Affordable housing in Palo Alto is not only an urgent need but also a virtual oxymoron and a subject heated enough to spark a citizen referendum last November. It was also the focus of a community meeting Monday, the second event in the city's "Our Palo Alto" initiative.
This disparity between robust job growth and lackluster housing construction has driven up prices throughout Silicon Valley, according to Bena Chang, director of housing and transportation at the Silicon Valley Leadership Group and one of the speakers at Monday's panel. This prosperity has come at a cost, with many long-time residents priced out of their homes and many professionals unable to afford local rents, she said. She noted that the approximate annual income that is necessary to purchase a median-priced home in Palo Alto is now about $375,000, while median family income is $164,857.
The trend has, surprisingly, created problems for local CEOs, who in a recent survey cited the housing shortage as one of their top business concerns, Chang said.
"It outranked thinks like traffic congestion as well as bottom-line issues like business regulations and taxes," she said.
Palo Alto's median home price of $1.8 million dwarfs those in other high-tech cities with which local companies have to compete. In Austin, for instance, the figure stands at $184,000, while in Seattle it is $430,000, she said.
"It makes it really hard for our companies to make the value proposition to the employee who is living in Seattle and living in Austin to come and work for them," Chang said, adding that local companies often have to pay extremely high salaries to get workers to move here. "It becomes a recruitment problem and a retention problem."
The panel discussion, which brought about 25 people to the Lucie Stern Community Center, was the second event in the city's "Our Palo Alto" effort, which seeks to engage residents in a two-year discussion about the city's future. The topic of affordable housing was particularly timely given that the city is now updating its Housing Element, a state-mandated document that identifies the city's strategies for encouraging housing and lists sites that could potentially accommodate new housing growth.
Chang noted Monday that since 2012, housing construction has lagged behind job growth. While the county added about 42,000 jobs since 2012, it has only constructed 7,526 homes, she said.
It's not just the deterred would-be newcomers who are bearing the brunt of the housing-supply squeeze. Monday's discussion included several stories of rising rents, evictions and longtime residents being displaced.
Susan Russaw said she had lived with her husband on Colorado Avenue for eight years before they received a notice to vacate within two months. She said she and her husband spent a year living in their van. Her husband, an 85-year-old dialysis patient, died two months ago.
"We still weren't any closer to any housing," Russaw said. "It helps to be single to get housing, but it's still the same dilemma."
Another woman said her daughter had just received an eviction notice and asked whether any resources exist for people like her. A 65-year-old employee of NASA also spoke, saying she was planning to retire up until her rent and storage fees were both raised by 20 percent last month. Things look less certain now, she said, though she wasn't bitter. After telling her story, she used the panel as an opportunity to say farewell to Palo Alto.
"It's ben a great place to live and I think I'll probably just make room for someone else," she said. "So thank you Palo Alto."
Genevieve Sharrow, whose firm MIG Consulting is helping the city compose its new Housing Element, told the audience that the city is facing a state mandate requiring it to identify sites for between 350 and 400 new housing units for the period of 2015-2023 (the city would not have to actually construct the units).
"It is really a goal for the city to try to meet by putting in place policies and helping the market facilitate this process," Sharrow said.
Most of Palo Alto's allocated 1,988 housing units can be rolled over from the existing Housing Element, which the city completed last year.
While Palo Alto isn't proposing any specific new housing developments in the new Housing Element, it is including in its housing inventory a list of sites that could potentially accommodate increased density, including parcels along San Antonio Road and around California Avenue. The city has to submit the document by Jan. 31 and failure to do so could leave the city vulnerable to litigation and subject to losing local control of land-use decision, Planning Director Hillary Gitelman said.
Residents who attended the meeting offered a range of suggestions for chipping away at the city's housing shortage. Ray Bacchetti, who serves on a citizens panel advising the city on the new Housing Element, said it's important for people to "think creatively about redevelopment."
"One thing I think everyone in Palo Alto can agree on (when it comes to new housing), is it won't go on undeveloped land," Bacchetti said, "because there isn't any."
Midtown resident Sheri Furman, who also serves on the citizens advisory panel, advocated for mixed-use developments with retail on the ground floor and several stories of residential units on upper levels. Downtown resident Elaine Uang suggested focusing development near transit hubs as a way to mitigate traffic impacts.
"It would be great to see more flexibility of development standards, especially around downtown and California Avenue, and to try to encourage development with a small 'd' -- ways to integrate and fill and make really good places," Uang said.
The city will host the third Our Palo Alto panel, also on housing affordability, on Wednesday, April 30, from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Elks Lodge, 4249 El Camino Real.
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