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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Council Takes Baby Step Toward Family Housing

New Day In Emeryville?
Is The City Council Ready To Deliver Family Housing?

News Analysis
At first the Housing Committee was a solid block; unsupportive of family housing, but now there's a little crack in that block.  A single outspoken promoter of family friendly housing was appointed Tuesday to the key city body responsible for housing policy. The outlier joins a dozen other members on Emeryville's Housing Committee.  The council's surprising and unanimous appointment of Emeryville resident Sarah Harper to the committee may indicate the start of a far reaching shift in Emeryville's housing policy.

What exactly is 'family friendly housing' in an urban context?   The Berkeley city planning firm MIG and Associates, hired by Emeryville to advise the decision makers, tells us among other things it's homes, apartments and condos with real bedrooms for privacy, not wall-free open floor plans. It's affordable housing with two and three-bedrooms, rather than a single bedroom. It's housing with access to a small safe outdoor play area for unsupervised play so parents can take care of domestic chores.  It's housing on quiet pedestrian activated streets without car dominance.
Why is it important? Besides the virtues of a diversified populace, it's because city officials recently convinced voters to spend nearly half a billion dollars in principal and interest on new facilities for all 765 students enrolled in district schools. Factor out the 306 Oakland and Richmond children who attend school in Emeryville, and the $400 million school campus works out to $871,460 per Emeryville pupil. If the council, school board and residents want this massive investment to make sense, they must raise enrollment. Despite an explosion of new housing construction in Emeryville over the past 15 years, the number of local children attending our schools has been declining. Why? Because despite building several thousand new units, barely a handful are suitable for families.
Suburban model of middle class
family friendly housing.

Of the 13 committee members, only Ms Harper (nominated by Councilwoman Jennifer West) mentioned family housing as a worthwhile goal on their applications for joining the committee.

This newly added singular voice on the Housing Committee might represent the first inklings of a new culture at City Hall. On some future day, a loft developer might be told, "Thanks but no thanks, we're trying to build housing for families in order to support our schools".

Up until now, the Housing Committee has been a poor champion of family housing.  In June 2010, the committee finished an exhaustive 172 page update to the general plan entitled 'Emeryville Housing Element 2009-2014.' Providing family housing didn't even make the list of seven housing goals.  

Urban model of middle class
family friendly housing.
The city council is mainly responsible for the committee's general disinterest. Until now, the problem hasn't been antipathy to family housing on the council, but a philosophy that government shouldn't interfere with developers driven by the free market.  The problem is that it's simply more profitable to build lofts. Or for that matter to build five, one-bedroom condos instead of two three bedroom ones in the same space.  This 'hands-off-developers' council approach has created our current situation; awash in a certain childless younger demographic while actually losing families.  

The council's abdication of governance in deference to the profit motive of private developers has resulted in a critical lack of family housing that has created an urgent problem for the new school.  If the problem is to be fixed before the school's completion, a massive program of home building must begin immediately.  Whether it's too late or not, it seems this new appointment to the Housing Committee might indicate the beginning of a shift in governing philosophy by the city council. It could show that the Emeryville city council is ready to put the public back into public policy and begin governing.

1 comment:

  1. I can't tell if this story is sarcasm or not. The pro-family housing appointment to the housing committee is just politics, obviously. This council will never tell any developer "thanks but no thanks" for any reason, especially no for family housing. Only by getting rid of Nora Davis, Ken Bukowski, Ruth Atkin and Kurt Brinkman can the town truly change.