In broad support of its commitment to keep its low-income population within the city, the East Palo Alto City Council unanimously approved going forward with a 41-unit senior-housing development.
The council also approved a total $700,000 funding commitment toward the estimated $21.5 million project on Tuesday night. Councilwoman Donna Rutherford recused herself because her daughter works for MidPen Housing, which is one of the applicants.
The vote marks a significant commitment to the city's seniors, who represent just 6 percent of the city's population, Interim City Manager Carlos Martinez said. But the $700,000 would represent one third of the city's $2.1 million allocation for affordable-housing projects, he said.
Still, with an estimated 72 percent rise in San Mateo County's senior population by 2030, affordable senior housing will be an important element in the future. With the city's commitment, the University Avenue Senior Apartments project has a better chance of qualifying for up to $15 million in California Tax Credit Allocation Committee's (CTCAC) Low Income Housing Tax Credit program, representatives from MidPen Housing said.
The project has already received a $5.4 million commitment from San Mateo County. It can borrow $2.5 million from San Mateo County Section 8 programs, receive $600,000 from Community Development Block Grant programs and $400,000 from the federal home loan program.
The council previously committed $300,000 for the project in March 2014. MidPen Housing and local nonprofit EPA CAN DO requested the additional $400,000 in part to help their chances of getting the highly competitive CTCAC grant, which considers a municipality's contribution to a project.
The council approved the allocation with three stipulations forwarded by Councilman Ruben Abrica: that staff does due diligence to determine if the project costs are adequate and that the city will benefit in the long term from the development; that staff define how and if local seniors will be encouraged to apply for the housing; and that the payment is subject to up to three rounds of applying for the CTCAC program, to which the city can apply thrice in a year.
Councilman Larry Moody seconded the motion.
The proposal was roundly supported by community members and nonprofit organizations, including the Greenbelt Alliance. Natalie Dean, a Greenbelt representative, called the project "an excellent example of infill development that demonstrated the efficient use of land."
The project would relocate 30 residents and demolish four single-family homes and two duplexes on six parcels at 2358-2580 University Ave. to make way for 36 one-bedroom and five two-bedroom apartments for low-income seniors. About half of the units would be handicapped accessible and half would be handicapped-adaptable, architect Steven Rajninger said.
The development is situated within walking distance of the East Palo Alto Senior Center, the city library, a pharmacy, a market, the fire station and a bus stop. The development would offer a large community-center space, health and wellness center, community gardens, outdoor garden seating and grounds, barbecue, and it would be gated for the seniors' protection.
Eligibility would begin at age 62, but because the project is taking county funding, it would be open to all county seniors. A mechanism to give East Palo Alto seniors priority through a massive public-notice campaign would be in place, MidPen representatives said. The housing would serve seniors who pay more than 30 percent of their incomes to housing, Robert Jones, EPA CAN DO executive director, said.
Residents and low-income housing advocates applauded the project.
"We have a unique opportunity after 40 years to have totally senior housing in East Palo Alto," city Rent Stabilization Board member William Webster said.
Runnymede Gardens, which is two blocks away from the proposed development, is the city's only senior-designated housing.
Seniors Patricia Thibault and Dorothy Lewis said they fear being forced out of the city by escalating rents. Thibault, who lives in Section 8 housing in the Woodland-west side of the city, said her rent has soared, and she fears the building will be razed for a new development.
"I need this building built so I have somewhere to go in the future," she said.
Bernardo Huerta urged the council to add provisions to ensure that East Palo Alto residents receive priority for hiring at the apartments and during construction. Residents are not getting construction jobs on existing projects such as the storm-water channel and Cooley Landing, he said.
Mike Francois added that 75 to 80 percent of the housing should be given to East Palo Alto seniors.
"We lose on all of our deals," he said.
The council members approved amending the city's general plan from "general commercial" to "high density residential" and the zoning from "residential single family" (R1-5000) to "residential multifamily" (RM-1000) to allow for higher-density housing for the six contiguous parcels.
East Palo Alto is required to accommodate 467 housing units for its current housing-element cycle under Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG)requirements. ABAG is the Council of Governments for the Bay Area, which works with the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, a regional agency, to develop a regional growth plan for housing and transportation.
The plan is in accordance with the state's Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act of 2008, which seeks to reduce greenhouse gases by locating housing near public transportation and services.
A significant share of the new housing must be affordable to low-income residents. The senior-housing development would satisfy 64 percent of the city's required amount (a total of 64 units of low-income housing) for the period from 2014 to 2022, according to a city staff report.
Council members expressed some concern regarding a proposal to reduce parking requirements from 40 to 36 off-street spaces, some of which would be under the building with the remainder directly behind it.
A consultant's parking study found that the 36 spaces would be more than adequate. Based on other similar MidPen senior-housing developments, the University Avenue project's parking demand is estimated at about 25 spaces to accommodate residents, staff and visitors, architect Rajninger said. The study examined parking usage at 14 other senior communities as part of its conclusions.
At Runnymede Gardens, which is just down the street, there are 78 units and 32 parking spaces with four reserved for staff and guests. The manager has indicated that parking has never been a problem at the property as many of the residents depend on public transportation, he said.