Palo Alto Weekly

News - June 13, 2014

East Palo Alto residents express support for more affordable housing

City offers three scenarios for added housing in city's Westside

by Sue Dremann

During a town hall meeting Monday night, more than 100 East Palo Alto residents said they are willing to support higher density housing — including up to 8-story-tall buildings — to preserve and expand low-income and affordable housing in the community.

The meeting was held to define a vision for the city's Westside Area Plan and gauge residents' opinions on future development in the area. Westside lies west of U.S. Highway 101 and includes the Woodland, Willows and University Circle neighborhoods, stretching from Menalto Avenue to the Palo Alto border at San Francisquito Creek and Highway 101 to Woodland Avenue.

The area is part of the city's "Vista 2035" vision plan, which serves as a blueprint for what residents want the city's housing, parking, safety and quality of life to look like for future generations. The plan will replace the city's state-mandated 1999 general plan, which itself was an update to East Palo Alto's 1986 general plan.

The Westside area contains the city's largest chunk of rent-controlled housing — 2,185 units, including 1,800 units owned by one landlord. The 160-acre area comprises roughly half of the city's rental housing with a total of 2,700 units, city planner Anne Cook said.

High turnover among tenants means that even rent-controlled units are getting more expensive. The city's rent-stabilization ordinance only protects a unit's rental price while a particular renter lives in it. When a renter moves out, the landlord can raise the rent to the current market rate. Then, the overall rent increase in any 12-month period may not exceed 10 percent.

A full 75 percent of renters have lived in their apartments for less than four years; only 5 percent have lived in their units for 10 or more years, Cook said.

Many East Palo Alto residents cannot pay for even so-called affordable housing, she added. Affordable housing is based on the area median income, which in San Mateo County is $101,200. For a family of four, "extremely low income" — 30 percent of the area median — amounts to $30,360. "Very low income" is $30,361 to $50,600; "low income" is $50,601 to $80,960; and "moderate income" is $80,961 to $121,440.

Nearly all East Palo Alto households earn less than $75,000 a year; 35 percent make less than $35,000 a year, according to city statistics.

At Monday's meeting, residents overwhelmingly voiced their support for permanent affordable housing, for preventing the displacement of existing residents, for preserving the "right of return" for existing residents if they are moved during construction; and for maintaining the city's rent-stabilization program.

They also supported to varying degrees health and safety improvements such as new sidewalks, parks, community centers, lighting and safer access to and pathways across Highway 101, as well as development that could improve the city's bottom line.

Three development scenarios presented Monday — based on research and discussions by the Westside Area Plan Advisory Committee and city planning staff — would increase the amount of low-income housing through the construction of buildings that would range from four to eight stories high.

Under one scenario, Westside housing could increase to 3,500 to 4,500 units. Some would be permanent affordable housing and some would be rent-stabilized. The increase would yield 1,000 to 2,000 new units and improve some streets and other infrastructure, enhance retail and gathering spaces, and improve walkways across Highway 101.

A second and more popular alternative among residents envisions a hotel, office and high-density-housing development that would add the same amount of housing as the first scenario but would include the most permanent affordable housing units due to subsidies from the hotel and offices. The plan proposes a 300,000- to 600,000-square-foot office complex with retail along a main street. Revenue from the commercial space would help the city to improve the area's lagging infrastructure and would add new streets, parks and open space, including a 1- to 2-acre public park, mini parks and a green-belt space along San Francisquito Creek, according to the plan. This scenario also promised increased parking for residents.

A third scenario would build mixed-use, high-density housing, adding 1,500 to 3,000 new residential units. The option offers a high number of permanent affordable housing units with retail space, new parks, increased parking and new streets and infrastructure.

Residents Monday favored the second and third alternatives, but they wanted assurances that money from the commercial developments would largely stay within the Westside area and not be disbursed to other city projects. Some residents also questioned whether all commercial development would be squeezed into the Westside area rather than added to east of 101, where there is more land.

The meeting also polled residents about the scale of development: Did they prefer 100 apartments in an eight-story building with 20 permanent affordable units; 50 apartments in a five-story building with 10 permanent affordable units; or 20 townhomes in a two- to-three-story building with four permanent affordable units? Residents said they would opt for greater density and building height if it meant more affordable housing.

Residents also weighed in on levels of affordability they would like to see in new housing projects. For the same amount of subsidy, an affordable-housing developer could build more units for moderate-income households or fewer units for lower-income households, staff said.

The majority of residents wanted the housing mix to largely include units for low-income and very-low-income residents.

Millicent Grant, president of the East Palo Alto Senior Center, cautioned that many seniors fall into the extremely low-income category and said there needed to be enough extremely low-income rental units to accommodate them.

"What about having senior housing? Don't forget your seniors. They are the ones who created this city," she said.

In spite of their support for housing, those at the meeting agreed they don't want a repeat of the University Circle development, which demolished the run down Whiskey Gulch — the closest thing the city had to a downtown — and turned it into offices for law firms. The site has no real access or amenities for the community, residents said.

"It's a barricade to the community; it's a project that turned its back on the community," Cook said.

Residents also want more over-the-freeway connections that will help unite the west and east sides of the city.

The Westside Area Plan Advisory Committee will meet to discuss Monday's results on June 16 at 6:30 p.m. at East Palo Alto City Hall. The City Council will receive an update on July 2. Another town hall meeting will take place in September, with a meeting about the draft plan in October.

The Westside Area Plan can be viewed at vista2035epa.org/west-side-area-plan/

TALK ABOUT IT

What do you think of the proposed Westside alternatives? How should the City of East Palo Alto respond to residents' desires for more affordable housing? Voice your opinion on Town Square, the community discussion forum on PaloAltoOnline.com.

Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be emailed at sdremann@paweekly.com.

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