed-use project on the site of the former student housing in University Village. At first UC was planning on building conventional housing, but it switched to senior housing (and assisted living in particular), when UC learned that Albany’s public schools were running out of room. I think our affordable housing advocates should take note of that approach.
Affordable senior housing, including programs to keep seniors living safely in their current homes (see here again), would be a good complement to the mixed-use project. Many seniors retire and are suddenly cash poor but asset-rich, yet may not need to move to an assisted-living facility for a few decades. Affordable senior housing could really help fill that gap. Quality assisted living senior housing is expensive, so it is good to keep the options open for elderly for as long as possible. Inexpensive assisted living can have its costs, too, as we recently learned in Castro Valley (here).
In family-centric Albany, the quality of our public schools is the tail that wags the dog. Therefore, when it comes to new building projects, two very important long-run goals should be affordable senior housing (an issue for city council) and more classrooms at our public schools (an issue for AUSD school board).
A PERSONAL NOTE ON AFFORDABLE HOUSING
In closing, let me just say that I was a big beneficiary of affordable housing when, as a UC Berkeley grad student, I lived in the old Section-B part of University Village. In the mid-1990s, my rent for a two-bedroom apartment was $500-$600/month. I had great neighbors from all over the world. It wasn’t perfect (let’s not talk about the plumbing), but it was an amazing experience.
I had a toddler then (now a UC Berkeley senior) who started at Albany schools there. At first, I was saddened that his multinational cohort of preschool friends would be scattered to the winds as their parents returned to their home countries. Yet when my son graduated from AHS in 2010, many of those same kids graduated with him.
The rents in University Village are now about at market rate, although the plan is for revenue from the mixed-use project to help subsidize costs. I think my experience in University Village is a good example of how affordable housing for young families can allow them to get their start in Albany. I’m all in favor of that, but again, we are going to need more classrooms to accommodate them, and this will be the real constraint in coming years.
NEW CITY MANAGER SOON
On a happier note, the council has been interviewing candidates for the city manager position formerly filled by Beth Pollard. There should be some announcement in the next few weeks, and a new manager could be in place before the end of the year.