Like most of the Bay Area, Richmond is in a housing crisis – both a quantity crisis and an affordability crisis. The State of California needs to add 3.5 million homes by 2025 to close the housing gap. The latest Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA) is a state mandate that Bay Area cities and counties add 441,000 units by 2031. Even under the current RHNA mandate, the City of Richmond is short 1,333 units by 2023, only 21 months away, and over half of Richmond’s mandate is for affordable units. The 2031 RHNA mandate for Richmond will add even more units, although the final numbers are still being debated.
Figure 1 - Richmond Housing Needs - State of the City 2021
The City was counting on Point Molate and Campus Bay to fill its RHNA mandate in future years. The two projects are entitled for over 5,000 total units; however, lawsuits and the new anti-development City Council has threatened to sideline both projects. The City has to have a contingency plan.
The Richmond Progressive Alliance, which has now locked in control of the City Council, has stepped up with a creative solution. RPA stalwart Eduardo Martinez has “reached across the aisle” to collaborate with Nat Bates, both of whom have developed extensive maritime contacts over the years through numerous trips to China, to find a solution. It turns out that the pandemic has made cruise ships obsolete, and they can be purchased at fire sale prices. Even before COVID-19, cruises were losing popularity because of the widespread threat of gastro-intestinal disease. Cruise ships are essentially self-contained cities that can handle thousands of passengers and crew.
In 2019, Oakland City Council member Rebecca Kaplan made a pitch to use cruise ships for housing but was rebuffed by the Port of Oakland. Unlike Oakland, which has an independent and apparently uncooperative port authority, the City of Richmond Port is just another city department, subject to City Council policy direction. Kaplan had pointed out that the retired Queen Mary is as successful hotel in Long Beach. In fact, I have stayed there several times, myself.
Figure 2 - The Queen Mary in Long Beach
Figure 3 - The cruise ship "Pacific Destiny"
Martinez and Bates have already arranged to purchase two cruise ships from the Dutch America line to be ported in Richmond at a cost of only $1.00 per ship. How was this possible? Even if the ships are not slated for cruise use, you would think there would be substantial salvage value. There is, but the cost of berthing, security, insurance and maintenance to make sure they stay afloat while waiting in line for a salvage slot exceeds the salvage value. “It’s more cost effective for the ships’ owners to simply take a tax write off and get rid of them,” explained UC Berkeley maritime economist Dr. Marvin Watters.
Figure 4 - Brand new cruise ships being dismantled for scrap in Turkey (https://www.unionleader.com/news/back_page/cruise-ship-dismantling-booms-in-turkey-after-pandemic-scuttles-sector/article_eb9fb688-a7c8-504a-a9fb-695cb2a5290a.html)
After a whirlwind, world-wide search, Martinez and Bates have the cruise ships Pacific Destiny and Island Fantasy all lined up and will bring the item to the City Council for final approval on April 6, 2021. The ships are in perfect condition and theoretically could set off for a trip around the world tomorrow – if there were any customers.
With a potential population of thousands, a repurposed cruise ship would constitute a new “neighborhood,” in Richmond, with a population approximating Marina Bay or Point Richmond. Like those neighborhoods, it would have its own “corner grocery,” restaurants and bars, and services such as laundry and cleaners, hair and nail salons, recreational facilities, branch bank, and maybe even a brewpub or a couple of churches.
As a waterfront city with 32 miles of shoreline, Richmond has abundant docking opportunities, including space at Terminals 1, 3 and 4 as well at Point Potrero Marine Terminal and even point Molate. The ships will most likely be operated as large apartment complexes, but the city attorney has a plan to condominiumize at least one so that future residents can actually own their units. Part of the plan includes combining groups of adjacent staterooms to constitute 1, 2, 3 and even 4-bedroom units.
Using ships for residential use is nothing new for Richmond. Over 100 years ago, a “hotel ship” was moored at Point Molate (actually Winehaven in those days) to house workers at the fast growing winery.
Figure 5 - Hotel ship at Winehaven ca 1908
The plan also includes making the ships more sustainable and environmentally friendly by weaning them off fossil fuels. Gigantic solar panel arrays, mounted both on the ships and at their shoresides, will produce all the electric power they need. To conform to BCDC requirements, the ships must be potentially mobile and capable of sailing, so the engines will be retained but not used.
Councilmember Gayle McLaughlin thinks this is a great plan, but after been spending a lot of time at Rydin Road recently, has concerns about arrangements for people in the RV community. She has requested that City staff also look into acquiring a used car ferry that could serve as a floating RV “Safe Park,” avoiding the neighborhood resistance that has plagued other proposals for siting on dry land. McLaughlin sighed, “We won’t have to deal anymore with those whining businesses at Rydin Road or the East Bay Regional Park District, which places dogs over people at Point Isabel”
Figure 6 - A used car ferry could function as a "Safe Park" for RVs
Councilmember Melvin Willis wanted to make sure the rental units on the ship are covered by the Richmond Fair Rent, Just Cause For Eviction and Homeowner Protection Ordinance as well as the plethora of moratoriums passed by the City Council, both now and in the future. The city attorney has hired a maritime law expert to ensure Willis’ concerns are allayed.
Councilmember Claudia Jimenez had concerns about access by low income families and even the homeless. She contacted Congressman Mark DeSaulnier who assured her that the American Rescue Plan would pay for all of that. DeSaulnier explained, “The American Rescue Plan Act includes substantial aid for millions of people who are struggling to pay their rent and avoid eviction, as well as badly needed resources to help communities address homelessness during the pandemic.” See Housing Assistance in American Rescue Plan Act Will Prevent Millions of Evictions, Help People Experiencing Homelessness. The City of Richmond is also expecting nearly $21 million from the American Rescue Plan.
Vice-mayor Demnlus Johnson, III, was ecstatic about the plan, exclaiming, “That’s who we are in Richmond!”
By the way, contrary to some reports, April 1 has not been cancelled.