Guest blog: Why you shouldn't believe what you read in the Chronicle

Guest blog: Why you shouldn't believe what you read in the Chronicle

Robert T. Sullwold

I used to be a fan of Chip Johnson, the San Francisco Chronicle columnist who writes about the East Bay.

Now I’ve had my confidence shaken.

On Tuesday, Mr. Johnson published a column describing Measure A, the Alameda city charter provision prohibiting multifamily housing and limiting housing density to 21 dwelling units per acre, as “one of the last vestiges of a bygone era.”

I’ve heard that description before, and, indeed, it can be argued in good faith that Measure A is no longer necessary to achieve the goals for which it was enacted.

But that’s not the argument Mr. Johnson makes.

Instead, he rests his case on a statement of facts that is – there’s no other way to put it – flat out wrong.

According to Mr. Johnson,

And it’s only been a little over two years since Alameda was sued for failing to observe state-mandated affordable housing laws, which requires cities to carry their fair share of affordable housing for a region’s low-income residents. The city settled the suit and agreed to include a plan to make affordable housing available at Alameda Point, the site of the naval air station that shut down 17 years ago.

Fighting the lawsuit risked millions of dollars in state transportation and park funds connected with affordable housing plans.

Now the city wants to bypass Measure A to allow for the construction of more than 1,400 apartment units at Alameda Point. In order to do that, a developer would have to apply for a state exemption to local land use laws by including a certain number of affordable housing units as part of the project.

The project has set a goal of 20 percent affordable housing available to moderate, low-income and very low-income applicants.

Let’s take those statements one by one:

In fact, it has been far longer than “a little over two years” that the city was sued over its alleged failure to comply with state housing law. The Guyton/Henderson litigation, which challenged the conversion of the Buena Vista Apartments into market-rate units, was settled in 1990. The Renewed Hope/Arc Ecology litigation, which alleged deficiencies in the environmental impact report for Alameda Point, was settled in 2001.

City Manager John Russo, who appears to have been Mr. Johnson’s principal source, may have told the columnist that housing advocates threatened to sue the city over its alleged non-compliance with state housing law two years ago. Indeed, staff cited such a threat as a reason for council to rush to approve the draft housing element. But I'm confident that Mr. Russo never said that such a suit had been filed and settled – because, as he well knows, it never was.

(Ironically, the only lawsuit filed against the city over its housing policies in the last two years is the one filed by the East Bay Regional Park District, which alleges, among other things, that the housing element adopted by the city violates Measure A).

Likewise, it was probably from Mr. Russo that Mr. Johnson got the argument that “fighting the (never-filed) lawsuit risked millions of dollars” in state funds. That contention, too, can be found in the July 2012 staff report to council urging immediate adoption of the draft housing element. But we’re still waiting for the press release from City Hall announcing the millions in “state transportation and park funds” that have flowed to the city since then as a result of adopting the housing element.

Mr. Johnson has gotten the facts about plans for affordable housing at Alameda Point wrong, too.

The city did not agree, a “little over two years” ago, to “include a plan to make affordable housing available at Alameda Point.” In fact, it was the Renewed Hope/Arc Ecology settlement – in 2001 – that obligated the city to require that 25 percent of newly constructed housing units at Alameda Point be “affordable.”

In response, the Community Improvement Commission – the body then responsible for overseeing redevelopment at Alameda Point – passed a resolution adopting the 25 percent affordable housing quota. But that happened in 2004. And every plan for residential development at the Point since then has acknowledged this requirement.

Mr. Johnson appears to be referring to the density bonus ordinance when he writes that the city intends to “bypass” Measure A by having developers “apply for a state exemption to local land use laws.” And, in fact, the ordinance permits a developer to apply for a waiver of the density limits imposed by the city charter if its project includes sufficient affordable housing. (Whether a judge would uphold such a maneuver is another matter — no one’s sued to find out).

But the idea of using the density bonus ordinance as a way around Measure A is not something staff just came up with for Alameda Point. True, the staff report that proposed the ordinance back in 2009 didn’t highlight its potential use for this purpose. But, as I wrote last September, the developers of both the Boatworks and Alameda Landing projects have used the density bonus ordinance to increase the number of market-rate housing units included in their plans. And City Planner Andrew Thomas candidly admitted a year ago that he envisioned that a similar stratagem would be employed at Alameda Point.

Mr. Johnson also refers to a plan to build “more than 1,400 apartment units,” with the “goal” that 20 percent of them be affordable, at Alameda Point. This comes as news to us, and, we suspect, to Mr. Russo and the rest of city staff as well.

In fact, the city manager has made quite clear that he believes that the total number of housing units at the Point is constrained by the 1,425-unit cap set forth in the conveyance agreement with the Navy. Since 218 existing low-income housing units will remain, new construction will be limited to around 1,200 units.

And Mr. Russo never has said that all newly constructed units — whether it’s the 1,400 imagined by Mr. Johnson or the 1,200 estimated by staff — should be apartments. To the contrary, in the staff report and presentation to council on April 15, staff allocated 800 units to the waterfront town center, where only multifamily housing is permitted, with 200 units reserved for adaptive reuse in the historic district and 200 units for new housing in the Main Street neighborhood.

And whence the “20 percent” affordable housing “goal” for Alameda Point cited by Mr. Johnson? It’s not in the Guyton/Henderson or Renewed Hoped/Arc Ecology settlements. (The latter specifies 25 percent). Nor is it in the newly adopted general plan or zoning amendments for Alameda Point. (Neither sets any new “goal” for affordable housing). And the inclusionary housing ordinance, which applies to all new residential development in the city outside Alameda Point, requires that 15 percent of the units be “affordable.”

So how could Mr. Johnson get everything so wrong?

Indulge us for a moment while we put on our fedora with the “Working Press” card in the band – you know, the one from “The Front Page.”

To us, it appears that Mr. Johnson wanted to write a piece about how Alameda is moving beyond what he regards as its racist past. (We use that word deliberately; why else drag in the hoary story about the cops?) So far, so good. He then chose to use Alameda Point as an example of our new enlightenment. Maybe questionable, but still okay. But then he got sloppy. The factual narrative he concocted supports his theme. The only problem is, it isn’t true.

I’ll still read Mr. Johnson’s columns. But I'm afraid it will be with the same degree of skepticism that I now reserve for Bill O’Reilly and Lawrence O’Donnell.

Robert Sullwold is a lawyer and former newspaperman who writes about Alameda civic issues on the Alameda Merry-Go-Round. Sullwold was a founding member of The Alamedan’s advisory board.


Submitted by Sue Spiersch (not verified) on Thu, May 8, 2014

Chip Johnson's article tries to paint the origin of Measure A as a racist attempt to keep blacks out of Alameda. For those of you who weren't around when we passed Measure A here's a little history lesson. At the time many of our Victorians were being sold and torn down by builders and developers to build apartment buildings. They were attractive to developers because generally they had very large and deep lots. Most of these apartments were 2 or 3 level and included a parking lot for the tenants. The citizens of Alameda didn't want to see the wholesale destruction of Victorians for this purpose so we came up with Measure A to stop the developers in their tracks. That was the ONLY reason for Measure A. It had nothing to do with racism. Mr. Johnson (whom I usually agree with) is casting a very bad shadow on our city and I suspect that since most of his information seems to come from John Russo we should consider that Mr. Russo has his own agenda and we should keep a sharp eye on him.

Submitted by neil (not verified) on Thu, May 8, 2014

I've never understood why there wasn't instead a measure to ban the demolition of older buildings. Choosing to restrict multi-unit buildings seems an odd way to accomplish this. And Alameda's racial history is somewhat troubled (yes, like that of many other places). Denying it doesn't help.