News

Palo Alto looks to spur construction of more 'granny' apartments

Planning commission considers relaxing regulations, providing incentives for new second-dwelling units

In both size and quantity, "second-dwelling units" are a small solution to one of Palo Alto's colossal problems.

Known also as "accessory dwelling units," "in-law units" or "granny units," these additions to single-family homes make up a relatively minuscule proportion of the city's housing stock. Staff estimates that only about four secondary dwelling units get built annually in Palo Alto, according to the city's recently adopted Housing Element. The vision document commits the city to exploring ways to encourage more such units, though it projects that only 32 will be constructed in the next eight years -- hardly the kind of lift that housing advocates are pining for.

But despite their relative dearth and obscurity, granny units are now emerging as a key strategy for dealing with the city's housing shortage -- a problem that continues to grow more severe and urgent as living costs soar to new heights and as seniors, recent graduates and long-time residents are increasingly getting priced out on the city. On Wednesday night, several residents made a case at a Planning and Transportation Commission hearing that these units could play an important role in keeping Palo Alto more diverse and affordable.

Mary Jane Marcus, a resident of College Terrace, called them one of the "lowest hanging fruit" when it comes to solving the city's housing problem.

"I really want Palo Alto to be inclusive," Marcus told the commission. "I want to stick around here and I want us to be welcoming people and not keeping people out. I think this is one of the first ways we could do that."

Others voiced similar sentiments. Economist Steve Levy said the effort to promote more housing is about helping aging people who want to remain in Palo Alto; about keeping families together; about helping residents who need a little extra income; and about the character of the city that is losing its diversity.

Sandra Slater, co-founder of the citizens group Palo Alto Forward, said one area of the housing issue that the city should take a fresh look at its parking requirements. She noted that many young people today are less attached to their cars than their predecessors, given the availability of car-share services and companies like Uber and Lyft. Two cars, she said, take up about the same amount of space as a small second-dwelling unit, while three cars are about the size of a small unit with a bedroom.

"Let's make our neighborhoods about people, not parked cars," Slater said.

Housing advocates aren't alone in calling for more second-dwelling units. The City Council, which has been cautious about approving new housing developments, last year signaled its intent to encourage their construction in late 2015 when it endorsed a memo by three council members who argued that these units can serve as a promising source of affordable housing.

"Palo Alto's housing crisis and aging population have led many residents to call for a renewed discussion of this topic and timely, appropriate action," council members Greg Schmid, Cory Wolbach and Vice Mayor Greg Scharff wrote in an October 19 memo. "Palo Alto has, by some reports, the highest median rent in the country. We have high demand for housing at a variety of income levels, with limited supply."

The broader topic of promoting more housing is also featuring heavily in the council's ongoing discussions about sustainability. During a Monday night discussion of the topic, Wolbach made a case that restrictive housing policies and cumbersome approval processes around housing "cause racial and economical segregation."

"That is not a recipe for an equitable, sustainable community," Wolbach said. "That's not what Palo Alto residents want. Palo Altans do not dream about a racially and economically further segregated city beyond what we already have. They remember when we had more diversity and they want to return to that."

The memo from Wolbach, Scharff and Schmid directed the planning commission to consider ways to encourage more secondary-dwelling units, a task that the commission attacked with gusto on Wednesday night. Among the proposals they discussed was reducing the city's parking requirements and design restrictions for secondary-dwelling units and using city funds to provide incentives for property owners to develop these units.

Under the city's existing rules, homeowners looking to build accessory-dwelling units face so many design restrictions that most are disqualified from the get-go. Out of the city's roughly 15,000 residential parcels, only about 3,050 have lot sizes large enough to accommodate second-dwelling units under existing regulations. To build such a unit, a property owner must have a lot size 35 percent greater than the minimum lot size established in the district. Then there is the city's laundry list of design restrictions and requirements, including parking spaces, minimum setbacks and a stipulation that the second-dwelling unit have street access from a driveway in common with the main house to prevent the need for a new exit.

Amy French, the city's chief planning official, said that the lot-size requirement throws many properties off the list of potential sites. Those that do have the adequate lot size often have a hard time meeting the other development standards.

"Trying to have the perfect storm of the right size, the available parking and all of that -- it's hard for those 3,000 to have the right mix," French said. "If there are more parcels that could participate, they might have more options."

The lot-size requirement, as well as the parking guidelines, are among the issues that the commission (and, ultimately, the council) will likely explore in future meetings. Commissioner Eric Rosenblum echoed many of the speakers Wednesday when he cited the local population's changing demographics and shifting behaviors when it comes to transportation.

"There's clearly a decrease in dependence of cars around certain generations," Rosenblum said.

Rosenblum also observed that many houses now have "older people and smaller families," which has implications for the ratio of people to floor space. He urged the city's planning staff to further explore these trends.

"Is it the case that there's lots and lots of unused capacity that we're not considering?" Rosenblum asked.

Commissioners Michael Alcheck said he would support eliminating all parking requirements for second-dwelling units. He and Kate Downing also suggesting coming up with programs that would give homeowners incentives to add second-dwelling units. Alcheck proposed exploring a program that would provide no-interest loans for the construction of these units, provided the units would be rented out at below market rate to accommodate people who otherwise wouldn't be able to live in Palo Alto.

Alcheck also said the city should explore offering density bonuses to people who build secondary units, though he acknowledged the proposal could prove unpopular. In fact, the city's past discussions of the topic (in 2004) were marked by a tension between residents calling for more housing and those seeking to protect neighborhoods from the noise, privacy and parking impacts (perceived and real) that a second-dwelling unit would have on surrounding properties.

On Wednesday, only one side in this old debate showed up for the hearing. While Commissioner Asher Waldfogel said he feels strongly that income producing units in neighborhoods should be "low impact," most of his colleagues focused on ways to encourage these units, rather than curb their potential impacts.

Another question that the commission has yet to tackle is what to do about property owners who have built their secondary units illegally. One possibility is amnesty for those who step forward, though planning staff noted that property owners would have to show compliance with fire and safety codes for the second-dwelling unit before the city can have a discussion about what aspects of these units can remain out of compliance. Chair Adrian Fine encouraged staff to take a look at what other cities have done and return to the commission for more discussion of the topic.

"If we are trying to have people come forward with their illegal units and try to make them legal and conforming, we don't want the legislative jaws to clamp down on them," Fine said.

Comments

61 people like this
Posted by Annie
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 29, 2016 at 9:06 am

oh yes, let's just fill up all breathable space with little ticky tacky houses. And don't ever worry about parking. We have such abundant street parking everywhere that it will never be a problem.


64 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 29, 2016 at 9:21 am

Oh come on - who actually thinks these units will be "affordable?" They'll be airbnb rentals at market rate for high-paid tech workers, like everywhere else in Palo Alto. These people just don't like R1 zoning.


62 people like this
Posted by Norman Beamer
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 29, 2016 at 9:23 am

This is a consequence of [portion removed] the lame duck outgoing city council, who fired incumbent members of the Planning Commission and instead appointed anti-residentialist pie-in-the sky ideologues who, among other things, believe that cars are evil and high density is good.


37 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 29, 2016 at 9:39 am

I agree, this will do nothing positive. It will clog up our streets, clog up our schools, turn neighbor against neighbor, and do nothing to help traffic in town as the occupiers of these units will still need a car to shop and to find recreation outside town since we have little or nothing that passes for entertainment in the evenings unless you want a bar or a restaurant!


51 people like this
Posted by these already exist!
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 29, 2016 at 9:55 am

SO many people already have "granny" units already - just not legal ones! My neighbor recently redid a home, got inspected, then changed out the garage to accomodate AirBNB rentals. If we allowed people to EASILY make their units legale (allowing for safety such as smoke detectors, etc.) we would increase our on-paper housing stock for ABAG requirements. If we allowed people to build new units more easily, that would increase our real housing! I love the idea of being able to add units and having it be part of the BMR housing. Or teacher housing!


23 people like this
Posted by Renter
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 29, 2016 at 10:04 am

So ridiculous! Why don't we put some more controls on landlords who take advantage of renters, charge sky-high rents, and kick people in and out and wreck our neighborhoods!!! How about demand that ghost house owners actually join the neighborhoods!


19 people like this
Posted by almunday60
a resident of another community
on Jan 29, 2016 at 10:22 am

although sounds good, you will have homeowners renting these "granny" units to several people at the sametime [portion removed]....then you have cars taking up all available street parking for your neighbors too....I live in San Jose and that is what happens


51 people like this
Posted by They just don't get it
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 29, 2016 at 10:43 am

And I quote: "the city's past discussions of the topic (in 2004) were marked by a tension between residents calling for more housing and those seeking to protect neighborhoods from the noise, privacy and parking impacts (perceived and real) that a second-dwelling unit would have on surrounding properties."

You've got that part right. I'm feeling tense already. My neighborhood has already experienced an insane amount of increased traffic, noise and parking issues in recent years and my street has become a cut through street which I hate. Remember Measure D? We voted down more noise, loss of privacy, more traffic and more parking problems, by a wide margin. It's naive to expect that the granny units would be either inexpensive to rent or be rented to tenants without vehicles. We don't want any more density! Stop trying to force it on us. Besides that, if granny units are built in residential neighborhoods they won't be close to public transit. Isn't new housing supposed to be built close to public transit? NO MORE DENSITY without the infrastructure to support it, thought out and built IN ADVANCE of any increase in population density.


17 people like this
Posted by Mark Dinan
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Jan 29, 2016 at 10:44 am

Mark Dinan is a registered user.

Sure. Let's propose a very limited solution instead of allowing high density multi-story apartment buildings in downtown. Makes sense to me - doesn't really solve the problem, but allows homeowners to make $40k a year by renting out an in-law unit or two.


4 people like this
Posted by Mr.Recycle
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 29, 2016 at 10:44 am

[Post removed.]


26 people like this
Posted by LowHangingFruit
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 29, 2016 at 10:53 am

The low hanging fruit Is making sure existing housing is being used as HOUSING. Not startups, hacker houses, Airbnb, sitting empty, etc. Let's start there! Far more than 32 units could be recovered more quickly.


33 people like this
Posted by Granny lives at our house
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jan 29, 2016 at 11:03 am

Some people actually use their additional space for family members. As area housing becomes even more expensive perhaps more folks will appreciate multi-generational living arrangements. Will neighbors to object to Granny who wants to build and move into backyard cottage and let her kids and grandkids move into Granny's house?


39 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 29, 2016 at 11:13 am

I appreciate that there's a continuing effort to solve the City's problems and that there's a focus on housing and transportation. What flummoxes me is the apparent aversion to acknowledging the painfully obvious fact that Palo Alto and neighboring communities are fully saturated. Stuffed. Dense. Done. We went on a development jag and, arguably, overdid it. On what basis is it reasonable to assume that continuing at the past rate of development is a good thing to do? I am not coming at this from an anti-development perspective - just being practical. What good comes from cramming a size 12 foot(so to speak)into a size 8 shoe? Not only does that not work, it's painful. I'd like to see the leaders of this community be brave enough to take a breather and let market forces and nature take their course for a while.


22 people like this
Posted by 38 year resident
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 29, 2016 at 11:17 am

Norman Beamer......Your post is spot on.


15 people like this
Posted by Marie
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 29, 2016 at 11:18 am

Marie is a registered user.

And exactly how does Ms. Slater suggest that we enforce the no car rule for the new renter? If you add no parking when you add a second unit, will you be allowed to rent to someone with a car? And just how would this be enforced - by expecting neighbors to become the local police informers? How about adding a restriction that any renters not be allowed to buy a parking permit if the property is in the residential parking permit zone?

Given current zoning is not being enforced, the possibility of additional parking problems is almost guaranteed. Down the block from me, someone put in a 6 foot fence within a foot of the sidewalk, against code on a lot with multiple units. I reported it more than two years ago. Now they have put in a large "storage" shed next to the fence, surely against code as the fence itself should be five feet away. And what are the chances someone is living in that shed? Pretty high I think.

Any regulation to encourage more secondary units, which I would support if there was anyway to restrict them to family members or below market rents, should make sure to include permanent restrictions, including required off-street parking. Alternatively, If no additional parking is required, then renters should not be allowed to have cars or to purchase parking permits in areas that are in the residential parking permit areas. That would certainly lead to lower rents.


38 people like this
Posted by Stop it now
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 29, 2016 at 11:18 am

Get real, not everyone can afford to live in Palo Alto - that's life! We can't save the country! Keep this a family suburb, not a mini-S.F! We have children walking and riding their bikes to school and someday, one of them is going to get killed by a speeding car. Stop the traffic, stop the building! Someone must be getting paid off for these crazy decisions.


32 people like this
Posted by mutti
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jan 29, 2016 at 11:19 am

We have an in-law cottage on our property. It was built in 1947 to be the garage, but the owners lived in it while they built the actual house. This was when when south Palo Alto was unincorporated County, and our street was a dirt road, and Middlefield really did run down the middle of the carrot and lettuce fields. But, it was never turned back into a garage, and was always either a rental unit, or family members actually lived there.

Now it is "senior housing" as we have a retired woman who's been in it for about 8 years. She's paying about 1/2 what we could get on the current market, and 1/3 to 1/4 of what we'd get from Air BnB. But that's OK. Everyone needs housing! Two of our adult children have lived their for a year after college. I'll move there when my husband dies and I don't need a big house anymore.

In 1983 when we wanted to add on and make our 1200 sq ft home go up to 2,000 sq ft -- not exactly huge -- the planning department told us we'd have to tear down the cottage as non-conforming. We spent a lot of money and appealed to the City Council, who let it stand. About the same time they passed an ordinance allowing second units. Then someone built a 2600 sq ft 'cottage' on their big lot. So the City Council changed and limited the cottages to 900 sq ft. Then someone tried to build a 900 sq ft cottage with a 1,000 sq ft garage that included a bathroom and a 900 sq ft attic with 8 ft ceilings. Guess what was going to happen as soon as the building inspectors went away?? That one was denied, mostly because the driveway to get to it was only 7 ft wide.

So, cottages will never make a dent in our housing needs. Let's take Palo Alto Square and turn all those high rises into apartments -- near transit and Stanford and Industrial Park. That would help -- but not solve -- the housing problem.


30 people like this
Posted by good but need controls
a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 29, 2016 at 11:29 am

If the "granny units" are actually used to accommodate relatives or as reasonably priced rental units, this is indeed a step forward. However, we need controls like SF enacted to deter short-term rentals (i.e. Airbnb) for this ruling to have any positive impact.


13 people like this
Posted by Jonathan Brown
a resident of Ventura
on Jan 29, 2016 at 11:42 am

Count me on the side of "those seeking to protect neighborhoods from the noise, privacy and parking impacts [INEVITABLE] that a second-dwelling unit would have on surrounding properties." The new construction and redevelopment process is the place to discuss adding density, not ruining existing neighborhoods. In the meantime people think illegal second units are OK because the City does nothing to enforce existing rules. We all suffer from the resulting breakdown in people's respect for our rules, values, and common civility.


4 people like this
Posted by Hmmm
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Jan 29, 2016 at 12:17 pm

They Don't Get It - what has happened on your street? It sounds awful.


2 people like this
Posted by LookAtZoning
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 29, 2016 at 12:27 pm

The city should take a look at the R1-929 overlay (or combining) zoning designation. Under that overlay you need a larger lot size to build a secondary unit than you need with just plain R1 zoning. That's silly if you want to encourage granny units under the existing R1 rules. Some R1-929 lots have the lot size to support granny units if they were zoned R1 but can't under the R1-929 rules.


19 people like this
Posted by Steve Raney
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 29, 2016 at 12:35 pm

To me, granny units pass the Golden Rule test, so should be pursued and promoted.


47 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 29, 2016 at 12:50 pm

The article reports 'During a Monday night discussion of the topic, Wolbach made a case that restrictive housing policies and cumbersome approval processes around housing "cause racial and economical segregation.'

1) Here is the census data for Palo Alto:

1950 Caucasian: 96%, non-Caucasian 4%
1960 Caucasian: 95%, non-Caucasian 5%
1970 Caucasian: 93%, non-Caucasian 7%
1980 Caucasian: 90%, non-Caucasian 10%
1990 Caucasian: 85%, non-Caucasian 15%
2000 Caucasian: 76%, non-Caucasian 24%
2010 Caucasain: 64%, non-Caucasian 36%

Does Council Member Wolbach see a trend in the "racial" demographics? Would Council Member Wolbach support changing the election process so that the City Council reflects the population & economic diversity (the city Council is 100% Caucasian)?

I think it is divisive of Council Member Wolbach to play the race card to try and get his pro-development agenda passed. This is not civil discourse, which Council Member Wolbach campaigned on.

Everyone knows that 99% of granny units that are rented out will be at market rates, or be AirBnb'd.


51 people like this
Posted by We were fooled
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 29, 2016 at 1:14 pm

Councilman Wolbach's two-faced posture fooled a lot of people at the last election.
He is very skillful combining pious statements with pro-development votes. [Portion removed.] Let's hope he doesn't fool too many voters again.


22 people like this
Posted by ugh
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jan 29, 2016 at 2:29 pm

A lot of these posts are railing against changes to the ADU rules without even understanding what they are.

First of all, ever lot has a maximum square footage to which you can build a house - often called FAR. You can only build an ADU on a lot where you haven't exceeded your FAR. Essentially you can only build an ADU if your home is on the small side. So what's all the rattling about? If I have a 1600 sq ft house that I'm allowed to rebuild to a much larger square footage, then why I can't a build out that square footage as either an attached ADU that has its own door or a little cottage in the back?

The reality is that all of the giant houses in PA are now renting for like 7k and up. Who lives in those houses? Groups of roommates because two parents with two kids are not raking in that kind of money. So, you can encourage people to max out their house size and then it'll certainky be a home for roommates or you can encourage people to build small main homes and give the other people who are going to live on that same site anyway some privacy in an ADU, which would allow not just roommates but families to live in PA, too.

As for parking- we already have a solution to this. We have an RPP program in several areas of town that gives out street permits to residents and those without permits get towed. So if someone builds an ADU, just don't give them any additional permits. You're done. LOTS of people who rent in PA do so precisely so they don't have to have a car - they want to live here to commute by train or take a bike to work. Lots and lots of people here don't have cars and we have one of the lowest drive alone rates in the country with only 55% of our trips being done by car. We just need the policies and mechanisms in place to prioritize those people when it comes to housing. If your part of town doesn't have an RPP program, you should either get one or it means you don't have a parking problem and your streets can handle an extra car or two.


9 people like this
Posted by Opportunity Knocking
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 29, 2016 at 2:53 pm

Relax, everyone. ADUs are great studios, workshops, and full-service cabanas, as well as superb kiddie playhouses. It will doubtless be much easier to get a permit to build a studio, workshop, cabana, or playhouse if it's called an ADU. The city will never bother to enforce its usage.


19 people like this
Posted by mauricio
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jan 29, 2016 at 2:53 pm

What a terrible idea! This is exactly what I mean when I use the sardine can metaphor. The urban ideologies and density aficionados will not stop pushing their agenda until the small town and suburban core and qualities of Palo Alto disappear and we become a mini San francisco, where people need to constantly avoid bumping into each other, space is an unknown metaphor and parking is nearly mission impossible.


26 people like this
Posted by ugh
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jan 29, 2016 at 3:04 pm

this is what an ADU actually looks like: Web Link

Here's another: Web Link

One more: Web Link

It is not a "sardine can", or "filling up all the breathable air" or the end of the world or the death of suburbia or death star for that matter. You probably walk by houses with ADUs all the time and you never even notice that they're there.


37 people like this
Posted by 38 year resident
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 29, 2016 at 3:08 pm

@ we were fooled.......Wolbach portrayed himself differently when he was campaigning and once elected, the progressive liberal that he is came out in full bloom. I corresponded with him prior to the vote and he skirted around the issue that I inquired about while leading me to to believe that he favored residential priorities. I fell for it hook, line and sinker. Sorry I voted for him. i'll know better the next time around.


1 person likes this
Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 29, 2016 at 3:36 pm

If people feel strongly against "granny units", then put some sort of ordinance on the next ballot that restricts/forbids them.


11 people like this
Posted by Steve Raney
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 29, 2016 at 3:48 pm

Midtown resident,

There is a facts-based argument that Palo Alto is quite segregated. Specifically anti-Latino and anti-African American. There could be a "finding" in the Housing Element that PA has an historic pattern of racial discrimination that requires a remedy.

This map, Web Link, shows whites and Asians in PA, and nothing else, with diversity abutting the city borders.

Note that discrimination is in the eye of the oppressed (not something for the oppressors to opine on). If you chat with a group of Latinos about whether they want to live in PA, you get some surprising responses, "No way, PA is hostile to Latinos. I wouldn't feel comfortable." Try being African American in Palo Alto with kids and going to a school function - guaranteed to be greeted with micro-aggression.


Like this comment
Posted by Stoi
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 29, 2016 at 4:01 pm

[Post removed.]


8 people like this
Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 29, 2016 at 4:57 pm

> There could be a "finding" in the Housing Element
> that PA has an historic pattern of racial discrimination
> that requires a remedy

It’s unlikely that any such finding would stand a legal challenge—based on there not really being much truth to such a claim.

Before 1950, Palo Alto was a small town that grew from zero people in the late 1890s to about 24,000 around 1950. If there were to be any legitimate claims of racial discrimination in the historical Palo Alto—those claims would be more anti-Asian than against any other racial minority.

Palo Alto grew very quickly from 1950 until 1970, with Barron Park being added in/around 1976 to complete the picture. Most of the people who bought into South Palo Alto (south of Oregon to the Mountain View line) were returning GIs. The houses sold fairly quickly, and most of those who moved in stayed for a long time—reducing the yearly availability of existing housing for new residents.

It would be very difficult to prove that Latinos and Blacks were not allowed to buy homes in this town—because of discrimination.


10 people like this
Posted by Gale Johnson
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jan 29, 2016 at 6:41 pm

One of the dumbest ideas ever proposed for actually solving the so called housing problem. Stop talking about it. The historical facts are there. It will have infinitisimal impact. Stop building more offices for startups, build enough housing to accomodate the current employees commuting long distances that are clogging our streets. Please stop ruining our town that was once a fun and great place to live. I used to take pride, and maybe I was gloating also, when I told people I knew from other places in the country how great life was here in PA. Sadly, I can't do that anymore.


10 people like this
Posted by common sense
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 29, 2016 at 6:47 pm

Steve Raney@Crescent Park - how many legal cases have been prosecuted in Palo Alto, based on the Fair Housing act of 1968? None that I know of. That would be the only data that I know of that is relevant.

And how do you explain the US census data showing the Caucasian population dropping decade after decade?

And how does a granny unit have anything to do with racial discrimination? As far as I can see, whoever has the money can rent or buy in Palo Alto.


14 people like this
Posted by Merry
a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Jan 29, 2016 at 7:14 pm

Not everyone can live in Palo Alto, Those that do have a car. This granny unit issue is s fraud.


27 people like this
Posted by to Merry
a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 29, 2016 at 7:53 pm

Not true. Many Stanford grad students and post-docs live in Palo Alto and do not own cars. They bike to campus and rent cars when going out-of-town. In-law units make great housing for grad student/post-doc couples or small groups.


14 people like this
Posted by MD
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jan 29, 2016 at 8:33 pm

Such a fraud.... this next election is absolutely critical to get right or say good by to Palo Alto as a nice place to live and raise a family.... which to be honest, might have already reached the tipping point.


5 people like this
Posted by Steve Raney
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 29, 2016 at 8:56 pm

@Joe: agreed it would be difficult to prove malicious intent to deny housing to Latinos. What I’m talking about is different: Compare the percent of Latinos for Palo Alto versus Santa Clara County as a whole. The difference is striking and statistically significant. The City should make a finding that there is an historical discriminatory pattern – no proof of wrongdoing by any individuals, just a finding. Then undertake actions to remedy the pattern.

I have some old Census 2000 numbers:
Palo Alto: (72.8% white, 17.2% Asian, 4.6% Hispanic, 2.0% African American). Santa Clara County: (44.2% white, 25.4% Asian, 24.0% Hispanic, 2.6% African American).

@Common Sense: agreed that the percent of PA whites has gone down over the decades while the percent of Asian-Americans has gone up. My test for a discriminatory anti-Latino pattern above is different.


10 people like this
Posted by Winter
a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 29, 2016 at 9:26 pm

Common Sense - you state there surely could not be illegal housing discrimination in Palo Alto. That is far from true. For 10 yrs I worked with Midpeninsula Citizens for Fair Housing here in town. Among other things, I supervised investigations of all manner of illegal housing discrimination here - race, ethnicity, families with children, sexual orientation, disability, etc. - the whole list of horribles. We saw civil rights lawsuits succeed against individuals, corporations and banks that engaged in and profited from illegal discrimination. This wasn't in the distant past - I retired in 2000. It continues today no doubt. Boom times is when it is worse, for various reasons. Palo Alto has plenty of room for improvement.


10 people like this
Posted by Sam
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 29, 2016 at 9:36 pm

More granny units are a drop in the bucket if you think it willl affect the need for housing. There is no way and can be no way to enforce its type of use. It is not worth the time and effort of staff and council and will likely be a cash cow for owners who rent to people passing thru and use airbnb. Forget granny units.


3 people like this
Posted by garages?
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 29, 2016 at 10:59 pm

A number of illegal in-law units are converted garages. If they are legalized, would that mean that the property would no longer be required to have a garage or car-port?


29 people like this
Posted by mauricio
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jan 30, 2016 at 6:39 am

Palo Alto's future hinges on the next council elections. We must vote out as many pro development council members as possible and replace them with genuine residentialists. The new council would then have to appoint a TPC that is not inundated with PAF members.


10 people like this
Posted by Mark Michael
a resident of Community Center
on Jan 30, 2016 at 7:10 am

I am reading about the granny unit study session and the on-line comments from a road trip of about 3,000 miles before returning to Palo Alto. Many cities and towns on this trip have issues similar to Palo Alto, albeit from different factors. Affordable housing is in short supply most everywhere that is desirable as a place to live, work or visit. In that sense, Palo Alto isn't really all that special. There is an inevitable circle: attractive communities beget higher demand and lower supply because of the qualities that make them attractive. And this threatens the sustainability of those qualities. From a planning perspective, any town or city tends to have neighboring communities, which lessens the degree of control that can be exerted in isolation. ABAG rage takes similar forms almost everywhere we travel. "Leave us alone." "Don't ruin whatever wonderful qualities that brought us here ... [e.g., by letting in excess numbers of newcomers]."

It is encouraging for the Council to direct the PTC to hold a study session on planning questions. And the on-line debate is quite vigorous and insightful. However, Palo Alto should avoid "policy drift." An initiative that, at best, might contribute 30 additional housing units won't solve any of the long-term challenges. It does stir up anxiety and tension. Nowhere in the article or commentary is there a rigorous attempt to analyze the business case or economics of such a policy. What is the average value of land and residential square footage? If one had a large enough lot for a conforming unit, what would be the ROI of the construction cost and dedicated lot area? In other words, does this make any rational sense so that the potential for creating "affordable" or multi-generational housing might actually occur, much less on any aggregate scale that would make a difference?

Why not update the Comprehensive Plan at long last? If the long-term policy on growth should be to curtail further creation of office space, then so be it. If any new housing should be supported by infrastructure (including transit, parks, school capacity, services, etc.), then take this into account. If Palo Altans by a convincing majority prefer a suburban lifestyle with low-rise, R-1, expensive housing stock ... OK. But if the future may differ from the past, how should that challenge be met? New housing near transit? Changing demographics? Driverless cars? How would Palo Alto goals align with other communities in the Bay Area and leverage any resources or funding?


1 person likes this
Posted by Merry
a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Jan 30, 2016 at 7:45 am

The people and cars are here now. The problem is now. Stanford has there own issues and it is not granny units.
Housing, granny and otherwise comes with cars. Let's fix that today.
The urgency is today.





6 people like this
Posted by senor blogger
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jan 30, 2016 at 8:41 am

A step in the right direction.

BTW, How many aging grandmas do you know who drive?


12 people like this
Posted by Old Palo Alto Resident
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 30, 2016 at 9:25 am

California is still in drought, and will suffer more in the future.
When people talk about increasing density through granny units, unregulating AirBNB's, additional hotel rooms, and more housing on Stanford, hospital expansion, office expansion, etc.
I feel that we are forgetting the limiting factor - water supply.



7 people like this
Posted by Asher Waldfogel
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 30, 2016 at 10:28 am

@Mark Michael

I distributed an economic analysis memo before the ADU hearing. To cover construction costs in the Bay Area, a new detached ADU will need to rent for over $3000/month, well above the HUD affordable housing cost guideline for a household earning 120% of the Santa Clara County median income. Smaller units are nearly as expensive to build as larger ones. If multi generation is the issue it's still not clear why only 2% have taken advantage of the current rules.

I’d love to hear from anyone who’s considered building an ADU to understand why you did or didn’t move forward.

Asher Waldfogel, Planning & Transportation Commissioner


11 people like this
Posted by Been there, seen that
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 30, 2016 at 11:21 am

The garage turned granny unit on our small lot block resulted in no usable driveway and five new cars parked on the street every day/night. Result: children walking in the streets because they can't navigate the sidewalk in front of the house on their way to school, the street sweeper can't get at the leaves so they blow all over everyone's yard, and only one car can thread their way past the house at a time.

Enforce the existing zoning laws and stop all this infill. Better idea: restrict overnight parking.


9 people like this
Posted by pares
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 30, 2016 at 11:43 am

@been there:

We have the same problem as you -- not only was the garage converted but the owner has about 18 to 20 people living at his house. Code enforcement says you can have as many people as you want in your R-1 home. Doesn't make sense - motels and such have to meet safety and fire regulations and codes. So even if Palo Alto does not allow granny units, your neighbor is free to do what he/she wants in regards to tenants and their many cars.

We looked into adding a granny unit, and desire it either for ourselves or to rent out to at most two people. We learned we would have to add two off-site parking spaces and we can't do that. Meanwhile, said neighbor's tenants take up parking spaces in front of our house.

City council needs to fix this. I am for granny units is they are limited to two people (maybe at most 4 depending on size). But something should be done to restrict large boarding houses in R-1 zones.


13 people like this
Posted by greenacres
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 30, 2016 at 12:50 pm

I hope everyone with complaints will realize that complaining online will do little. Someone invoked Measure D. As one of the people who brought us Measure D, it was first and foremost about safety. Sadly, still safety is almost not in the conversation, when it should be front and center. Secondly, Measure D was about restoring power balance, which is the most essential ingredient of a well-functioning democracy - we knew that if we lost Measure D, citizens would have completely lost any say whatsoever when it came to development or any other actions of city council. (It was never about affordable housing and the cynical attempts to make it so were manipulative and devisive. Many efforts were made to seek working together to retain it, such as the working group that saved Terman Middle School from being developed while still creating a 92-unit affordable apartment complex, involving many of the same citizens. From my perspective, the loss of what might have been through collaboration was one of the tragedies and most important reasons to restore balance - city council would never have ignored the citizens like that through that whole development season or in planning if they thpught residents could win a land-use referendum, especially with the city attorney writing the ballot question and "impartial" analysis.)

But now the development faction in the council is showing their true colors. Testing the waters to see if the residents are still organized and paying attention. When Menlo Park had Brown Act problems not long ago with their election for Mayor, they had to scrap it and hold another, and wasn't there a resignation? Sorry, but the actions speak more to long-term collusion than even a simple one-time violation. What have Palo Alto citizens done about this? Nothing, justifying to themselves that they can't prove it. Things like that are never easy to prove, but even the prepared soeeches are concerning enough for residents to take a very good look at the rules and demand whatever oversight or investigation is due. Everyone complaining has to take it on themselves to do something, not assume someone else will do it for them, or nothing gets done.

If you do not act, then you have nothing to complain about, because Measure D gave residents far more leverage than before. There is clearly an attempt by the development faction to dominate again, and if residents don't do something now, there will be more ugly large opportunistic developments as usual and residents will have less power to do something. The residents of BV will be severely disadvantaged again in their negotiations if the owner is able to buy up density transfers, because that's how to bring in another large developer. So the BV residents and south palo alto residents lose again.

(I didn't look carefully, but wasn't there a notice of some 50-ft building to go up on El Camino for pumping sludge??? Can someone please clarify that? Maybe it was something normal, but if not, it would alarm me if I cared about having a council that didn't have to be bird dogged to avoid selling off the town.) The putting up density transfer rights for sale should have brought people out. Whether you thought it was worth fighting over in that instance or not, the lack of any citizen response will embolden those who are already doing an end-run around normal democratic process. If you care, be vigilant NOW, and don't wait for someone else to do it for you (I know this time I can't.) The mayoral election still reeks of collusion, perhaps even going back to last year. Maybe I'm wrong, maybe I'm right, regardless, citizens face a much tougher row if they do nothing but post on TS now.


6 people like this
Posted by mauricio
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jan 30, 2016 at 1:12 pm

There is a house on my block that was purchased last by a foreign buyer who is an absentee owner. Although it has only 3 bedrooms, I have counted 8 people who now live in that house and 8 cars. 4 are parked on the driveway and 4 on the curb. The city is obviously unwilling and/or unable to do anything about it. Palo Alto's population density is much higher than what we assume it to be because more and more homes are now used as unofficial motels for mostly short term residents. The last thing we need is granny units that would just increase the density and make traffic and parking much worse.


2 people like this
Posted by Cynic, Or Veteran?
a resident of University South
on Jan 30, 2016 at 1:16 pm

"...fired incumbent members of the Planning Commission and instead appointed anti-residentialist pie-in-the sky ideologues who, among other things, believe that cars are evil and high density is good."

Don't be misdirected. Their ideology, like the development interests they front for, is money to the max. The cars are bad stuff is a cynical sop to the actual salon-urbanist ideologues whose support they exploit for the real goal of making a lot of money through overdevelopment.


11 people like this
Posted by pares
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 30, 2016 at 1:54 pm

Although we wish we could add a granny unit (but can't because we can't meet the two off-street parking spaces), I do agree with most of the commenters here who are against adding granny units, since they are very right to be wary.

That's because you can stuff as many people as you want in your R-1 home and have as many cars too, so ditto for your cottage.

R-1 is supposed to be low density and you shouldn't have to live next to a boarding/motel business. City Council needs to cap the number of boarders/tenants in a R-1 house before allowing more granny units.


3 people like this
Posted by Robert
a resident of another community
on Jan 30, 2016 at 10:52 pm

"R-1 is supposed to be low density"

I'm not sure how you expect it to stay that way when you have a growing population and new construction is all but prohibited in your town. I suppose the next step would be to regulate rented rooms and multi generational households?


6 people like this
Posted by Misleading image
a resident of Community Center
on Jan 30, 2016 at 11:35 pm

Mark Michael is a member of the Planning Commission and should have identified himself as such, above.
To read his rambling comments and endless questions, you would think he is really undecided, but you would be wrong.
He us a business attorney and votes for increased development all the time. Without fail.


2 people like this
Posted by Victoria
a resident of Southgate
on Jan 31, 2016 at 8:04 am

Nothing against granny units, but you can't force the owners to rent the units below market or to people seeking long term housing in the area. I don't think this would have a large impact on the affordable housing crisis.


5 people like this
Posted by greenacres
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 31, 2016 at 9:05 am

If I could get help to afford an addition at this moment, so that we could use it for a teen room for a few years, I would be more than happy to rent out at BMR rates to a schoolteacher for a long time. We are walking distance to numerous schools.

The trouble is that they would have to slightly lower the sq ft lot size for us to even be allowed. Maybe they could do that only for people willing to go BMR for awhile. The time period should expire just like it does for all BMR units, and have a provision of repayment or continued contract if the house sells.


2 people like this
Posted by SteveU
a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 31, 2016 at 9:56 am

SteveU is a registered user.

I believe the Car problem needs to be solved first. That is very real.

Next, The unit should be for a Open Studio (1 Room+bath) for a single/couple only if it is separated from the main house by more than a Bathroom 'Privacy' type locked door.
Granny (R1) Units should be prohibited from listing on any short term rental site (the fine to exceed any gain expected). IMHO Granny units should be for 'Family', Aunts, cousins....


6 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 31, 2016 at 10:25 am

Thank you, Asher W, for the cost info you provided. I hope your request results in some useful information that you will share.

I recall the CC mtg at which council heard from various people wanting housing that would allow them to walk or bike to work. A few sounded willing to take the train. One even said something quasi-threatening along the lines of "we are your future and you'd better make this happen". Since when is that how good fortune comes about? I'd kind of like to live in Atherton but I had NO IDEA that all I had to do was go to City Council and place my order. Or suggest that they revamp their community to make room for me and others like me. Housing is a problem but the systematic destruction of a community is not a good way to solve it. If the erosion of this city continues, those wanting to live here will not have to wait long b/c the exodus of current homeowners will create their opportunity. Surely Council is not deliberately trying to accomplish this - or is it?


7 people like this
Posted by Grumpy Old Guy
a resident of Palo Alto Orchards
on Jan 31, 2016 at 10:59 am

The neighborhoods need to step up and say a loud no to this scheme.

Expansion of granny units will only burden city streets, parking, and the schools.
City government is too lazy to enforce its own laws (gas powered leaf blowers anyone?). Thus regardless of the restrictions you put on granny units, there will be little or no enforcement of the rules. Faster than you can wink an eye, granny makes way for the loveable college student, to the loveable college roommates, to the loveable school teachers and then to the loveable tourists on AirBnB with fair market rent. Who bears the costs? Street parking, neighborhood safety and our schools that are already struggling to keep up with the population. (who hasn't heard about the loveable retired homeowner who takes in students from overseas as their lawful temporary guardian so they can go to PA schools for a few cash bucks?)

But if it passes, I look forward to creating my multi-unit grannys for my retirement while I sip Mai-Tais in Hawaii.


14 people like this
Posted by mauricio
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jan 31, 2016 at 11:36 am

Before I moved to Palo Alto i actually much preferred to live in Woodside (still do), but realized that I couldn't afford to, so I settled on Palo Alto. How silly of me! I should have created an organization and named it perhaps WFW (woodside Forward), and kept appearing before the Woodside town council every few weeks to lobby for affordable housing. If I had only promised them I wouldn't own a car and use only public transportation, they would have allowed the construction of several high rise buildings and granny units I would have been able to afford.


2 people like this
Posted by Humble observer
a resident of Mountain View
on Jan 31, 2016 at 11:51 am

mauricio, I thought your recent serious, one-paragraph appraisal of the housing situation posted yesterday afternoon on a blog here was eloquent. Unfortunately the blogger deleted it. (I'd saved a copy.) Perhaps you could re-post it here?


1 person likes this
Posted by Robert
a resident of another community
on Jan 31, 2016 at 12:03 pm

The feeling here seems to be that you're somehow asking the community for a favor, or putting them out by allowing granny units. Granny units have the exact same impact as renting out a spare bedroom, having an adult child move back into your house... even having guests over for an extended stay. Are these things you feel should require special permission from the city council or neighbors? Or is this somehow "different" because you yourself may end up in this position?


9 people like this
Posted by pares
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 31, 2016 at 12:47 pm

@Robert:

You are right that "Granny units have the exact same impact as renting out a spare bedroom, having an adult child move back into your house" for those homeowners who do not intend to cram more and more tenants into their houses/cottages.

The problem is that Palo Alto has no limit on how many you can rent to in a house never designed to be a big boarding house. If someone rents out a bedroom or two or three, I have no problem with that. It's when a neighbor keeps adding and adding on more tenants with many, many cars. Code enforcement says that's ok although motels/boarding houses have to meet many fire, safety, and health codes, and provide parking.

How this is safe is beyond me. And a big boarding business with many cars does impact the neighborhood!


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Posted by Robert
a resident of another community
on Jan 31, 2016 at 1:32 pm

@pares

Seeing as the city and residents have prohibited the construction of "big boarding houses" with proper parking and so on, I'm not quite sure what sort of other outcome would be expected...


9 people like this
Posted by suburb
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 31, 2016 at 1:56 pm

Robert@another community - adding a granny unit is not the same as renting out a room; it's changing the zoning so that more square footage of living space can be built on a property, and then renting out that square footage.

The Palo Alto Forward people mantra use to be "higher density near mass transit"; but based on the quotes in the article, the Palo Alto Forward mantra is "higher density anywhere, including neighbors zoned for R-1, single family zoning", fundamentally changing the character of many of the neighborhoods.


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Posted by Robert
a resident of another community
on Jan 31, 2016 at 2:05 pm

@suburb

I was unaware that square footage contributed to traffic and put pressure on schools, which most of the complaints on this thread seem to be about, silly me.


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Posted by Jerry Underdal
a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 31, 2016 at 2:16 pm

Jerry Underdal is a registered user.

What would be the "cause celebre" capable of stirring residentialist passions across the city in 2016 in the way that PAHC's affordable housing project on Maybell did three years ago? A chastened, rebalanced city council whose members have all assumed the mantle of some form or other of residentialist isn't likely to offer that soft a target again.

PAF seems to be playing a significant role in framing issues of current city development in a manner reminiscent of PASZ and its predecessors' role during the last election cycle. It'll be interesting to see how the politics play out this time. Last cycle, residentialists gained a majority, but not a supermajority. They would seem well-positioned to get that super majority this fall, unless their narrative that all density increases, housing and office alike, must be resisted loses its appeal in the face of PAF's counter-narrative.


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Posted by suburb
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 31, 2016 at 2:51 pm

Robert@another community,

Yes, more square footage built specifically to be able to house more people causes more traffic, and more enrollment at schools. And even if the additional occupants use Uber/Lyft/etc or ZIpcar, it's still more traffic.


2 people like this
Posted by Robert
a resident of another community
on Jan 31, 2016 at 3:06 pm

@suburb

...so now you're saying that in order to be housed people require a certain amount of square footage? Your original complaint, which is still very accurate, was that people were packing existing houses, the exact opposite.


2 people like this
Posted by Commentator
a resident of Professorville
on Jan 31, 2016 at 5:18 pm

"It'll be interesting to see how the politics play out this time."

It is my experience that the good guys approach elections with polite timidity--speak no evil of the opposition. The bad guys go for the win.


2 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 31, 2016 at 8:16 pm

Old Palo Alto Resident: thank you for bringing up a critical issue: WATER. It is concerning that Palo Alto hasn't yet completed the required update to the Urban Water Management Plan. That document, and supply, are what govern water management. Given that the governing document is out of date it is hard to fathom how proposed developments can be approved. Why not require that all new developments meet a Zero Water Footprint - meaning they must offset whatever water they propose to use - prior to gaining approval?


3 people like this
Posted by Matt
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Feb 1, 2016 at 4:50 am

Love this, I should be able build whatever the heck I want on my property.


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Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Feb 2, 2016 at 1:21 am

... I'll move up-wind and build a hog farm.


1 person likes this
Posted by Norman
a resident of Menlo Park
on Feb 2, 2016 at 11:49 am

Makes me laugh that the uber-liberal Palo Altans want everything to stay the same, conserving the past, nothing should change. Whoa, does that mean that they are closet 'Conservatives'?


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Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Feb 2, 2016 at 3:33 pm

... you mean "Conservationists".


1 person likes this
Posted by balances and not afraid landowner
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 5, 2016 at 9:49 am

It seems to me that henever anyone says "everyone knows"... that is a signal that the argument is divisive and not based on data but on argument, i.e. personal advocacy.

I am a landowner, have rented at times, would like to have an ADU for my own purposes and not to "rent out at exorbitant prices) (but don't), have been in Palo Alto for decades. The argument over ADU's is a simple "low fruit" solution to expanding some housing for those who need it in Palo Alto. Adding ADU's will not add a parking dilemma as most of the cars in Palo Alto are here either because there are multiple people in a family (such as kids who don't necessarily need cars--this is a phenomenon of the last 30 years I suggest) or because of workers who bring in cars because they can't afford to live here. What I see is fear (not logic) in those who oppose a loosening of the requirements. Fear is understandable but not a reason to block others from doing what they need or wish to do on their own property.

Not addressing the housing issue means ignoring the existence of illegal rental units which are everywhere and increase in number. .Adding ADU's should be a non-issue: Low hanging fruit. Not a threat. But in Palo Alto, it is seen as a threat. And it becomes a platform to attack well meaning council members. Look elsewhere for real issues and don't be afraid to slightly increase legal rental units in Palo Alto


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Posted by Gale Johnson
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jun 6, 2016 at 12:05 pm

Gale Johnson is a registered user.

Thank you Mark Michael and Asher Waldfogel for your posts. I hope the studies take into account all aspects that you point out.
Writing a Colleague's memo is the easy part, and based on much idealism. In depth comprehensive studies is the tough job.


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