Mayoral John Bauters

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Emeryville covers just one square mile next to the Bay Bridge, but civic leaders like Mayor John Bauters are touting one of the most ambitious affordable housing proposals in the East Bay.

The doorway to city council’s chambers at Emeryville Town Hall is flanked by twin bronze busts of angry male heads, frozen mid-shouting-match, in a sculptural diptych by local resident Scott Donahue dubbed “The Discussion.” Observers refer to them as the “fuck you” statues—one face appears to be making the fricative “f” sound, while the other seems prepared to deliver the dipthong “you”—but today’s City Council is hardly as embittered. Thirty years later, Councilmember Donahue now sits on the dais, and his brother, Brian, still frequents council meetings to upbraid the local governing body on any given minutiae du jour.

In 2018, Emeryville’s City Council works unanimously on the direst crisis in the Bay Area: housing. This year, Mayor John Bauters has rallied his four legislative colleagues behind the cause celebre of Measure C, a $50 million bond obligation that Emeryville voters will be asked to approve in the June primary election.

Tiny but triumphant, Emeryville stands as a diamond in the rough, witnessing a huge housing construction boom while other Bay Area cities relegate housing approvals to a sclerotic political quagmire. Mayor Bauters stands out further as a political unicorn, having rallied major forces including the League of Women Voters, SEIU Local 1021, and the Alameda County Democratic Party, to support a bond measure in a town known to the rest of the East Bay mostly for its IKEA store and surrounding parking oasis. 

Mayor Bauters appears singularly committed to challenging this perception of Emeryville as a desert of big box retailers. Not surprisingly, he commutes by public transit to his day job as a Policy Director for a nonprofit—and he walks to council meetings. You can typically spot him by his signature bowtie.

“We’re a natural transit locus, with proximity to everything—rail, the [Bay] bridge—so increasing density near transit is something that absolutely has to be done in this area,” Bauters said in a remarkably candid interview with the Beacon. The Mayor noted, for example, that he had been lobbying AC Transit to pilot a bus-only lane all along 40th Street from the MacArthur BART station down to the Bay Bridge, one of the area’s busiest corridors.

Indeed, Emeryville’s own civic documents point to a sea change in how the city envisions itself. Its most recent Housing Element, a state-mandated report in which cities detail their plans for meeting their population’s housing needs, was praised as a model for other cities by the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD). While other cities struggle to maintain parking requirements, Emeryville is happy to see them go: “The City recognizes that parking requirements can create a challenge and offers reductions in minimum requirements…if developers promote alternate modes of transit,” reads one section of the report.

Yet another passage would start a riot in city halls across the Bay Area, where many cities cling to their Kafkaesque permitting authority with an iron fist: “Overall, the permit process in Emeryville is efficient and as demonstrated by the City’s success at developing housing, does not impede housing production.”

Measure C is the city council’s way of saying they can do even more.

But Emeryville isn’t just investing in housing: if Measure C passes, it’s going to build it, too. Since revenue-generating bonds require a two-thirds majority vote to pass, Measure C invokes Article XXXIV of the California Constitution, which mandates just over 50% of voter approval for cities to develop housing projects with over 50% of its units remaining affordable.

“The last time the City of Emeryville pursued Article XXXIV authority was in 1979, when we got 100 units approved by the voters,” Bauters explains. That happens to be the year he was born. “Article XXXIV has some racist underpinnings to its origins, but it remains the law, and we needed to pursue that authority in this measure.”

Invoking this clause in the state constitution, Bauters says, can “help the Emeryville dollar go much farther” than it otherwise would—and, conveniently, it could make it the most beneficial housing bond recently proposed in the region. “$50 million can help us build a lot of affordable housing for our community; it can be matched with county and state funds to help us maximize the value to the Emeryville taxpayer; and it will leave some Article XXXIV authority for future councils to work with,” he notes.

Once he gets started, he doesn’t stop; the Mayor’s vision for a comprehensive solution to homelessness, traffic congestion, and public safety all revolve around housing, and it’s a script he can recite with rapid-fire passion.

“People want to know where housing should go in the Bay Area. We should be putting it where it can help make transit systems self-sufficient. Why would we put housing somewhere farther away so that we have to subsidize our transit systems to keep them operational?” he says with noted urgency in his voice. “People are always worried about traffic. If you don’t want traffic, get people out of their car. How do you get people out of their car? Put housing next to the transit center.” The delivery is breathless, half exasperated, half matter-of-fact.

With an abundance of industrial land, bridges, and overpasses, Emeryville’s relatively small area often sees a disproportionate amount of homelessness and tent encampments. Bauters, who himself experienced housing insecurity in his youth, urges a comprehensive and compassionate approach—and at town hall meetings, he tries to teach by example.

“I went to a town hall where somebody asked, ‘what are you doing about the man living under the Powell Street overpass? He has all this trash.’ I said, ‘how many people here know his name?’”

They were asking about a 64 year-old former resident of West Oakland who lived on income from social security and recycling cans at a recycling center. When the major recycling plant at West Oakland closed down, he lost his supplemental income, and subsequently, his home.

“There will be some people who say, ‘Who are you trying to build housing for? Who are you trying to bring here?’ The people we are trying to help are already here,” Bauters explains. “The truth is that a lot of people do not currently have housing they can afford: seniors, veterans, working families - they all need affordable housing and they are here today. Other problems are intractably linked to the housing crisis. Public safety challenges, public health, employment, educational success in kids: all of these things are linked to having an adequate supply of safe, affordable housing in our region."

In an op-ed he sent to the East Bay Express, Bauters discussed his own personal experience with a neighbor living in her car—a disabled elderly woman who, indeed, was “already here,” so to speak. Her success story in finally receiving housing assistance gives Bauters some much-needed hope.

“Some people don't want to invest in housing because they say we can never build enough units at this point for all the people who need them. Can you imagine if the response to the polio epidemic had been, ‘there are so many people with polio, it’s not worth trying to vaccinate everyone cause you'll never stop it from spreading fast enough’? Instead, we spent decades working on the issue before we eliminated the virus. That was the right thing to do.” He laughs an oddly confident laugh, as though he’s piqued by both the comic absurdity and dark aptness of his analogy.

Even without enough supportive housing available, Emeryville shies away from some of the more punitive policies seen in San Francisco and Oakland, where tent encampments have ballooned in size and are periodically cleared by city employees. “Some cities spend a disproportionate amount of their time and resources cleaning up or demolishing encampments, forcing those people to relocate somewhere else where the consequences of homelessness persist,” Mayor Bauters says. “These cities are effectively wasting taxpayer money on non-solutions—nobody has been housed as a result of that action.”

“Housing is the solution to homelessness. Housing is healthcare, housing is public safety, housing is community support. We need to invest in solutions that address the root causes of these problems.”

Next year, it will be another councilmember’s turn to serve as Mayor. But Bauters doesn’t sweat the short term—after all, if enough voters approve, Emeryville may be making a $50 million down payment on the long game.

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