A coalition of Palo Alto residents, including eight former mayors, is petitioning the City Council to fix the city's affordable-housing crisis now.
The petition, which is spearheaded by Palo Alto Forward, a residents' group that advocates on housing and transportation solutions, has already garnered 1,026 signatures. The petitioners want the city to encourage construction of more studio apartments and housing over ground-floor retail, make it easier for homeowners to build second units on their property, allow housing with reduced parking-space requirements -- "car-free" and "car-light" housing -- in walkable and transit-accessible areas for residents who cannot own a car and encourage development of new senior housing.
Palo Alto Forward is pushing the reform with an eye for it to become part of the city's updated Comprehensive Plan. The city is currently crafting an update of this master plan for housing, development, transportation and quality of life. The plan will be the city's guiding document through 2030.
"The cost of living in Palo Alto has skyrocketed. As a result, we are seeing long-time neighbors move because they can no longer afford the rent," the group's petition states. "It is not unusual for Palo Alto workers to commute in from areas as far as Stockton, Gilroy and Tracy, putting severe strain on our roads and our climate. We are on the path to being a city composed only of long-time landowners and wealthy newcomers.
"This situation is the result of city policies that have discouraged new housing while encouraging more office space."
In addition to members of Palo Alto Forward and the group's supporters, the list of people who have signed the petition includes former mayors Nancy Shepherd, Sid Espinosa, Peter Drekmeier, Dena Mossar, Lanie Wheeler and Leland Levy; former Planning and Transportation Commission Chair Mark Michael and former Architectural Review Board Chair (and former planning commissioner) Lee Lippert.
In explaining his support, Lippert wrote that it is the city's "moral responsibility to provide an equitable variety of housing types, for people that perform both low paying jobs, as well as high-tech works earning top wages."
Lippert also noted that if the city's doesn't build enough low-income housing, "we are simply adding to the jobs housing imbalance, by having low-wage workers drive to their Palo Alto jobs; adding traffic and clogging our arterial roads, increasing our carbon footprint, and parking in our local neighborhoods."
The petition notes that Palo Alto has the nation's highest median rent, as well as the region's highest jobs-to-housing ratio (with about three jobs for every employed resident) because of the city's policies. While the city has limited office growth in its retail core to rein in parking and traffic congestion and help reduce the erosion of its retail stores, the housing side of the equation has not been addressed, the petitioners wrote.
The petition asks the council to allow homeowners to add secondary units on properties that can accommodate multiple-generation households and caretakers -- a reform that the City Council is set to consider later this year. Ordinances currently require two parking spaces, one covered and one uncovered, for each unit in most residential zoning districts. These requirements, as well as other distance regulations, make it nearly impossible for residents to build second units, proponents of cottages and secondary units have said.
Current policy also requires developers to build office space into any new four-story building in a commercial district. But the petitioners are asking for the city to encourage adding apartments and condominiums over the ground-floor retail.
For senior housing, the petitioners are asking the city to include alternatives such as co-housing, home sharing and mixed-use senior communities that include retail and services.
"A true fix will require a long-term focus and deep commitment. We believe, though, that we can maintain the character of our community while making changes to alleviate this imbalance. We ask the City Council to plan for more housing so that Palo Alto can be the community of opportunity it has historically been: a family-friendly city that welcomed interesting thinkers and doers of all ages and all incomes," the group wrote in the petition.