Andrew Brackenbury graduated from Palo Alto High School in 1995. He works in Palo Alto and makes what he calls a "decent salary."
But merely "decent" won't get you a house in Palo Alto anymore. So, like many in his cohort, Brackenbury faced a tough choice: live with his parents or move elsewhere. He chose the former, though it's a temporary solution. His parents, he said Monday, will probably move in a not-too-distant future, and he will probably have to go elsewhere.
"I guess maybe I mistakenly thought it would be a goal to live in my hometown," Brackenbury said during a Monday night hearing on the city's long-term goals for land use. "That's just not possible and I've come to accept that."
Ten of his friends, all Paly graduates, struggle with the same dilemma, Brackenbury told the council.
"All of us went to great colleges, great grad schools, and not one of us can live in the city," Brackenbury said.
Jane Huang, who graduated from Gunn High School in 2005, expressed similar concerns. She currently shares housing in Barron Park with three other former Gunn students, but she knows plenty of other alums who are "living at home with parents and finding it very difficult to establish themselves as independent adults."
"I think our right to live here is as good as anyone else's," Huang told the council Monday. "A lot of us work in tech and we can't really leave because this is where the tech is."
The theme of inadequate housing dominated the public comments during the Monday night hearing on Palo Alto's official land-use bible, the Comprehensive Plan. The City Council is in the process of updating the document, which will guide the city's zoning policies and land-use decisions until 2030. The current plan was adopted in 1998 and was intended to guide the city until 2010.
While the council's long-lagging update of the Comprehensive Plan will probably stretch until at least 2017, the Monday night hearing offered an early chance for the public to comment on one of its most important chapters: Land Use and Community Design.
The public testimony also offered an early preview for what will surely be one of the council's premier challenges: building more housing in a city with sky-high property values and a shortage of vacant land.
The council, for its part, refrained from commenting too much on the topic of land use. Instead, after hearing from the public and spending more than two hours setting the goals for the Community Services and Facilities chapter, council members voted to defer the housing discussion until the end of this month, or possibly early November.
The goals for the Community Services chapter include a combination of old and new. The council agreed to retain existing goals that pertain to efficient service delivery, good customer service and the maintenance of parks and public facilities. They also added two new goals one pertaining to plans for the future and another focusing on health and well-being.
But while the council focused exclusively on community services, nearly every resident who addressed the council talked about the need for more housing. Several residents said the city's housing shortage is making it tougher to retain talent.
Steve Downing, who works at Palantir, told the council that one of his colleagues, a man in his 40s, recently announced his plan to leave. Downing said he could muster no response when the employee cited housing as the reason he was leaving.
"He told me he wanted to own a home someday, and I had nothing for him," Downing said.
A.C. Johnston, a partner at the law firm Morrison Foerster, said his company is also losing talent because of Palo Alto's housing shortage. Just last week, he said, a young lawyer made the decision to leave.
"It's important both for the continued health of our community, for diversity of community, that there be a broader range of options available so that young people can live in Palo Alto, hopefully closer to their jobs, so that city employees who serve our community can live in the community and so seniors who live in Palo Alto and want to downsize can do so without having to move out of our community," Johnston said.
Palo Alto's shortage of affordable housing has long been widely acknowledged. In the last National Citizens Survey, only 27 percent of the survey respondents gave the city the two highest grades when it comes to a "variety of housing options." When asked about "availability of affordable quality housing," the number fell to 11 percent.
Judy Kleinberg, a former mayor who now serves as CEO of the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce, urged the council to carefully consider the living habits of the millennial generation as it comes up with "creative policies and incentives that encourage the kind of housing and transit and parking and schools and parks that you know will attract the kind of people that give Palo Alto its incredible residents and employees."
She noted that two of her children, one an executive at Twitter and the other an executive at Google, now live in Singapore and have no plans to move to Palo Alto because the cost of living here is so "ridiculous." The lack of housing options for seniors who may wish to downsize further exacerbates the housing crunch, she added.
"Seniors can't leave their homes and go down into something smaller because it's all too expensive," Kleinberg said. "So they stay in their homes. That means that supply is smaller and that means prices go up. It's a vicious cycle and not a healthy one."
Some residents encouraged "infill" development such as more in-law apartments, or "granny units" as they are popularly known.
Arthur Keller, a former planning commissioner who currently serves as co-chair of the Citizen Advisory Committee, noted that less than 4 percent of the city's housing stock is studio units and less than 17 percent are one-bedroom units. At the same time, more than half of the city's households are one- and two-person units, he said.
"So there are a lot of seniors and no places for them to go; a lot of young people and no place for them to go, except sharing larger units," Keller said. "That's something to think about when we're deciding what kind of housing might be appropriate and what kind we might encourage."
While about 20 speakers called for more housing, the council focused exclusively on parks and community services. As in the past, much of the discussion focused on process rather than policies with council members debating the necessity of including "narratives" along with goals that clarify what the goals mean. The long motion that the council ultimately adopted directed staff to return at a later date for a "more substantive discussion" of narratives.
Council members also generally agreed not to scrap at this time an existing policy that guides development of new parks. The policy adopts National Recreation and Park Association standards, which call for parks to be provided within half a mile of all residential and employment areas. The guidelines also state that a neighborhood park must be at least 2 acres in side and that a "district park" should be at least 5 acres.
The council ultimately agreed with staff's recommendation to reconsider this policy as part of a concurrent Parks, Trails, Open Space and Recreation Master Plan, which is scheduled to be completed next year.
On Monday night, however, several members said they are leaning toward retaining the policy.
Councilman Tom DuBois called the policy "important" and noted that it's "one of the few places where we have a quantitative metric."
Councilman Eric Filseth took a similar stance and said that parks is one area that the community considers to be "very important."
"Obviously there is a tension between the cost of park space and the rate of growth in the population in town, but I think we have to deal with that tension," Filseth said. "Taking it out for the Comprehensive Plan and hiding it doesn't mean the problem is going to go away, so I think it needs to stay."