Like many cities up and down the Peninsula, Palo Alto is struggling to find the best strategy for standing up to the unreasonable targets for new housing construction imposed by the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG).
The regional agency, empowered by state legislation, is charged with determining how much new housing each city should be required to build between 2014 and 2022 based on growth estimates and the jobs-housing imbalance in that city.
In the case of Palo Alto, ABAG has determined the city must plan for 2,079 new housing units, a number city leaders and virtually everyone else say is unreasonable and not attainable. The goal would require the city to find sites for nearly 260 new homes a year or 21 every month over the eight-year period.
Despite the strong urging of Council members Larry Klein and Greg Schmid to protest the entire ABAG process, the City Council opted to pursue a more limited appeal aimed at reducing the mandate by 350 homes.
After already having its September protest to ABAG rebuffed, the council took a different course that may have a better chance of being considered. It simply asks that the 350 homes Stanford is already committed to building on Quarry Road west of El Camino Real be reassigned from the city to Santa Clara County's allocation.
Other cities are also suffering under the weight of heavy housing mandates, including Menlo Park, which was forced to settle a lawsuit brought by housing advocates for not updating the housing element of its General Plan since 1992. Menlo Park's agreement requires the city to approve sites for about 1,000 new housing units. The city is struggling to find enough new housing sites that are acceptable within the community. Other lawsuits by affordable housing advocates have targeted Pleasanton and Corte Madera, in Marin County.
Palo Alto has argued for years that it is a built-out city, saying the mandate is far too large and that the city has no way to ensure that such a large number of homes be built. The city also disagrees with ABAG's growth estimates, which are more aggressive than Department of Finance projections.
The authority for ABAG's quotas comes from Senate Bill 375, a law passed in 2008 that sets a goal of reducing emissions of greenhouse gases throughout the state and aims to build homes close to jobs and public transportation. Cities are expected to develop housing plans and zoning that will create the quotas established by ABAG. If the mandate is ignored the city could lose funding for transportation and other projects.
And while some communities, like job-rich Mountain View, have approved large new housing developments in order to meet the targets, most Palo Alto residents are not eager to see higher-density, in-fill housing.
Schmid, who has compiled his own demographic projections that find fault with the state's numbers, urged the council to challenge the methodology used by the state to reach the city's quota, rather than the specific numbers. Klein agreed, and told the council, "I think we're fighting for the soul of our city here. This is the issue I hear most often when I attend public events."
Other members, including newly elected member Marc Berman, were not swayed. Berman said that, "Rather than trying to rehash arguments or issues that we had with ABAG that they have already stated are not grounds for appeal, let's focus on the one area that is grounds for appeal."
With Klein dissenting, the council ultimately voted 8-1 to pursue the more narrow option that Mayor Greg Scharff called a "limited appeal to gain something -- the reduction of 350 units."
One encouraging development is the initiative by Assemblyman Rich Gordon to convene a meeting of city representatives early next month to hear their concerns and explore possible legislative remedies that might improve the current system. Gordon said he expects a dozen representatives from local jurisdictions to join him on a new committee he has formed to review the state's housing laws.
"The purpose is to clarify the issues and concerns. I've heard folks say 'It just doesn't work.' Another issue is how the state's Department of Finance makes its initial projections of housing needs; I've also heard concerns about the amount of time it takes for planning and review," he said.
Gordon has cautioned that he is not eager to change the state's law on housing mandates, but his willingness to hear the concerns of local leaders is an important step.