Thursday, June 19, 2008

Is housing really becoming less affordable?

Is housing in JAMMI less affordable than it used to be?

No-one questions how unaffordable housing has become, and now food prices are skyrocketing. We are told that people are being priced out of Oakland. But is life really less affordable than it was, say, 25 years ago?

The US census tells us that, in 1979, the median income in Oakland for a household was $13,780. The City’s official median income in 2006, for a family of four, was $82,200. If we trust these figures, incomes are now six times what they were 27 years ago.

To see if prices have really outpaced incomes, I checked locally advertised food prices, rental listings, and property sales in Oakland in May of 2008 compared to 1983. To get the 1983 figures, I reviewed microfilm of the Oakland Tribune for various weeks in 1983. For the 2008 prices, I scoured the Oakland Tribune as well as online sources. Here’s what I found:

For-sale property: prices of residential property, prices have risen 5 to 6 times in 25 years.

Rental property: rents are three times what they were 25 years ago.

Food: Groceries are about double what they were back then.

The obvious conclusion is that we are living better and more cheaply now than we did in 1983. Prices in all categories have risen less than incomes!

Don’t believe me? I could hardly believe it myself. No wonder, the media and politicians have been beating the drum of affordable housing for so long, we forget to say “show me.” Well, here are the details from my own little study.

For housing, I concentrated on North Oakland and West Oakland, to the extent possible. Back in 1983, the Tribune was the place to look for previously occupied houses for sale, and North and West Oakland were lumped into the category “west of Broadway.”

For Sale................. 1983........... 2008...... Increase
2 bdrm (avg of 5) $82,100... $416,970...... 508%
Duplex (avg of 4) $96,875... $560,000...... 578%

For rental units, a good current source is the OHA website listings for Section 8, where “market rate” rents are shown. I was able to easily identify properties in our neighborhood. The source for 1983 rents, again, was the Tribune.

Rental Units..................... 1983.......... 2008....... Increase
studio rental (avg of 5) $268.00..... $701.00....... 262%
1 bdrm rental (avg of 7) $302.86.... $812.00....... 268%
2 bdrm rental (avg of 5) $433.00. $1,234.50 .......285%

Groceries were fun because I compared the advertised sale prices in newspaper inserts from 1983 and 2008. In many cases, the identical item was shown. One glaring example: Safeway recently had Yoplait yoghurt on sale for 50 cents each. In 1983, a sale advertised the same product for 49 cents each. Yoghurt lovers are doing well these days.

Item ..................................................1983.......... 2008...... Increase
Tomatoes, 1 lb............................ $0.59........... $0.77...... 131%
Navel oranges, 1 lb..................... $0.40........... $0.69..... 173%
Crest toothpaste, per ounce...... $0.18............ $0.71...... 393%
AA Energizer batteries, 4 pack.. $2.19.... ....$2.90..... 132%
Kingsford charcoal, per pound. $0.28.......... $0.59...... 212%
Bacon (1 lb)................................ $1.59........... $3.00 ......189%
Yoplait yoghurt (6 oz).............. $0.49........... $0.50 .......102%
Pineapple................................. $1.69 .............$2.99 .......177%
Doritos Tortilla chips (per oz). $0.12 ...........$0.24...... 194%
Ground chuck (per pound)...... $1.89........... $1.60 ........85% (a decrease!)
Welch's grape juice (64 oz)...... $2.38........... $3.00..... 126%
MJB coffee (1 lb)....................... $1.99........... $5.99..... 301%
Post cereal ....................................$1.57........... $4.99 ........318%

Yes, my survey was unscientific and the housing samples were small. But I made no attempt to skew the numbers. I was as surprised as you are!

So, the next time someone tells you how unaffordable anything is these days, ask for corroboration. Yes, prices have shot up in recent years. But maybe that is just a correction because we had it so good in the Clinton era.

Friday, June 13, 2008

WOPAC goes "all in" with millions for empty lot

In a local version of funding the Bridge to Nowhere, the WOPAC approved spending $3,900,000 of your tax dollars to support a project many believe will never be built.

The project in question would erect 109 units of housing for persons of moderate income at 1396 5th Street, near the West Oakland BART station. The project site is significant to some WOPAC members because it is the former site of Red Star Yeast, a business that emitted foul odors for decades, limiting development possibilities nearby. It is a small patch of dirt – less than one acre – next to the freeway, and is known to have toxic issues. But additional funding for the $48MM project, while essential, is extremely problematic. The plan calls for an additional $18MM from the City’s NOFA funds. Marge Gladman of the Housing Department informed the WOPAC prior to their vote that total Notice of Funding Availability (“NOFA”) funds available in the coming year, for all housing projects citywide, would total only $16MM. $18MM for this one project will not be available from that source.

The project has already failed to win funding from the State of California’s Transit-Oriented Development Housing Program, on May 9th, and also was turned down by the State’s Infill Infrastructure Grant Program on May 23rd. While the developer has positioned his request for WOPAC support as necessary for appealing those decisions, the deadlines for filing documented appeals has passed, and the NOFA was heavily oversubscribed and highly competitive. The LLC that owns the land has gone bankrupt, and their former plan to build market-rate housing has been shelved. A new LLC was created to rescue the developers’ investments by constructing affordable housing at public expense. Few on the WOPAC expect, or even want, this affordable housing to be built. The WOPAC’s underlying intent is to purchase the site in order to control whatever eventually is constructed there. But there is no actual plan other than the affordable housing currently on the table.

A key motivation for several WOPAC members was the developer’s assertion that a builder from L.A. had offered $3.9MM for the property, with the intention of building low-income senior housing on the site. Members felt a site near a BART station was more suited to market-rate housing. WOPAC member Jabari Herbert stated that, as a developer, he had interests in multiple projects in the vicinity of the project site, and that a low-income housing project would have an adverse effect on those other projects. Mr. Herbert did not recuse himself, however, due to conflict of interest. Instead, Mr. Herbert voted with the WOPAC to purchase the property.

WOPAC co-chair Larry Rice was the only member to vote against the proposal.

The WOPAC currently has only $1,246,805 at their disposal. The bulk of the $3,900,000 would come from anticipated tax revenues for the 2008-2009 fiscal year. In other words, the WOPAC is going “all in” and committing most of your available redevelopment tax dollars for the coming year to purchase a Brownfields site for housing that won’t be built.

The land must be appraised and the City Council must approve the funding before money is actually spent.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

ProArts Open Studios event spotlights local artists

For the annual ProArts “Open Studio” event, several JAMMI artists have opened their doors and let the public in to view their work. The event continues Saturdays and Sundays through June 15th.

Jamie Treacy, at 733 37th Street near West, works in acrylic and watercolor. I was confused at first how to enter—it’s the ground level apartment with door in front, not up the stairs. Jamie graciously welcomed me into his apartment and studio. Originally from Michigan, Jamie came to Oakland to get his Master’s at California College of the Arts. Following that, he spent six months in Oaxaca, Mexico, an experience which has influenced his work. His paintings are dense gardens of images derived from settings captured digitally, then embellished with fanciful additions. One series presents objects and arrangements found in junkyards, again filtered through his imagination. Jamie teaches art at Unity High School near Seminary Avenue in East Oakland.

A visit to Alba Studios, at 4219 Martin Luther King Jr Way, was a potpourri of different presentations. Upon entering through the big wooden door, I was greeted by the voice of Benny Alba behind a wall of black plastic dropcloth. By the time I had signed in, Jennifer Downey had emerged to show me her self-portraits in acrylic against vague, foggy landscapes from Point Reyes. Jennifer is from Sonoma originally, which was reflected in the golden hills and foggy trees that formed a backdrop to repeated perspectives of a woman’s head (usually her own). Jennifer takes figure drawing classes, which helps to explain the focus of her work.

I entered the next area through a slit in the black plastic dropcloth and found myself in a pitch-black space with Benny Alba and someone else. Benny handed me a flashlight and instructed me to shine it around the walls. Doing so revealed various quotations under murky paintings of trees and moonlit nights. Benny offered that the exhibit was really meant to be seen with the lights on, but I did not take her up on her offer, instead moving on to a lit area where a display case contained glass enamel-on-copper doubloons and pieces of 8.

The studio then opened up into a cavernous area with huge, unpainted wooden beams and some natural light. To the right were bright-eyed, colorful paintings by Lynda Hickox Robinson. Toward the back were more examples of glass enamel on copper by Benny Alba, this time squares and rectangles with depictions of birds or abstracts. Up a solidly constructed wooden stairs, I found delicate jewelry, glass beads and colorful glass-enameled copper dishes by Miriam Jewell.

Many other artists have exhibits during this time. Read the full listing at the ProArts website.

MacArthur BART Transit Village developers bow to neighborhood concerns

As recently proposed, the MacArthur BART Transit Village would have eliminated 300 of the 600 parking spaces currently available to BART patrons. Neighbors feared that commuters would park in surrounding neighborhoods, reducing available parking for residents and increasing traffic congestion.

In response to those concerns, the plan has been modified to construct at least 100 additional parking spaces in the planned BART garage. Additionally, parking in one of the four residential structures will be “unbundled” freeing 30 spaces for use by BART patrons. And, for up to five years, valet parking to an offsite location will be offered for an additional 50 vehicles.

The number of parking spaces available to carshare programs will be doubled, from four to eight. The developer will work with local transit agencies to explore providing free shuttle service on the 40th Street corridor to Emeryville.

The developer will commit up to $150,000 to establish a residential parking permit program within a half-mile radius of the transit village. On-street parking by non-residents would be limited to two hours during weekdays.

Bicyclists will benefit from 40 short-term and 160 long-term bicycle parking spaces, as well as an on-site bicycle repair facility. A feasibility study will be conducted to explore creating a long-term bicycle parking facility in the commercial space or the parking garage.

Shown: the MacArthur BART parking lot, where the Transit Village will be built.