Attendance at last week’s city council meeting may have been sparse, but it was a big day for Mayor Tom Butt, whose staff unveiled the mayor’s first-ever housing strategy before the council.
The 35-page policy document, which was announced in a press release prior to last Tuesday’s meeting, details the mayor’s plan to increase the availability of affordable and market rate housing in Richmond.
Councilmembers received the strategy with unusual consensus. Vice Mayor Eduardo Martinez and Councilmember Nathaniel Bates, who historically have not seen eye-to-eye on housing issues such as rent control, both said that Richmond needs to be more aggressive in tackling the city’s housing crisis.
“Should we not be designating certain areas for low-income housing?” Bates asked the council. “We just keep waiting.”
Martinez agreed, adding that the council needs to “start thinking of developing a Richmond that is common to everyone.”
The mayor’s plan puts development front and center, framing it as a preferable alternative to Measure L, the rent control ordinance that will appear on the ballot in November. References to Measure L bookend the document, and a full section of the report is dedicated to the shortcomings of rent control and just-cause policies.
Butt argues in the plan that rent control policies “discourage housing development and exacerbate accessibility issues for those in the lower income brackets due to lack of affordable housing units,” citing a 2016 Beacon Economics Report commissioned by the California Apartment Association.
But the mayor’s office maintains that the document isn’t a response to the rent control ordinance.
Director of Policy and Strategy Alex Knox said the plan has been in the works since spring of last year, when Butt assembled a task force of local experts to assess the city’s housing conditions.
“People have been asking for this, whether they’re for or against rent control,” said Knox, who presented the strategy to the City Council last Tuesday evening alongside the mayor’s Director of Community Engagement Christopher Whitmore.
Zak Wear, campaign coordinator for the pro-rent control Fair and Affordable Richmond coalition, said he read the plan as a rejection of Measure L, couched in an outline of the “existing consensus” about housing development in Richmond.
According to Butt, there’s some truth to Wear’s assessment. The housing strategy was intended to focus on “something we all agree on,” said the mayor, rather than on rent control, which the council is divided on.
To the mayor, that “something” is the affordability of housing in Richmond, which he sees as a supply problem. “The only solution to high housing costs is to increase the supply,” said Butt in the forward to his housing plan.
That supply could also enable Richmond to play “an important role…in the Bay Area housing crisis,” said Knox to the council.
Unlike Oakland and San Francisco, Richmond has struggled to attract investors, which the mayor’s plan attributed in part to a “negative image” of the city that “may no longer be accurate but continues to persist.”
“I’m not quite sure what it takes regionally for people to realize that this is an outstanding place to invest in,” said Richard Mitchell, Richmond’s Director of Planning and Building, to the council at Tuesday’s meeting.
The mayor’s plan takes a detailed look at funding sources to boost housing development. Potential financing opportunities include using in-lieu fees paid by market-rate developments to support affordable projects, establishing a local Housing Trust Fund for regional developers, and utilizing California’s Low Income Housing Tax Credit program, among other state and federal sources.
Other strategies in the plan include turning vacant blighted and abandoned residential properties back into productive spaces and expanding the city’s inclusionary housing policy, which currently restricts the cost of sale and rental units for a 30-year period.
The mayor’s strategy also focuses explicitly on affordable housing for low-income residents.
According to the plan, Richmond currently has just under 3,000 affordable rental units, most of which are designated for very low income households—those that earn below 50 percent of the Area Median Income, about $27,000 annually in Richmond. Over 8,300 Richmond households earned below $25,000 from 2009 to 2013, according to the city’s General Plan 2030.
A map included in the plan shows sites of large-scale planned housing projects. Planned market-rate developments are concentrated in the more affluent areas of Richmond’s South Shoreline and Hilltop neighborhoods. Most of the planned affordable housing sites are located near the Richmond, El Cerrito del Norte and El Cerrito Plaza BART stations, and the Capital Corridor that runs through the city’s core.
Knox said that this imbalance is intended to ensure that low-income residents have access to public transportation routes that bisect the city. The plan follows “traditional housing trends over the course of multiple decades in Richmond,” he said.
A comprehensive zoning update based on goals set by the General Plan 2030 is also in the works. The update will supplement the mayor’s plan by determining where housing development will be permitted. One of the mayor’s suggested modifications to the zoning plan is to expand the city’s ability to add units in neighborhoods already approved for affordable housing.
The mayor also suggests pursuing “accessory” units, such as converted garages and guest apartments, as potential sources of affordable housing, and improving homeownership assistance and local preference policies in subsidized and new housing in order to “curb displacement.”
One notable omission from the plan was a plan to reduce homelessness in Richmond.
“The problem with using the market to develop housing is that it doesn’t take care of the homeless,” said Martinez at the meeting.
Councilmember Gayle McLaughlin also voiced her concerns about homelessness: “These are real, live current day problems, and they can’t wait.”
Butt responded that he refrained from addressing the issue of homelessness “head-on,” noting that his plan is intended as a living document that council members and the public will be called upon to improve.