By Alex Emslie
Much of the attention over the housing crisis in the Bay Area falls on the most visual stories in larger cities, like the tech employee buses that have become icons for displacement in San Francisco and Oakland.
But cities on the outskirts of the metropolis are also running into conflicts over affordable housing, homelessness and the responsibilities of governments with smaller budgets.
Housing and homelessness are the subjects of two lawsuits against the City of Albany, a town at the northern tip of Alameda County with a population of less than 20,000. The city has been working for six months to evict a longstanding tent village on a chunk of land sticking into the East Bay called the Albany Bulb.
The land was formed as a construction materials dump, but since the early 1990s, it’s housed a camp of people who would otherwise be homeless. The Bulb is also the capstone in a three-decade effort to create the McLaughlin East Shore State Park, which would finally transfer control of the land from Albany to the state parks system.
The city contracted with the nonprofit Berkeley Food and Housing Project in May to connect Bulb residents with services and help them find a place to live. The city hired Oakland-based Operation Dignity to open a temporary 30-bed shelter near the Bulb in late November. That part of the city’s park transition plan is costing more than $300,000 for six months of shelter.
“We don’t live in the best of all possible worlds,” City Councilman Michael Barnes said when the council voted to finally approve Albany’s park transition plan in October. “I think the plan we have is a good one. People will move a few hundred yards off the Bulb into trailers. They will be warm. They will be dry. There will be showers. They will have food supplied to them. They will have toiletries supplied to them. Their dogs will be there.”
So far, the shelters have not caught on with the Bulb residents. Only three to four people have been using them per night, according to the city.
Berkeley Food and Housing Project’s outreach has had some success, however. The nonprofit has connected four people with permanent housing since summer, although none of their apartments are in Albany.
Professional cook Bradley Anthony was the first Bulb resident to move into a permanent home though the effort. He had been living at the camp for about six months.
“Because I was employed, I knew it would be much easier for me,” he said outside his new home, a room in West Oakland. “It was pretty simple I guess, I mean comparatively speaking to what other people are going to be going through, I’m very lucky.”
Anthony said he moved to the Bulb last spring after he got laid off. Another job he had lined up took longer to come through than expected, and he couldn’t pay rent.
So he got in touch with his sister, April Anthony, who has lived at the Bulb for almost five years.
“I love it here, and I’m grateful for having been able to stay here,” April Anthony said. “As a single female homeless person, it beats the streets, there’s no doubt about it, and we have developed a community here, which is the last thing I thought I’d see. You know, but we’re all like a big family now. It’s kind of messed up that they’re going to break us apart.”
The Anthony siblings are two examples of the Bulb’s heterogeneous population. Bradley Anthony said he had never been homeless except for those recent six months. He said the process of getting into housing was pretty easy once outreach workers realized he had a full-time job.
“I was one of the few people that fit the criteria,” he said.
April Anthony, however, meets the federal definition of chronic homelessness. She has a physical disability that makes it difficult for her to walk, and bi-polar disorder, and she’s lived outdoors for more than a year. Like many of the people living on the Bulb, she makes a few hundred dollars a month selling art and doing odd jobs.
“We don’t have guaranteed monthly income, and that’s been a major killer,” she said.
Coming to Grips
Albany realtor Francesco Papalia seems a little sheepish when he claims to have started the whole controversy, or at least the most recent round of it. He used his position as chair of Albany’s Waterfront Committee to form a homelessness task force in the city about a year and a half ago.
“If someone was homeless and fell down on the street or was sleeping in someone’s backyard, there was absolutely no one in the city whose job it was to help them,” he said.
The city council directed the task force to study the issue and present options for addressing homelessness in Albany, which is mostly concentrated at the Bulb. The task force delivered several options to the city in May, and the city council voted to pursue eviction under Albany’s “no-camping” ordinance with limited support services.
And at the same meeting, the council recommended task force members form an advocacy group, essentially dissolving it as a part of the city government.
“People were shocked,” Papalia said. “It was like, what just happened?”
Members of the task force did reorganize into an advocacy group, the Albany Housing Advocates, which is now suing the city in federal court.
A Federal Case
The Albany Housing Advocates, April Anthony and 28 other Bulb residents are suing the city to delay the eviction. The plaintiffs say physical or mental disabilities prevent them from using the city’s temporary shelter that opened in late November, and they should have more time to find permanent housing, preferably in Albany.
The lawsuit argues the city’s plan violates the Americans with Disabilities Act, 4th Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure, and the 14th Amendment right to due process.
The suit says Albany plans to remove people from relative safety at the camp even though the city “does not have a single permanent shelter, transitional house, or available unit of subsidized housing.”
Jennifer Wolch is the dean of UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design. She gets a little frustrated when she hears cities are addressing homelessness through temporary means, whether it be short-term housing or portable shelters.
“Those kinds of solutions simply kick the can down the road,” she said. “That was the dominant solution in 1985 – build shelter beds. They don’t work very well. They keep people on this kind of cycle – street to shelter to jail to hospital that’s terrible for people and very expensive.”
Wolch has studied homelessness since the 1980s, and she has published research on homeless encampments in southern California. She said cities can best address homelessness through supportive housing, which combines an affordable, permanent place to live with on-site case workers and other services.
But Albany doesn’t have any supportive housing units. Alameda County has more than 2,000 units. Berkeley, Albany’s larger neighbor to the south, has more than 100 units of supportive housing.
Robert Cheasty was mayor of Albany in 1999, when the city last grappled with the camp at the Bulb. Now he advocates for the state park transfer.
“As a small city, you can’t have every possible service,” he said. “It’s just not feasible. So you rely on the county, you contribute to the county, or you partner with another city.”
Still, services for the homeless work better when they aren’t giant, centralized projects, according to Wolch.
“If Albany would acknowledge that they had about 50 people at any one time who needed services and needed shelter and needed long-term support, then there’s no reason that they couldn’t address that need,” she said. “And in fact, homelessness and homeless service provision and supportive housing is much better done on a small scale.”
The Housing Element
Affordable housing is the subject of another lawsuit concerning Albany’s obligations to the poor and homeless. This one is in Alameda County Superior Court.
State law requires all California cities and counties to plan for housing at all income levels. It’s called the housing element of the general plan, and their due approximately every seven years. Albany’s last approved plan was filed in 1992. The city turned in an updated draft for the 2007 to 2014 period in October – more than a little late.
That process has already spurred the city to remove restrictions on building a permanent emergency shelter, and the draft recommends doing something similar for transitional and supportive housing.
This isn’t the first time the city has grappled with its homeless population. In fact, the present saga is a near duplicate of one in 1999, when Albany used the same contractor to build a temporary shelter near the Bulb and evicted the camp.
Berkeley Human Welfare Commissioner Dan McMullan lived at the camp in 1999. He lost his right leg in a motorcycle accident and spent about a decade homeless in Berkeley and Albany.
“The reason I was homeless was because I was disabled,” he said. “People that work with homeless people know, scratch any homeless person and you’ll find a disability. And they do nothing in Albany for people with disabilities who are homeless. And it’s amazing to me that after all these years, they’re going to try to pull the same move again.”
Albany Mayor Peggy Thomsen declined interview requests from KQED. Albany’s mayor is part of the city council, and she is the only current member who was also a councilmember 15 years ago.
“We did, I believe, have a humane relocation of the people at that time,” she said at a public meeting. “I personally went out to the Bulb to where the food was delivered into the portables. I would be happy to have lived in one myself. They were very, very clean.”
McMullan said his ideal solution would be to improve the lot of people at the Bulb, maybe with a transitional shelter there, including fresh water and working plumbing. That way, people could camp there until they found permanent housing.
Albany’s disbanded homelessness task force had a similar suggestion, which they called the dignity village model, based on a self-governing community in Portland.
But the city isn’t pursuing that plan, and the task force was concerned that building a dignity village at the Bulb might prolong people living in harsh conditions.
UC Berkeley’s Wolch described a similar, now closed Dome Village in Los Angeles.
“The challenge with those kinds of experiments is you want to make sure you’re not validating a model that says, ‘well people really don’t need housing’ — that it’s okay for people not to be provided with real housing,” she said. “It’s a slippery slope. As a society, do we want to give up on a goal that says people should have decent, safe, sanitary, conventional housing, whether they can earn enough to pay for it on the market or not?”