ALBANY -- Zoning changes allowing transitional and supportive housing "by right" in certain areas of the city and allowing emergency shelters in two commercial districts won initial City Council approval Jan. 21.
The changes, which still await a second reading and vote by the council, would bring the city into compliance with state law requiring municipalities to designate areas for such housing.
The ordinance will allow transitional and supportive housing in residential and mixed-use zoning districts without requiring a conditional use permit. Requiring a CUP can effectively prevent any housing to be built.
Shelters would be allowed in the city's Commercial Mixed Use zone just east of Interstate 80 and the commercial zone along San Pablo Avenue.
Shelters would also be allowed with a CUP in the Solano commercial zone (along Solano Avenue mostly to the east of San Pablo) and R-3 residential zone (located in several areas, including adjacent to the San Pablo Commercial zone, at the western side of the city north of Buchanan Street and at the northern edge of the city).
Previously, there were no areas in the city zoned to allow shelters "by right." A state law that took effect in 2008 required all cities and counties to identify at least one zoning district where an emergency shelter could be located without discretionary approval.
Homeless issues have been front and center in Albany since last May when the council voted to begin enforcing the city's anti-camping ordinance at the Albany Bulb so the land can be turned over to the East Bay Regional Park District. The city contracted with two local organizations to try to house Bulb residents. So far, seven people have found housing, although two of them were subsequently evicted due to issues with their dog.
The city also set up two mobile units to use as a homeless shelter at the waterfront. The shelter has a capacity of 30 but only one to three people have used the shelter on any given night.
Since then, a lawsuit has been filed on behalf of the 60 or so people who live on the Bulb.
Later at the Jan. 21 meeting, the council approved a one-year extension of its contract with Berkeley Food and Housing Project to continue outreach to Bulb residents and help them secure housing. The contract extension drew extensive comments from the public, with multiple Bulb residents and their advocates criticizing BFHP's work and suggesting the city should work with Berkeley's Homeless Action Center instead.
In other business, the council heard a staff report comparing council members' medical benefits with those in other cities. At issue is the fact that Albany council members receive better health benefits than city employees.
Council members and employees both have the option of coverage through the Kaiser HMO or a second plan offered through Blue Shield. City workers who select coverage from Blue Shield have to pay extra for the plan, while council members choosing that option don't. Further, if a council member has health coverage through another source (such as a full-time job), they can take an "in lieu of" payment instead of the benefits. According to Councilman Michael Barnes, this could add up to $100,000 at the end of two terms.
Most of the public comment on the issue took the side that council members should have the same benefits as employees. The council voted 4-1 to consider eliminating the in lieu of payment at a future meeting. However, the council declined to consider whether council members should have to pay the difference for the Blue Shield plan.