Critics rip city’s 15-year ban on new apartment projects - July 14, 1988

Critics rip city’s 15-year ban on new apartment projects

By C.J. Clemmons (The Tribune)
July 14, 1988

ALAMEDA – The loss of a low-rent housing complex has sparked a campaign to remove this island city’s 15-year-old taboo against construction of apartment buildings.

Rents will as much as triple this year at the Bridgeport Apartments complex as hundreds of units there were converted from low-rent to market rate, and critics charge that low-income families are being forced from their homes.

The city has an obligation to build 615 apartments to replace those “lost” under the conversion, says attorney Michael Rawson of the Legal Aid Society of Alameda.

“Tenants are moving out and I can only see the situation getting worse,” says Rawson, who represents the Buena Vista Community Association. “The city can do more than they’re doing.”

The apartment complex – one of the largest low-income communities in the Eastbay – is also one of the first in the nation whose owners have paid off their government-insured loan, freeing the property from federal regulations that have kept rents low. The 3-percent, 40-year load was paid off last year by The Gersten Co. of Beverly Hills after just 20 years.

Rents began to rise.

“A lot of people have had to leave,” says tenant leader Clayton Guyton. “One family was living in their car. There are a lot of horror stories here.”

A Bridgeport Apartments goes, housing advocates say, so goes the nation.

The Northern California Association for Non-Profit Housing says the Eastbay alone could lose 10,000 units of subsidized housing over the next 20 years. The nation, the group says, could lose a full fourth of its low-income housing supply.

The chance for an apartment building boom – for any income range – appears slight in Alameda.

City Council members say they will consider the request for more apartments as they update the city’s general plan later this year.

But the city has an anti-apartment commandment – Measure A, an initiative passed in 1973 that bans construction of residential buildings with more than two units.

That measure, approved in an era when apartment developers were building big and thinking bigger, would have to be an amended before any apartments can be built.

“The residents of Alameda don’t want Measure A tampered with,” says Mayor Chuck Corica. “There will be no more apartment complexes built in this city.”

In 1984, he notes, Alameda voters defeated a proposal to construct apartments at the Marina Village development.

Alameda Council member Rita Haugner says the city is stuck between a legal obligation to city residents not to amend Measure A and a moral obligation to the Bridgeport tenants to provide affordable housing.

“These people are asking for help so they can stay in Alameda,” she says. “I know a lot of tenants and they give a richness to this community. We’re got to do something, but Measure A is necessary. Beautiful houses were being torn down to build apartments.”

The solution, she says, may come by working through options presented by the tenants.

But Guyton labels the measure as “an excuse. There is a small group in Alameda that does not want to see different cultures in this city.”

Alameda – which is simultaneously a Navy town, a small middle-America city and an island of suburbia of 70,000 people in the Eastbay’s urban core – is 80 percent white, with an average household income approaching $40,000 a year.

Bridgeport tenants have threatened to sue to challenge the constitutionality of the apartment building ban.

Members of the Buena Vista Community Association are also conducting a rent control drive. More than 3,000 signatures have been collected since the campaign began in April. The group has until September to collect 400 more signatures to put an initiative on the ballot for the regular spring election for March.

Tenants at the Bridgeport complex – formerly known as the Buena Vista Apartments – say alternative housing is needed immediately because of the recent wave of rent hikes.

Nearly 180 families have already moved out, they say.

The first increase, on Jan. 1, raised the rent for a two-bedroom apartment from $271 to $450. The second increase on July 1 raised the rent for a one-bedroom apartment from $375 to $425; two-bedroom from $450 to $510; three-bedroom from $525 to $595 and four-bedroom from $563 to $638. A third rent hike is scheduled Jan. 1.

More than 200 families receive Section 8 rent subsidy vouchers. Although the federal government will continue to pay 70 percent of those tenants’ rent 1992, the apartment owners “have given us no indication they will accept those vouchers next year,” Guyton says.

“These people can’t afford these rents,” he says. “They will be forced to leave.”
Gersten Co. executives could not be reached for comment.

Mayor Corica, who went to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in Washington D.C. to obtain Section 8 certificates for the neediest households in the complex, insists that the city is doing all it can to help.

“I went and got those certificates and it’s still not enough for them,” he says. “We’re doing our best.”

As far as subsidized housing is concerned, Corica says, “We’re near the top in this county.”

Thomas Matthews, director of the city’s housing authority, does not share the mayor’s optimism.

Out of about 29,000 rental units in Alameda, just 1,319 are either low-rent or subsidized, he says. There are 1,200 families on a waiting list, and they will be waiting from three to eight years.

“Low-cost housing is certainly a problem in Alameda, but it’s not specifically an Alameda problem. It’s a national problem,” Matthews says.

Source: Clemmons, C.J., "Critics rip city’s 15-year ban on new apartment projects." Oakland Tribune. 14 July, 1988:A13.