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Montopolis at odds over affordable housing case

Thursday, October 11, 2012 by Elizabeth Pagano

A contentious zoning case in the Montopolis neighborhood reached a boiling point at the Oct. 4 meeting of the area’s Neighborhood Planning Contact Team when two veteran members resigned amid accusations of misconduct from two feuding parties.


The debate caught fire over the issue of bringing more affordable housing to the area.


The case at the center of the fight is a proposed affordable-housing development, called Estancia del Rio, at 1700½ Frontier Way. The nonprofit California-based Cesar Chavez Foundation hopes to build 252 units on the site.


As things became heated at the contact team meeting on Oct. 4, Executive Committee member Pam Thompson got up and resigned her position. She told her colleagues that a person in attendance had insulted her. Thompson declined to go into further detail.


Since the meeting, Contact Team Vice Chair Larry Gross resigned from that body, though he made it clear to In Fact Daily that he wasn’t taking sides.


Thompson’s husband is Montopolis Planning Contact Team member Stefan Wray. Wray told In Fact Daily there had been issues about process and the organization’s bylaws.


“Very little attention is paid to the bylaws. I think there are people that don’t even know that there are bylaws,” Wray said. “You could argue that it’s been going on for as long as Susana Almanza has been the chair of the contact team, but as far as the more flagrant (problems)? It’s a function of some people paying more attention to the rules and what they actually are, as well as a function of some people who never did know what the rules are and just think that this is status quo.”


Contact Team Chair Susana Almanza said, “We’ve been functioning like this for two years. Stefan (Wray) has been at the meetings. He’s never once complained, and he’s never made a suggestion. Neither has his wife, who’s on the executive committee. But with this affordable housing, it’s been like, ‘let’s look at a technicality’.”


Wray’s complaint centers on the appearance of what he terms 15 to 20 basketball players who he says were “coaxed or cajoled” to come vote on Estancia del Rio.


“Obviously no one took the time to do any sort of age-verification check or anything like that. I would assume that some of the basketball players were dependent minors under 18 and others were probably dependent adults,” said Wray. “You need to be either a homeowner or a renter in the neighborhood (to vote), meaning you actually pay the rent – you aren’t just living in an abode where the rent is paid.”


Almanza said that the perception that the players were just grabbed off of the street was false, and a result of an inability on the part of some of her neighbors to understand the community. Almanza explained that the players had asked to be notified when the Estancia del Rio item came up, and that they stayed through the entirety of the presentation and the vote.


“What they don’t tell you is there was a total of 19 people that voted against it. These were all (mostly) new people that we’ve never seen before,” said Almanza. “No one checked their validity… We didn’t say, ‘hey, where are y’all from?’ or ‘Where’s your ID,’ or ‘Show me that you really own property’,” said Almanza. “But when African-American people came in, those questions did get asked. To me, that’s really insulting.”


Wray claims about “half a dozen definitely noticeable children” were allowed to vote. The claim was backed up by Montopolis Community Alliance President Delwin Goss who, in an email to In Fact Daily, compared the act to neighborhood drug dealers putting children on street corners to sell drugs. He wrote, “The kids have no idea what they are doing and the scum bag drug dealer profits from corrupting a child.”


Almanza told In Fact Daily that two children did vote at the meeting, but they voted against the rezoning so those votes didn’t make a difference in the final tally. The vote at the meeting was 37-19 in favor of the rezoning.


Planning Commissioner Richard Hatfield attended the Oct. 4 meeting in Montopolis, and classified it as “quite dysfunctional.”  He said that he hoped the two sides would be able to move forward in a direction that would be good for the city. “I think both sides have made some mistakes,” said Hatfield.


Tuesday night, the Planning Commission unanimously adopted a resolution that attempted to address the problems. The resolution asks City Council to, among other things, look at the enforcement of bylaws of the Neighborhood Planning Contact Teams and the mechanisms for mediation and reporting, including clarification on who, exactly, has authority over the activities of the contact teams.


The resolution also asks for clarification about whether the contact teams are subject to the same Open Meetings and integrity rules and standards as city Boards and Commissions.


“People need to learn how to be empowered without disparaging others,” said Wray. “I think there is a lot of fear on the part of some of the residents of Monotopolis of gentrification. Even though we ourselves live in affordable housing. … None of us are opposed to affordable housing. We’ve been the recipients of it.”


Almanza disagreed. She said that the fight is an attempt to keep affordable housing out of the neighborhood, and enact the East Riverside Regulation Plan before it is completed.


“I can tell you that when somebody doesn’t want affordable housing, then they are just going to do anything they can to derail affordable housing. That’s unfortunate for us, because we’ve lost 1,700 affordable units in the East Riverside corridor, and we are probably going to lose a lot more when the new regulations come in,” said Almanza. “Where are all the working-class people supposed to go?”


As for the Estancia del Rio case, though rezoning was approved by the Planning Commission earlier this month, (See In Fact Daily Sept.  25, 2012) developers subsequently reconsidered their needs, and headed back to the Planning Commission Tuesday for less intense zoning. The Planning Commission voted unanimously to approve the new rezoning, citing the need for affordable housing in the area and the city at large.


The case heads to Council on Oct. 18 for final approval.

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