October 27, 2021

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Plan for affordable downtown housing divides Bay Area city, with claims of racism, elitism

5 min read

Downtown Livermore has a 13-screen movie theater, a $22 million performing arts center, an ACE train station and pleasant, flat streets lined with shade trees, trellises, fine restaurants, boutiques and wine tasting rooms.

But unlike other Bay Area downtowns that have been successfully revived in recent years, central Livermore lacks the ingredient widely seen as key to vitality: new housing.

Now that is starting to change — and not everybody is happy about it.

While construction is well under way on the Legacy Livermore, a 222-unit luxury complex at a former downtown car dealership, a proposed 100% affordable development next door to that project has divided the city, leading to accusations of racism and raising questions about what kind of city Livermore wants to be and who gets to live there.

At the center of the fight is a 130-unit affordable project proposed for a flat dirt 2.5-acre parcel fronting Veterans Park, near the southeast corner of Railroad Avenue and L Street. The city-owned lot has been designated for affordable housing since 2007. The developer, Eden Housing, was selected in 2018 and has received $14.4 million in bond funding from Alameda County for the project.

On Tuesday the Livermore City Council is slated to vote on the project. While the Planning Commission supported it 4-1 in April, the deliberations made headlines when Commissioner John Stein suggested that it would turn the neighborhood into a “ghetto.”

“I really don’t want to see the downtown become a ghetto of affordable housing,” he said at the April 20 hearing. “I think it should be distributed throughout the city and if we see high-density housing downtown, it should be market rate with maybe 20% affordable rather than entirely affordable.”

While Stein later apologized for the comment, Eden Housing President Linda Mandolini said the comments were “shortsighted” and “really disappointing.”

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“Affordable housing has come so far and Eden has been working in Livermore for more than two decades,” she said. “It was unbelievable — we were all staring it at our screen saying, ‘Did he really say that?’”

At the eastern edge of the Bay Area, across the Altamont Pass from the Central Valley, Livermore straddles two worlds. It retains a strong agricultural character, with more than 50 wineries and working ranches. The city is also home to the Livermore Stockmen’s Rodeo Association, which claims to be “the world’s fastest rodeo.” The downtown Stockmen’s Park, which lies next to where the Eden project would go, has the cattle brand marks of prominent Livermore ranchers etched in concrete.

Yet it’s also an expensive Bay Area bedroom community, with a burgeoning restaurant and wine scene that draws local tourists. As home to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, it has long had a strong community of scientists. The city is diverse — about 20% Latino, 10% Asian, and it is home to Shiva-Vishnu Temple, the largest Hindu temple in California.

Mandolini said that the need for affordable housing in the Tri-Valley area has soared in recent years. Homes in the city now average more than $1 million and have increased 27% since the start of the pandemic, according to Redfin. Livermore has 120 homeless children in its school district and the Eden project has 13,000 Alameda County families on its waiting list, Mandolini said. Forced out by rising rents and home prices many Livermore workers live in Stockton or Tracy and commute over the Altamont Pass.

“There is a three-year wait for anything in the Tri-Valley area,” she said. “It’s not like you can build workforce housing out by the wineries. If we don’t build it here, where is it going to go?”

Opposition to the project is led by Joan Seppala, who owns the Livermore Independent newspaper. Her group, Save Livermore Downtown, has spent upwards of $2 million to turn public opinion against the development.

The group fighting the project says the development would increase traffic and that the income requirements are too low to allow public servants — such as teachers, firefighters and police officers — to qualify. It would “harm the open feeling of Livermore’s historic downtown,” they say.

Ruth Gasten, spokesperson for Save Livermore Downtown, said “Livermore residents are clearly upset with the current plan.” She argues the city should move the affordable housing north of Railroad Avenue, allowing the lot slated for the Eden project to be a “beautiful central park.” The alternate site could accommodate 230 affordable units rather than 130, the group said. They would also like to see it target more moderate income families who earn too much to qualify under the current plan.

“We strongly believe, because there will be more affordable housing if it is moved slightly north, that all current funding will be retained,” Gasten said. “This is just one option. There may be others. Where there’s a will, there’s a way, and the will of the voters of Livermore is for the City Council to seek those alternatives immediately.”

John Marchand, a former mayor of Livermore, stands next to “Buddy” the statue representing local stockmen who helped found Livermore at Stockmen’s Park in Livermore, Calif. on Wednesday, May 19, 2021.Brittany Hosea-Small/Special to The Chronicle

Former Livermore Mayor John Marchand, who served from 2011 to last year, said that the opponents seem to have a double standard: They didn’t oppose the market-rate Legacy project but are against the Eden plan.

“The people who will live there are the people who serve you your food and teach your children,” Marchand said.

Marchand characterized the opponents as “a small group of wealthy elite.” Moving the project across the street would likely delay the production of affordable housing by at least five years and likely kill it altogether.

“There is no alternative plan,” said Marchand. “That is a fantasy. There is no financing, no traffic analysis, no public input. They don’t own the land and it’s not for sale. There is a drawing. That is it.”

He said some public servants would qualify. The units would be reserved for people and families earning less than 60% of Alameda County’s area median income — that means to be eligible a single person could earn no more than $54,840, while a four-person family could earn no more than $104,400, according to the county.

For some context, a fully credentialed Livermore Valley Unified School District teacher with about five years experience but no graduate degree earns between $54,000 and $68,000.

Adam Van de Water, who heads up Livermore’s Office of Innovation and Economic Development, said there are now 93,500 average daily commuters on the Altamont Pass headed to the Bay Area from San Joaquin County. New residents buying in Livermore’s new gated communities are increasingly high-income tech or finance workers who commute into San Francisco or Silicon Valley. Meanwhile the waiters, carpenters, clerks and warehouse workers who earn a Livermore paycheck are commuting from Tracy, Lathrop or Stockton.

Even employers with traditionally well-compensated positions like those at the labs are working on relocations of new employees to homes in the Central Valley, he said.

“People always ask why it takes so long and costs so much to build affordable housing,” said Daniela Ogden, a vice president with Eden. “This is a pretty good example of why. We have to turn people away every day and the cost of living is only going up.”

J.K. Dineen is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @sfjkdineen

 

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