Palo Alto panel tackles housing issues

Second 'Our Palo Alto' event zooms in on city's affordability, future development

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.

The city's most recent Performance Report, which surveyed Palo Alto's services and compared them against those in other jurisdictions, placed the city in the first percentile among surveyed jurisdictions on the subject of "affordable housing" and in the second percentile on "housing options." By contrast, when it comes to "place to work," the city was rated in the 99th percentile.

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.


Posted by Sam, a resident of Evergreen Park
on Apr 28, 2014 at 9:33 pm

We need more affordable housing for our Firefighters and Police Officers.

Posted by common sense, a resident of Midtown
on Apr 28, 2014 at 11:11 pm

A lot of misinformation in this article:

1) Last year's referendum (Measure D) was not about affordable housing, it was about wheather to rezone a property for high density development along a safe schools traffic route.

2) Comparing Palo Alto (population 63,000, 25 square miles) to Austin, Texas (population 840,000, 321 square miles), or Seattle, WA (population 634,000, 140 square miles) is comparing apples to oranges. The reporter should compare San Jose (population 980,000, 179 square miles) to Austin or Seattle - San Jose's median price in 2012 was $465,000. Of course apples to apples comparisons don't support their argument to turn Palo Alto into a high density housing mecca, so they make false comparisons.

3) The article says 42,000 jobs were added to Santa Clara County, but only 7,526 housing units created. During that same period there were over 1500 bank owned properties for sale, and over 4,200 housing units listed as "short sales" where the owner owes more to the bank than the house would sell for - those type of condition can make it much more difficult to fund housing development.

I find it very biased that the speakers are all slanted towards making the case of high density development in Palo Alto - as if Palo Alto has to carry the burden for all of Santa Clara County.

My perception of "Our Palo Alto" is it's a PR campaign for high density development, not a program to collect our feedback on what we want our city to be.

Posted by Hmmm, a resident of East Palo Alto
on Apr 28, 2014 at 11:21 pm

Hmmm is a registered user.

common sense - thank you for the corrections and your smart comments, which I agree with. The place comparisons just don't make sense.

The article does seem to get the idea across that your town is trying to shoulder too big of a burden. I'm all for affordable housing, but trying to cram in more places to live in a city bounded on one side by water is silly. That's not factoring in current traffic, lack of public transpo, etc. This all applies to immediate surrounding cities abutting the bay, too.

As much as I admire much of the smart planning for high density housing that exists in some parts of Europe, a good chunk of it was built *before* high population increases, not after, so duh - much easier to do. Also, much of it is ugly.

The push in this area for high density housing and cycling, plus the actual traffic increases are not a recipe for safety, if current trends are indicative.

Palo Alto hasn't been affordable, by & large, for quite sometime - why is it suddenly trying to be?

Posted by Robert, a resident of another community
on Apr 29, 2014 at 9:28 am

>Palo Alto hasn't been affordable, by & large, for quite sometime - why is it suddenly trying to be?

You know what they say when you find yourself in a hole, is to stop digging. There is a difference between Palo Alto being an expensive place to live, and being a place that is literally unaffordable, i.e. most people that work in the city, as well as most who live in it currently, couldn't afford to buy in here.

Posted by Crescent Park Dad, a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 29, 2014 at 9:49 am

Yet, every house that goes on the market or every rental that becomes available is snapped up before you can blink your eyes. So obviously there are plenty of people who can afford PA.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 29, 2014 at 10:03 am

Many teachers and police etc do not want to live in the community they live for good reasons. Also couples often work on different cities. Expecting people to want to live where they work is not realistic.

Posted by KK, a resident of Midtown
on Apr 29, 2014 at 10:43 am

Interesting that two of the comments above mention traffic, yet no one discusses the biggest creator of that problem -- the place I call Winchester University (they just can't stop building). When all the new buildings are finished, they are going to need thousands more low-level, poorly paid employees who cannot afford to live anywhere near PA. They will be commuting and adding to the already bad traffic.

I'm not an advocate of high-density living, but it would make sense not to add more and more employees if there isn't affordable housing available.

Posted by My heart Bleeds for those poor CEOs, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 29, 2014 at 11:33 am

What if those feckless CEOs supported a rollback of Prop 13 which provides incentives for people not to put their homes back on the market? It was large corporations that quietly funded the campaign for Prop 13 and created the problem in the first place. It is corporations that most benefit from Prop 13. Now they whine about the nasty side effects--fewer parcels and homes go on the market, leading to low supply in a period of high demand. Surprise! High prices. Fix the mess you made. Stop whining.

Posted by green gables, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 29, 2014 at 11:34 am

Many of the people who worked in Palo Alto cold not buy in this town - starting when I first moved here in 1967. Saratoga has NO low-income housing; let ABAG go bug them. If anyone wants to live where there is high density living, move to SAn Francisco, San Jose, Los Angles, New York City etc.

By the way firefights (who are also paramedics today) make around $150k in San Mateo County.

Posted by Stop building Offices, a resident of Los Altos Hills
on Apr 29, 2014 at 11:41 am

Every new development in Palo Alto seems to be for office space--and large office buildings. On University (replacing MacArthur Park) Park Blvd, El Camino at Page Mill, California Ave, etc. Put in mixed use--retail on first floor and apartments above. You cannot keep growing office space and ignore housing. If every office development adjacent to residential areas or transit was required to be mixed use, you would soon meet your quota for housing and maybe even decrease the traffic (when people can live near where they work or near transit).

Posted by Robert, a resident of another community
on Apr 29, 2014 at 11:46 am

>Saratoga has NO low-income housing; let ABAG go bug them.

ABAG probably won't bug them because they aren't a major high density employment center like Palo Alto.

Posted by Don't get it, a resident of another community
on Apr 29, 2014 at 12:01 pm

I don't understand why people single out teachers and fire fighter/ police officers for needing special deals for more affordable housing. There are many employees in every sector that can't afford housing in Palo Alto or other surrounding communities. Their jobs are no more or less important than others as a community requires workers from all sectors in order to thrive.

Posted by MAXM, a resident of El Carmelo School
on Apr 29, 2014 at 12:42 pm

What's it like to grow up there now??? (class of '66) Even possible?

Posted by Palo Alto Native , a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 29, 2014 at 3:51 pm

I agree with the insight provided by Common Sense. Defeating Measure D said NO to more dense housing in Palo Alto. As a home owner, our quality of life has been on a downward spiral since the mid 1980s given the dense development of commercial real estate, apartments, condos, and multifamily homes.

Here's the new message from Palo Altains: no more development.

New Start-ups can reside in the East Bay, East Palo Alto, or other parts of the country that can use their enterprise to revitalize those communities and spread the wealth of the new information economy.

Posted by Louie, a resident of Midtown
on Apr 29, 2014 at 4:24 pm

Several factors contribute to our problem. As the article says, employment is growing and housing is not. We have a City Council that is deluded into thinking that bikes are the answer. Imagine biking from Fremont every day ... and that's nearby!
We need a car traffic and parking solution, and a part of that is NOT more housing and office space.
The article fuGenevieve 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. rther states," NOTE: WE DON'T HAVE TO ACTUALLY BUILD THEM!
Finally, I've lived in Palo Alto for almost 40 years. The comments about Prop 13 are correct. We couldn't live here, where we raised our family and have been retired for 15 years if not for Prop 13.
When I was earning money and paid for my home, my salary was nowhere near what is the "average" today.
(And I didn't have to compete for housing with people who've cashed out stock options or with rich foreign nationals.)
The end result of Palo Alto's building and traffic policies is squeezing out those of us who spent years making the city and our school system what it is.

Posted by Palo Alto Native, a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 29, 2014 at 5:53 pm

Louie - excellent points. THANK YOU. Same on this end - given the huge increase in property values (driven by the Tech Industry, cashed out stock option types, foreign nationals, second Gold-Rush buyers from all over the nation) only PROP 13 allows a large portion of us 1978 and before residents to live here. Otherwise, we can not afford the property taxes on a retirement income. And if the trend continues (with urbanization and high tech density), then when the post 1978 buyers retire they too will either have to cash out and move or their kids who inherit their homes will have to do the same.

Of course, from a purely selfish perspective, if the urbanization of Palo Alto goes unabated and follows the same curve beginning in the early 1980s, then the current generation paying down on their homes may plan to move thirty-years from now anyways and won't care what Palo Alto looks like: a home that is just a cash cow for one's own retirement plans outside of the Bay Area or California. In contrast, I believe we are at a point where the density of housing, traffic, lack of parking, pollution, aggressive drivers, and crowds in general will begin to affect the value of all our properties. It certainly has impacted our quality of life.

Posted by resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 29, 2014 at 7:52 pm

The insane overdevelopment Downtown is creating a nightmare as the City
streets become more dangerous. Each of the last two mornings when I
went for coffee Downtown there were accidents just after I arrived, one on University and one on Ramona. On the way a bicyclist blew through a stop
sign at full speed as he signaled "left turn" in front of two cars, another potential accident. People need to understand the dimensions of the problems being created as more and more projects already approved are yet to be completed.The City is becoming a congested, ugly, commute and
construction zone, where everybody is in a hurry with delivery trucks clogging the streets and people searching for parking spaces. The infrastructure cannot handle this level of development. This City is being
over-run and absolutely ruined.

Posted by Sunshine, a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 29, 2014 at 10:51 pm

I first came to this area in 1964 and worked in Palo Alto. I did live in Palo Alto for a bit. I had two roommates. When I found a place on my own I moved to Mountain View. Many others who arrived at the same time did the same.
Palo alto has never been a low income place to live unless you could find an "in law" cottage or a room in a large house or had several roommates.
Many people I have known could buy a small cottage in palo alto, but decided to live in San Jose or the east bay because they wanted a newer or larger place.
Stop the development in palo alto.

Posted by bobgnote, a resident of Mountain View
on Apr 30, 2014 at 7:30 am

bobgnote is a registered user.

You have deleted my text, while claiming I entered the wrong verification number, but I entered the correct number.

This housing problem can't be solved, without comment, but I see your browser is too tricky, to allow saving, of text, while your verification code nuisance does not work, properly.

Your editorials aren't worth the trouble, of receiving e-mail. Unsubscribed!

Posted by HUTCH 7.62, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 30, 2014 at 2:02 pm

Lots of affordable housing in EPA......Just saying.......flame suit on....

Posted by Just Say no to ABAG, a resident of Midtown
on Apr 30, 2014 at 2:35 pm

Interesting to note that Palo Alto is hiring a consulting firm MIG to do the Council's dirty work. City Leaders don't want to deal with the heat of all their up zoning and stack and pack housing, so they hand it off to a committee and a consulting firm. I'm sure if the City supports ABAG numbers/allotments, they can find 1 City Planner to do this work. If they don't agree with ABAG's criteria then they should use the City Attorney to sue ABAG's numbers and criteria so that our City can start controlling its own land use decisions. Native Palo Altan

Posted by ABAG sux, a resident of Professorville
on May 1, 2014 at 11:05 am

Keep in mind that ABAG would. to be hassling us if so many business and corporations had not moved here! Far more people work here than live here, in what was always a bedroom community-- hence the imbalance Stop trying to turn this into an urban nightmare.

Posted by Just Saying, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 1, 2014 at 12:35 pm

Here's a recent thread about how to find a lot of those housing units without controversy, increasing traffic, or building new buildings:
Web Link

Posted by county numbers?, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 3, 2014 at 8:44 am

"the county added about 42,000 jobs since 2012, it has only constructed 7,526 homes, she said."

does anyone know where the info on jobs and housing come from?

how are new jobs reported, and are jobs lost netted out?

Posted by no reliable data, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 5, 2014 at 6:38 pm

county numbers?

"the county added about 42,000 jobs since 2012, it has only constructed 7,526 homes, she said."

does anyone know where the info on jobs and housing come from?

how are new jobs reported, and are jobs lost netted out?"

also wonder how reliable this data is

Posted by Resident 1, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on May 9, 2014 at 9:34 am

A "Open Forum" article appeared in the weekend papers - SF Chronicle - "Suburbs key to easing imbalance". This is written from the point of view of San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose which are - have been targeted for high density development. The article is lamenting that local small / suburban cities work to prohibit high density growth.

The article is pushing for regional planning which pushes the density development down into the suburbs where local companies locate their businesses - Facebook in Menlo Park; Google in Mountain View; Yahoo in Sunnyvale; Pleasanton - Safeway; San Ramon - Chevron; Cupertino - Apple. The Open Forum is authored by a San Francisco senior staff attorney at a civil rights law firm - Public Advocates, Inc.

The article misses that many of those companies have divisions in the downtown city of San Francisco. Most companies now have divisions scattered around where the younger employees live.

A central theme I see in this whole issue is that the ownership of property is being shifted from individuals to large developments owned by corporations. The individual is being replaced by the corporation as the owner of property. Not good.

Posted by palo alto resident, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on May 10, 2014 at 9:07 am

The other thing the article misses is that the suburbs don't have adequate public transportation nor do they have the walkability to services and essential items like grocery stores that are available in Cities.

The other thing that I wish they had commented on was the fact that Google wanted to build housing for its workers near the Googleplex in Mountain View and the City of Mountain View refused to let them. Doesn't make much sense to me....

Final thought - along El Camino in all of these towns, we should get over our fear of taller housing developments. Not 50 stories, but there could easily be 10-12 story buildings in a few spots in Palo Alto.

Posted by Resident 1-Adobe Meadows, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on May 10, 2014 at 11:06 am

Resident 1-Adobe Meadows is a registered user.

Mountain View has some big issues that the EPA is addressing. Moffett Field is a super fund site which precludes it for housing. There is seepage of toxic chemicals in the sewer system that is moving into the current housing areas. The EPA is busy tracking this and has community meetings it puts on to address this problem. Most closed military bases are super fund sites that require a lot of work to clean up. A lot of government attention and funding is being focused on the clean-up of this problem. Every location you look at may have some residing problem that qualifies how the property is used.

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