An example of politics in action [long]
From: Raines Cohen (
Date: Tue, 4 Jan 2000 23:21:27 -0700 (MST)
Today I helped modify proposed legislation in Oakland,CA that could have 
made it harder or more expensive for other groups to do cohousing 
development here... I'm sharing the story so that others can see an 
example of how they can get involved - and why they should be.

A developer put together a 65-unit affordable-housing project in East 
Oakland, near the Eastmont mall. Neighbors and community groups got 
notified but because the planning commission required only design review, 
not a full public hearing on the impact of the development (neighbors 
were concerned about the effect on property values, although studies have 
shown that affordable housing (we're not talking public housing) does NOT 
reduce property values overall, and that it is not overly concentrated in 
that neighborhood), they couldn't effectively block it or get the project 
modified. The Central East Oakland District Board escalated the issue, 
through Councilmember Nate Miley (10/12/99, Community and Economic 
Development Committee), requesting a moratorium and study of rental 
housing, downzoning of Bancroft, Foothill and MacArthur corridors and 
expanding notification of "minor" zoning cases from 75 to 300 feet.

 City Staff went back and forth with the Committee, outlining legal and 
zoning implications, and prepared a report, based on consensus from 
community representatives, to require a MAJOR conditional use permit for 
multi-unit developments, with a public hearing before the Planning 
Commission. Staff recommended that the use permit requirement should be 
applied citywide... and for legal reasons, it couldn't be just for one 
type of housing or resident.

Monday (yesterday) I picked up the report from the City Clerk's office 
after seeing the item mentioned in the 12/30/99 Oakland Tribune (page 
1-LOCAL, by Kathleen Kirkwood). The report said that the Policy and 
Procedures Committee of the Planning Commission, at its 10/27/99 meeting, 
recommended a threshold of 10-15 units to trigger the additional 
requirements. Given that most cohousing projects are 12-25 units, this 
had the potential to make cohousing development in Oakland much more 
expensive and time-consuming, because:

a) The cost for a Major Conditional Use Permit and notification for a 
multi-unit project larger than 10 units is approximately $2,000.00. Note 
that this is NONREFUNDABLE.

b) If an initial study for environmental review is required, an 
additional $500 fee would be assessed.

c) Should an environmental impact report be necessary, costs only go up 
from there.

d) Planning Regulations require a decision on a use permit within 60 days 
of the receipt of a complete application. Permit review could require an 
additional 60 days if an initial study is required. Where an EIR is 
required, six months is needed to complete the final document and hold 
required public hearings. Can you say massive additional options costs?

e) The public hearing creates lots more opportunities for people near and 
far to have their input, leading the planning commmission (or the 
council, when it is appealed afterwards) to modify the permit conditions 
or impose limitations that could make projects impractical.

Summary: Based on complaints about a large affordable rental housing 
project in East Oakland, the city was about to initiate a policy that 
could make small cohousing projects anywhere in the city.


So what did I do, learning of this less than 24 hours before the 
Community and Economic Development Committee of the Oakland City Council 
was scheduled to approve the report this morning? I rearranged my 
schedule, put on a nice suit, and got myself to City Hall by 10:30 AM 
today. I submitted a speaker request card, and during the public comment 
section on this item, said (in my allotted 2 minutes):

- I introduced myself as planning to move into Swan's as part of a 
cohousing project there, but as speaking before them today as a member of 
a new group, East Bay Cohousing, that is planning to build cohousing in 
Oakland, looking for sites right now.

- I briefly explained cohousing, emphasizing that it is financed 
collectively by the individual homebuyers and that costs and timing are 
critical in the development process.

- I pointed out that cohousing projects typically are 12-25 unit 
developments, in a condominium model.

- I said that the 300' notification made sense, and should be extended 
further with internet notification citywide.

- I said that the major variance requirement would make it much harder to 
make cohousing projects in Oakland viable.

- I pointed out that several cohousing projects were already underway in 

I was the only person to speak about the impact of the requirements on 
other types of development... the other 3 speakers were entirely 
concerned with making sure their neighborhood wasn't invaded by large #'s 
of rental projects, removing opportunities for the commercial 
developments they needed.

The councilmembers are good at maintaining this "I'm listening" posture 
when you speak, but they can also emit a lot of discouraging body 
language... the important thing is not to get intimidated... to have a 
good set of notes for a brief, to-the-point comment.


I'd imagine the committee already was leaning in this direction... 
certainly I don't think I had that large an effect. However:

- Councilmember Dick Spees supported raising the threshold to 25 units 
before a major Conditional Use Permit process was required.

- Councilmembers De La Fuente and Chair Brunner agreed with him.

- Nate Miley pushed back a bit to try to get the limit lowered back to 
10, but once he saw there was no support for his position he abstained.

- The vote was 3-0, 1 abstention, to accept the report with the 
recommendation modified to keep the limit at 25 ... so smaller projects 
will NOT have to go through the extensive process (except where required 
by existing zoning regs or other conditions).

Next stop: The Planning Commission. They're in the process of overall 
zoning regulations updating and tweaking to improve public process (for 
instance, staff wants to make height changes in downtown areas a "minor" 
variance), and we'll need to keep an eye on them and educate them.

I very briefly spoke with the Community and Economic Development Agency 
guy (didn't get his name) who apparently worked on the issue and he 
mentioned a cohousing project on Fruitvale Avenue that's underway (he 
said "it's tightly packed"  in terms of unit layout)... I stopped by the 
Permits and Planning Dept. office nextdoor afterwards and couldn't find 
anything about it... does anybody know about this?

I also spoke with a couple of the neighborhood activists from East 
Oakland to make sure there were no hard feelings... the intent was not to 
undermine their neighborhood control.

In conclusion: An hour of work today may have saved us thousands of 
dollars and hundreds of hours down the road. Of course, it might have 
been possible to change the rules further down, or get an exemption... 
but it might be harder, too.

There are probably opportunities like this every week to do a little bit 
of outreach and education, locally and in other jurisdictions and at the 
neighborhood-group (EXTREMELY important) and state and national level.... 
passing right by without our noticing until it's too late ("you could 
have said something when we discussed this last year...").

This is why it's important to collaborate with other groups and with your 
community to make the world a safer place for CoHousing.


Raines Cohen <coho-L [at]> <>
Off enjoying Macworld Expo this week.

  Member, Old Oakland [CA] Cohousing at Swan's Market
Where we lost a longtime member household - it looks like a 2BR $230K 
unit is now available if nobody on the waitlist wants it.

  and Member, East Bay Cohousing [no site yet] <>
Where I'll miss the first twice-a-month meeting tomorrow.

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