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Emeryville revisiting Development Bonus System to incentivize Affordable, Family Friendly Housing

3 mins read

The City Council and Planning Commission jointly met in a public study session back on May 2nd to discuss issues with housing in Emeryville and will reconvene tonight at a 5:30pm Special Study session. The meeting revolved around the lack of affordable, family-friendly, and ownership housing and the impact that is being felt on our schools and resident continuity. The city is looking to implement a “carrot & a stick” approach to our current Development Bonus System of our municipal code as one method of enticing developers to build the kind of projects the city wants by lowering the base “by right” height. The city clearly has its eyes on the forthcoming Sherwin-Williams development which remains the largest plot of undeveloped land in the city and whose impacts will ripple through our roads, schools and residential make up. The challenge will be to find a balance that will still attract good developers with an eye on their bottom-line without shutting development down completely and not meeting housing thresholds set by ABAG.


According to these census figures provided in the staff report, Emeryville lags far behind other communities in households with children and a whopping 53.5% are single resident occupied.

EUSD enrollment levels have seen a steady decline in recent years.

All recent additions to the housing stock in Emeryville have been rental units, typically with studios or one bedroom units only. While some changes to address this can be required through planning regulations, in some cases the can only incite behavior by having a program to allow additional density, height and FAR (Floor to Area Ratio) where the development provides a community benefit. As the elected officials and the open public started to discuss the system, they soon found that housing is a critical issue and that many divergent opinions exist on how to move forward.

The main issues with housing can be broken down to many parts. First, the general lack of affordability in Emeryville is evident. “Low Income” and “Very-low Income” units are scarce, both for renters and owners. In those cases where there are existing Below Market Rate ownership units, the HOA fees that are not reduced, making them less affordable. Next, building more ownership housing does not necessarily result in owner-occupancy: many of our condominiums are rented out by the owners. Lastly, developers currently have the option of paying in-lieu fees to meet their affordable housing requirement, rather than actually providing on site “inclusive” housing.




The Council and Planning Commission is looking at the total set of tools available to them to increase affordable, family friendly, and ownership housing. This includes looking at what elements of the development can be required (e.g. inclusion of family friendly units) versus those can only be incentivized. Although Emeryville currently has a bonus incentive system, it was felt that it should be reviewed to ensure that it addresses the City’s current priorities and is simpler for everyone to work within.

The May 2nd Staff Report:

Approaches discussed included both reducing the number of categories (from the current 19) that could earn bonus points to lowering the base line height, density, and FAR amounts a development could have without earning any bonus points. Under this new concept, developers would need to contribute more to Emeryville to achieve the same height that they wanted to in the previous system. This could be a reaction to developers choosing the cheapest and easiest of the bonus requirements to achieve their increased density and height. We have to bear in mind that bonuses are for benefits that go above and beyond the requirements. Projects cannot double-dip. With the lowering of the baseline, the City would have more control over what developers need to include in the project should they want to build to the maximum allowable under the current rules. In some areas, there are also State bonuses, but the City would let the developers know that they have to either choose the State’s version or the City’s. Staff has rarely seen developers choose the State’s version so far.

Members of the public at the May 2nd meeting expressed differing opinions on how to revise the bonus system. Many liked the idea of a voluntary inclusionary zoning and believed that the City should do more to influence developers to build below market rate housing. Some voiced that the granting of any bonuses threatened to create developments that might provide a City-wide benefit while overwhelming the immediate neighborhood and, therefore, bonus points should be used sparingly. Conversely, a representative for the Sherwin Williams Project reminded the City that in order meet their RHNA-required numbers it needs to move forward with denser housing projects and think about Emeryville as a whole.

Read tonight’s staff report:

Additional Resources:

Our Municipal Code →
State Density Bonus →

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William He

is a city planner for the City of American Canyon. He grew up in Oakland and moved to Emeryville in 2011. He has a Master's Degree in Urban Planning from San Jose State University and completed his thesis on the impact of redevelopment projects in Emeryville. His interests include community planning, land use optimization, and urban design. William lives with his wife in the Park Avenue District and enjoys photography and traveling on his spare time.


  1. Very interesting comment that looks at the full picture.Improving Emeryville schools and the availability of magnet schools and opportunities for bright kids to excel and explore would create a demand for more kid-friendly housing.

    • Hi Roland,

      You touched on an interesting issue. A factor for families to choose cities is the quality of schools, but at the same time, if a community does not have much children, schools may not be of the highest priority. If Emeryville had more families and K-12 children, there may be a need for more magnet schools and education opportunities. But we might need more family-friendly housing to get more families. It might be something to explore in the future.

  2. Hi William, Rob or anyone else:

    Do you happen to know the City Council’s political positions on rent control? Since Measure U (charter city) was approved by voters last year, I would assume a rent control ordinance can be passed if there is enough political support for it.

    • Hello Jack, this hasn’t been a priority for them but I can attest they would be sup[portive of some tenant protections. Municipalities are a bit handcuffed in creating any sweeping measures though. We’re working on a piece that I hope to be out this week.

    • Hi Jack,

      I am not sure if a Rent Control Ordinance is on the horizon for the City Council. Interestingly enough, I just heard on the news that San Jose has one of the highest allowable increases for rent, 8% increase for one time per year. San Francisco allows up to 1.9% increase per year. I hope that if Emeryville does come up with an ordinance, it will be something in the middle where landlords can meet market prices, but also allow tenants to live with a sensible quality of life.

      • IMHO, something like this should be brought to the polls. (What is the process for getting a proposition on the ballot?) Emeryville is something like 65-70% renters, so if there were a rent control proposition it shouldn’t be too difficult to pass. And our neighbours Oakland, Berkeley, San Francisco (sea border) and now Richmond all have their own rent regulations.

  3. Out of curiousity, what are the prevailing pros/cons for having more families with children in E’ville? I am certainly not anti families with children. I am probably neutral on the subject. I do appreciate that the bay area has a diversity of communities with different characteristics and that people can choose to live in an area that suits their life style. Personally, I prefer to live in a more urban setting with good transportation options and the businesses, services, and activities that i’m interested in. I happen to be a single-bedroom-no-children-evillian and love my eville quality of life. When i look at your list, the places that attract me and perhaps other fellow child-free (including people who have adult children who don’t live at home) folks – eville, SF, berkeley, oakland…it is interesting to see that they are on the lower end of the families with children. I have less interest in Albany or Piedmont, or the burbs east of the tunnel. Just wondering. Thanks!

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