City proposes new incentives for affordable housing

Palo Alto planning commission backs new housing vision

Palo Alto marked a major milestone Wednesday when its planning commissioners unanimously approved a new vision for housing, one that includes incentives for affordable housing and encourages higher density near transit.

The Planning and Transportation Commission swiftly gave its stamp of approval to the city's new Housing Element, the only chapter of the Comprehensive Plan that is required by state law.

The chapter identifies property around the city that can potentially accommodate new housing. It also lays out a menu of programs and policies that the city plans to use to encourage housing development.

If implemented, it would allow for 1,988 more housing units -- a number that was assigned to Palo Alto by the Association of Bay Area Governments through a controversial process known as the Regional Housing Need Allocation.

State law requires the city to demonstrate that its zoning policies could accommodate these units, though it doesn't actually require the city to construct them. Cities that don't submit a Housing Element risk getting sued, losing out on grant funds and getting switched to a stricter schedule for updating the document -- a four-year cycle rather than an eight-year one.

Once adopted by the City Council, the Housing Element will theoretically guide the city's decisions on housing between 2015 and 2023. Its passage comes at a time when the community is deeply divided on the topic of growth, a debate that was at the heart of last year's Measure D campaign and that features prominently in the current election season.

This iteration of the housing document includes a new policy that gives incentives to property owners to consolidate small lots, said Tim Wong, senior planner who is leading the Housing Element effort. Consolidation could lead to more opportunities to build affordable housing.

Wong called the incentive one of the "significant" new programs in the revised Housing Element.

Otherwise, the new document is relatively conservative in that it proposes no specific zone changes or development proposals. It does, however, commit the city to consider amending the zoning code to allow "high-density residential" in mixed-use projects in commercial areas within half a mile of the two Caltrain stations.

It also allows the city to consider "limited exceptions" to the city's 50-foot height limit on buildings for property within one-quarter mile of the train stations, to encourage development of housing near transit.

Another new policy would enable more affordable housing by changing the city's rule that developments with five or more residential units include affordable housing. The new rule would make the below-market-rate program applicable to developments with three or more units.

Also in the new Housing Element is a policy that would amend the zoning code to provide additional incentives to developers who provide "extremely-low income" housing units, including reduced requirements for parking spaces, landscaping and fees.

Another policy allows for a new form of commerical-and-residential development on land that is too small to accommodate the multi-story dense development typically associated with mixed-use construction. The policy would allow a property owner with two adjacent sites to devote one site exclusively to housing and the other strictly to non-residential use.

The commission had already reviewed and commented extensively on the new document over a series of meetings earlier this year. On Wednesday, commissioners kept their comments brief, quickly approving the motion by Chair Mark Michael.

Michael lauded the document as one that, thanks to the hard work of the commission, the staff, the specially appointed Community Housing Panel and the City Council, has "passed scrutiny with the state." (In early September, Palo Alto was notified by the state Department of Housing and Community Development that its draft version "with revisions, meets the statutory requirements of state housing element law.")

Vice Chair Arthur Keller also supported the new document, though he lamented the fact that the city didn't advantage of the opportunity to evaluate the impact of new housing on local schools.

"This is one time we can consider (school impacts) and failing to do so is I think a problem," Keller said. "I wish we had spent more time thinking about school impacts, thinking about how much more crowding there would be in schools and how this would affect the quality of life for Palo Alto residents."

Others were generally pleased with the document, which the council is scheduled to consider in November. Commissioner Przemek Gardias recommended having the commission revisit the document every six months or so to see which policies have been effective and which housing sites actually ended up with housing.

Commissioner Eric Rosenblum noted that even with the vote, the city's conversation about housing policies is far from over.

"I know this is not the end, but the beginning of a lot of the real work," Rosenblum said.

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5 people like this
Posted by Jo Ann
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Oct 1, 2014 at 10:45 pm

Gee, Palo Alto can sure move quickly on increased density just before an election.

Too bad they can't move as quickly on major annoyances like the traffic lights at El Camino and Embarcadero where we've got traffic gridlocked into intersections where it takes years and years.

6 people like this
Posted by Johns
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 2, 2014 at 9:22 am

"State law requires the city to demonstrate that its zoning policies could accommodate these units, though it doesn't actually require the city to construct them."

This statement is the key. The city is not required! We are maxed out!

6 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 2, 2014 at 10:07 am

Nowhere in this article do I see any rules for parking.

Why can't underground parking be essential to any new development, retail or residential unless it is in the flood zone?

I am sickened when I see new developments with housing which obviously has insufficient parking which clogs up nearby streets. Loma Verde and Bayshore is one example of this. That street is always full of cars parked at any time of the day or night. Not only are the parked cars a problem, but pedestrians darting through parked cars to cross the street can't be seen easily and cars with doors opening ready to knock a bicyclist. The "bulb out" narrows the street at the intersection too which is supposed to be a safety feature, but in fact ends up causing less visibility for drivers, pedestrians and bikes. I feel that there is a major accident waiting to happen at this intersection due to poor visibility.

5 people like this
Posted by zero growth
a resident of Barron Park School
on Oct 2, 2014 at 10:35 am

Am I reading this wrong? It all sounds 'high-density' to me.

"Consolidation could lead to more opportunities to build affordable housing."

No doubt. And affordable housing is always going to lead to higher density. Land is too valuable. I would love affordable housing AND maintained density but if I had to pick it would be zero growth in Palo Alto. My one little vote might not mean much but I'm voting for the three PASZ candidates (Filseth, Kou, DuBois).

1 person likes this
Posted by Don't make a big deal out of this
a resident of Ventura
on Oct 2, 2014 at 10:52 am

This document exists for the purpose of ABAG and the money at stake. It is necessary and I don't think it should be construed as some sort of ridiculous attempt to overdevelop the city.

Like this comment
Posted by Robert
a resident of another community
on Oct 2, 2014 at 10:53 am

Unfortunately too many people have gotten "zero growth" confused with "zero new construction" or "zero new housing".

9 people like this
Posted by Anciana
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 2, 2014 at 11:08 am

Almost 2000 more housing units? TOO MANY! Gad, I used to be annoyed with the Residentialists, who I always thought of as NIMBYs -- but now I are one!

I have already posted comments on another string a few weeks ago saying that although I have always believed we should look at land use issues on a regional basis, I now think we should get the heck out of ABAG. If the City does everything ABAG demands, it will lose its character and be just another slurb.

Like this comment
Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 2, 2014 at 11:27 am

Comment from resident from Ventura - both the Ventura and North Palo Alto areas have the highest concentration of older apartments which could be targeted for removal and upgrade to multi-story new apartments. For people who live in those areas that should be a big concern, especially since most of El Camino has been rebuilt for new apartments. I think you have a higher percentage of renters vs home owners.

8 people like this
Posted by Really!
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Oct 2, 2014 at 11:49 am

And nobody considered the impact on schools? Maybe when we run out of space for classrooms, we could offer developers incentives to build classrooms on rooftops.

1 person likes this
Posted by cynic
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 2, 2014 at 2:27 pm

" And affordable housing is always going to lead to higher density."

That's not true. True affordable housing in this area is in older housing stock, not in constructing big high-density gilded fishbowls.

Such plans protect developers using affordable housing as a cover. I see nothing in here that protects the existing affordable housing of low-income residents and protects them from displacement, something the high-density allowances actually encourages because it's profitable to evict existing residents to put in high-density dwellings with a smattering of "affordable" units - and not for the same people. This focus on the BUILDINGS instead of on the PEOPLE favors the destruction of existing low-income housing in which existing low-income residents live.

This is such a sham. I find it no accident that they approved it so swiftly. Hmmm. Tim Wong should have been put on leave pending an ethics investigation for what he did at Maybell, and here he is in charge of the housing element that surprise, surprise, gets pushed through before the election.

5 people like this
Posted by Marie
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 2, 2014 at 2:48 pm

Marie is a registered user.

Why did the housing element need to include reduced parking requirements as an incentive for ultraslow income housing development? Isn't it enough to reduce fees and allow extra density? Reduced parking requirements should never be allowed given Palo Alto's parking deficit. In fact, extra public parking spots in perpetuity (no 20 year limits) should be the preferred public benefit for any development asking for additional density, IMHO.

1 person likes this
Posted by Barry
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 2, 2014 at 4:18 pm

[Post removed.]

4 people like this
Posted by cynic
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 2, 2014 at 4:54 pm

[Portion removed.]

I find it ironic and sickening that this story is back to back with the closure of the Buena Vista mobile home park, since this housing element touts what it does for affordable housing, all the while it furthers the incentives that are evicting residents from their affordable housing.

Like this comment
Posted by jerry99
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 2, 2014 at 5:31 pm

[Post removed.]

3 people like this
Posted by Sunshine
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 2, 2014 at 6:49 pm

There were once many small lower cost rentals in palo alto. They were in law units or small older houses that were available to rent at reasonable rates. These have gradually disappeared as homes and lots have been sold and a new house built there.
Housing in palo alto has always been in short supply and costly. When I started to work here I lived in many surrounding communities until I had saved enough to buy a home in palo alto. Yes, prices are high, however they are not out of line with the very high salaries received by employees at new electronics companies.
What ABAG fails to understand is that renters who work in palo alto often live in Los altos and Atherton. Palo alto must provide housing for many who live in nearby communities, but work in palo alto. It's time for ABAGTo include Atherton and Los altos in communities required to provide housing.
Stop ruining certain palo alto neighborhoods. Low income housing should be spread over the entire city.

1 person likes this
Posted by marty
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 2, 2014 at 7:39 pm

First I'd like to say that people have a right to feel like the city is overly allowing ill thought out projects, and further, that we don't have a lot of confidence in the work that is being done right.
However we need to work on the process instead of rejected growth all together. The ABAG process is a way to manage the growth of population in California to it does not spread out any more than needed and gobble up farmland, open space, habitat. We should be part of that effort in a better way than has been the case to date.
I think the only development we should encourage now should round us out as a community and reduce impact at the same time.
Affordable senior housing has no impact on schools. Affordable rental property provides housing for our workforce in studio units that have no school impact and allow workers to live near their work, reducing traffic. Affordable family housing should be in the mix for some of those folks who work here with families. We could do projects for underserved populations such as developmentally disabled so we can have a place for those of us who want to stay near support and family as they age to adulthood. Wouldn't it be great to know that in the event of an earthquake or major emergency, that we had enough workers in town to attend to basic utility emergencies, police emergencies, etc. What about affordable rental housing targeted to starting teachers?
We also need more common sense when evaluating developers projections about parking and traffic impact.
The guidelines around density and parking should be rigorously defined and maintained. A successful project that actually had the impact it projected would inspire some confidence. Having our Architectural Review Board require better solutions than were the case on some notable projects such as the JCC would also be big.

3 people like this
Posted by Not so glib, please
a resident of Esther Clark Park
on Oct 2, 2014 at 8:29 pm

"Affordable senior housing has no impact on schools."

False. Seniors bring their grandchildren so that they can attend Palo Alto schools.

"Affordable rental property provides housing for our workforce in studio units that have no school impact"

False. Many of the workforce will have children.

and "allow workers to live near their work, reducing traffic. "

False. The workers live near work, not their work. Their work will change far more often than their residence, so even if they are among the 2% or so
who initially live near work, they won't stay that way. And what about the 98% who never work near these new high density residences? They make the maximum negative impact, congesting an already congested area, stretching already over stretched resources.

"Affordable family housing should be in the mix for some of those folks who work here with families. "

Yes, but higher density ends up increasing the cost for the same quality of housing, and increasing the cost of real estate, and increasing the cost of renting.

6 people like this
Posted by cynic
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 2, 2014 at 9:49 pm

Why is growth in California a good thing? California is arid, and we are in a drought. In fact, I'm probably going to vote against the water bond because it comes across as a crutch to allow more unbridled development. Why shouldn't prices just be allowed to rise so that the marketplace works and people redevelop cities and whole regions of our nation desperately in need of the development dollars. This is a vast and once-great nation. Obviously, we can't put the entire nation in this space. So why does it even need to grow anymore than it has? Go drive to parts south in Milpitas and look at how much open space there is between giant apartments and giant company buildings. Then come back and realize how closed in everything has gotten because of all this inappropriate high-density building.

Allowing more high-density building simple brings in more people who are willing to densify Palo Alto further. Once there are exceptions, the people populating those exceptions do not see themselves as exceptions, they do not see why the rest of Palo Alto should not be like them, and they will push to make Palo Alto entirely like that. Atherton, Portola Valley, Woodside -- they draw a hard line, and as a consequence, no one is pushing them. But Palo Alto has made so many exceptions, we've lost control of our own destiny. If people like cities, there are cities to choose from within commuting distance on transit. There are actually pretty reasonable Bay Area prices within commuting distance, too, especially for people who like high density living.

It's time to take stock of the system, the costs, and review all development proposals in the context of how the whole system is affected. Only the new candidates are capable of even understanding how to do this, much less proposing it.

Until then, I hope people who are expressing reservations will take the initiative to challenge the housing element so the new city council can review it when they take office. Please. Time is short. There's no reason to hurry to adopt, We do not have nearly as tight a timeline as they claimed. Cities get an automatic 120 day extension past the end of January or February, that means we have until nearly this time next year without facing any consequences. On the other hand, as we've seen, developers and in particular, the City staff in charge of this revision, have shown a willingness to even subvert the public process to favor developers and developments.

2 people like this
Posted by boscoli
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 5, 2014 at 5:47 am

Palo Alto cannot afford anymore density, therefore it cannot and should not contemplate anymore housing units in unavailable space. Palo Alto is maxed out, period.

Like this comment
Posted by Jerry Underdal
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 5, 2014 at 1:43 pm

Jerry Underdal is a registered user.

Are we sure that we are at the optimum density even now? Look at the traffic, loss of views of the sky, water shortages and other concerns we already have. Perhaps the goal should be to reduce the density, not just prevent it from increasing. Lots of people who would have been happy in Woodside and Atherton, with their spacious properties and country-style roads, are wishing they could live closer to where the action is.

Is there a way to encourage combining our standard 6000 sq. ft. lots to make 12,000 or even 18,000 square ft. lots where Woodside- or Atherton-worthy homes could be built. Restrict them to single-story and mandate FAR and setback rules which would guarantee open space for more peeks at the sky. Bring low-density Atherton instead of high-density Manhattan to Palo Alto.

And forget about affordable housing.

2 people like this
Posted by cynic
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 5, 2014 at 2:21 pm

High density in an expensive area does not create affordability, it just creates a high-density expensive area. Ask the people in Manhattan.

If you want to remember about affordable housing, work for prevention of the rapid gentrification and displacement of existing residents, which has mostly been spurred by the high-density development you are pushing (using affordable housing as the excuse). The interests there align between keeping affordable housing and keeping a low-density neighborhood friendly town, but development interests conveniently like to ignore that. ("squirrel!! see Doug Moran's post)

The next place to pay attention to is Redwood City which inherited our planners and are poised to push out the low-income existing residents, using "affordable housing" high-density as a pretense.

Like this comment
Posted by george drysdale
a resident of Professorville
on Oct 6, 2014 at 10:35 pm

There is no such thing as "affordable housing" only subsidized housing. Prices should keep development in line. People who cannot afford to live in very high priced Palo Alto must live in a place where they can afford to live. Texas understands basic economics.

George Drysdale

1 person likes this
Posted by common sense
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 6, 2014 at 11:22 pm

In some ways, those who decide to purchase a BMR unit are only hurting themselves financially in the future. BMR units, are deed restricted for what they can resell for (typically some percent of the rate of inflation).

A buyer could have bought near the San Jose Train station in 2009 for a median price of $400,000 (there were places selling for as little as $200,000) in 2009. Today, the median price is $650,000, (with the least expensive place having sold for $350,000).

The train takes between 20 - 30 minutes between San Jose & Palo Alto (depending on if it is an express train or not).

A buyer of a BMR unit in Palo Alto would have about $25,000 in equity versus the San Jose buyer of at least $150,000, and perhaps $250,000. The San Jose buyer would need to take the train to Palo Alto - but many employers provide programs to defray the cost of using public transit.

So which would you choose?

Like this comment
Posted by Robert
a resident of another community
on Oct 7, 2014 at 8:23 am

"Texas understands basic economics."

Funny you cite that as an example, as one of the main reasons behind Texas cities being affordable, is that they actually allow new housing to be built.

Like this comment
Posted by Jerry Underdal
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 7, 2014 at 4:41 pm

Jerry Underdal is a registered user.

@Common sense

"So which would you choose?"

I'd choose to buy and live in Palo Alto because my house isn't an investment but a place to live. If it were just a financial matter and I was considering moving on in 5 to 7 years, I'd be inclined to follow what you've outlined above.

1 person likes this
Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 8, 2014 at 3:33 pm

This stream is titled "New Housing Vision". This is the same topic we have been discussing for how many years now? This is not a new vision - it is the same old vision. I think the planning commission needs to show they are doing something to justify their existence.

Why are you talking about Texas? Have you been there? They have vast undeveloped land that is uninhabitable until they invest in massive infrastructure. They have a different tax basis. They have different climate issues. They have different immigration issues. Half the drugs are filtering through the Rio Grande lower cities.
I know people who moved there because it was "cheaper" - but they are back kicking themselves that they now have to buy homes at current market rate. SO MUCH FOR THE DREAM. If you were born in Texas then you have a loyalty but that is it. For people born in other states they also have a loyalty but we are talking about people who are here and have to deal with "here" problems. George can go retire in Texas after he has made his money here.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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