Palo Alto commission to consider new form of affordable housing

Guided by state law, Palo Alto could allow homeowners to add kitchenettes to bedrooms for rentals

Palo Alto's big housing crisis could be eased by a small, new form of affordable housing: a converted bedroom with a kitchenette in a resident's home, according to a new staff report from the city's planning department.

Spurred by new state law that allows cities to set standards for so-called "junior accessory dwelling units," the self-contained housing would be no larger than 500 square feet and have its own entrance, separate from the main house's.

The allowance of junior units in the city would represent "a significant policy shift," the report states, effectively permitting new rental housing on all of the city's single-family properties, which number in the thousands.

On Wednesday, the city's Planning and Transportation Commission will review staff proposals both for the new junior units and for tweaking existing regulations of accessory dwelling units (also known as "granny units," "in-law units," and "secondary-dwelling units").

In part, these changes are necessary to conform city regulations to state Senate Bill 1069, Assembly Bill 2299 and Assembly Bill 2406, which Governor Brown signed into law in September and which will take effect on Jan. 1, 2017.

City staff, however, have also proposed additions to those changes to motivate homeowners to construct affordable housing while also addressing concerns about the new rentals' effects on neighborhoods' quality of life.

Palo Alto has been grappling with skyrocketing housing prices and its aging population for several years.

"Housing costs in Palo Alto are out of reach for many families," the draft ordinance states, "and a majority of owners and renters pay 30 percent or more of their gross income for housing, and many pay 50 percent or more."

To some people, including city officials, accessory housing -- which is built on existing properties, and in the case of junior units, using the existing space of the main house -- appears to be a low-cost and feasible solution.

Such new rentals could provide homeowners who are aged or have disabilities with a way to earn income and give low-income people a place to live that they can afford.

Up until now, however, few accessory units have been built under current city regulations. City officials and residents alike have cited numerous hurdles for homeowners who wish to build such units.

"Recent studies show that local standards like Palo Alto's, perhaps unintentionally, prevent homeowners from building ADUs with standards like lot coverage, large set-backs, off-street parking, or costly construction requirements," the ordinance states.

Among the host of proposed changes that the commission will consider:

• The parking requirement for an accessory unit would be reduced from two spaces (one covered) to one space per unit or one space per bedroom, whichever is greater. Parking exceptions would be made if the unit is within a half-mile of public transit or a block from a car-share vehicle; the neighborhood requires on-street parking permits; or the housing is in an architecturally and historically significant district.

• Junior units would require no parking, and they could be built on any single-family property regardless of its size.

• Garages could be converted without abiding by current setback requirements.

• The homeowner must live in either the main house or the accessory or junior unit.

• Only one accessory unit or one junior unit would be permitted per lot.

• The accessory unit could not be sold separately from the main house.

• No accessory or junior units could be rented for periods of less than 30 days.

The planning commission Wednesday night will also consider modifications to the city's affordable-housing impact fees charged to developers.

The meeting will begin at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 30, in the Council Chambers at City Hall, 250 Hamilton Ave.


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30 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 30, 2016 at 8:10 am

This article mentions parking which is a big concern.

However, a bedroom with a kitchenette is mentioned but no mention of bathroom facilities. At the very least, a wetroom configuration must be part of such a unit.

How will these units be assessed for tax purposes?

Will these units have separate utilities both in billing and trash collection, etc.?

Will these units be single occupancy only and how can the number of residents to these units be monitored, or should they be monitored? Will they contain a couple, a single parent and child, or a high school student attempting to get into one of our high schools?

Will there be oversight as to the leases on these units?

There is a great deal to be wary of in this idea.

46 people like this
Posted by Gift horse for Ghost Houses
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 30, 2016 at 8:29 am

I don't understand the difference between bullets one and two. They seem to contradict each other. The half mile exception from public transit is a scam anyway.

Either way, the additional resident will just park in front of a neighbors house because there are no laws to prevent it. Now we will all enjoy the process of driving around the block looking for a place to park when we come home. For some strange reason, a lot of transplants from the east coast seem to see this as a right of passage.

Ii see this as a ghost house bonanza. The clause to require occupancy of the original owner is likely illegal or unenforceable. We don't even do it now for the main house.

It will just supply an additional $1,500-$1,800 per month into the pocket of distant [portion removed] landlords as the impact to our community is passed on to neighbors. Another unintended consequence is it will change the economics to increase the price of single family homes because higher mortgages will now be cash flow positive.

Instantly, the price of a home with an accessory unit is worth an additional $350,000. Young families looking to settle in Palo Alto will now confront an average house price of $2.85M instead of $2.5M. If they are lucky, maybe they can rent one of those new junior units and drive up the monthly rent to over $2K per month and start the vicious cycle all over again. Thus, the folly of government bureaucrats trying to manipulate a market they know nothing about and cannot control.

From experience, this new regulation will only help enable boarding houses for international students to crowd our schools, hack shacks for the latest software startups and Kato Kaelin units for visiting academics or medical professionals. Sadly, it won't help the under privelaged at all.

2 people like this
Posted by Jocelyn Dong
editor of the Palo Alto Weekly
on Nov 30, 2016 at 9:20 am

Jocelyn Dong is a registered user.

All good questions, which the commission will have to sort through. About bathroom facilities, the report states the following: "A junior accessory dwelling unit may include separate sanitation facilities, or may share sanitation facilities with the existing structure."

@Gift Horse
About parking, the first bullet refers to ADUs but not the new proposed junior ADUs. The reason junior units wouldn't require parking is as follows, from the report: "It would also not require any additional parking for these units, which would be added within existing building space. The thinking is that JADUs would not increase the occupant capacity of a home."

30 people like this
Posted by Dan
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 30, 2016 at 10:08 am

No thank you. We purchased a SFH in a SFH neighborhood to avoid the mess of overflow renters stuffed into inadequate housing clogging up streets with parked cars. Hopefully there are CC&Rs in many neighborhoods that would have legal precedence over any such law from the city, making anyone trying to use these Junior ADUs as income generating rentals subject to lawsuit.

42 people like this
Posted by Ugh!
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 30, 2016 at 10:33 am

This is NOT a good idea. The only people who will do this are the foreign investors [portion removed.]
They will further enrich themselves by charging e orbitant rents for these tiny units, make their rental houses into boarding houses ( ick), and then the rent money will simply go offshore-- to China, S Korea, or Russia.

This would be tantamount to financial rape of tenants!

Before something like this is instituted, there should be regulatory control of foreign real estate investment FIRST!

18 people like this
Posted by Airbnb concern
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Nov 30, 2016 at 11:14 am

IMO this is a reasonable approach but needs to be done concomitantly with regulation of short-term rentals (i.e. Airbnb) to ensure that these new affordable housing units are actually used to house low/moderate income individuals rather than tourists.

25 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 30, 2016 at 11:40 am

I'm OK with long-term rentals, but no Airbnb please. Those folks make our housing problem worse, not better.

26 people like this
Posted by Barbara
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 30, 2016 at 12:13 pm

NO, NO to this "affordable housing" idea! People don't have to live in Palo Alto; we are already crowded to the max and with too many cars parked on city streets 24/7. There are neighboring cities that can provide housing. The Peninsula is very tight - not much distance between Mt. View, Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Redwood City.

19 people like this
Posted by Gale Johnson
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Nov 30, 2016 at 12:53 pm

Bad idea and city staff and the PTC should just stop spending time on this, and if it ever makes its way to CC, I suggest they shut it down. I have spoken out on this previously online and I've pointed out so many flaws and things that can go wrong with this idea. CC members, please listen to your constituents. Don't proceed with ideas that you think are good and that you think are good for us residents. Talk to us first. Don't force us to go down to council meetings to voice our opinions. Come to us. And if this gets approved I'll be voting a lot differently in two years. I hope proponents of this idea have short terms on CC.

@Resident: great questions and you even had some that I hadn't thought of before.

@Gift horse for Ghost Houses: I'm not sure where the money would go, but for sure, the rental costs, other than for family members would be way more than $1500-$1800 a month. I would put that at $2000-$3500, because there will be conversion costs that the homeowner will have to recoup.

Minimal impact on neighborhoods?..C'mon get real. I like my neighborhood just as it is. Anything related to ADU's would change it, and I don't want that.

Affordable housing: Ah, that wonderful word that few understand in PA. It's a catchy word (tied into a phrase and sentence) that will get you votes, but the reality of it is that it is almost impossible to do in PA. It's never clearly defined and never any viable suggestions offered of how it can happen.

Let our city leaders lead the way by example. All CC members, from downtown and close neighborhoods; please open up your big lots and build granny units on them to help out. Who will be first? Speak up please! The silence is deafening!

24 people like this
Posted by Don't be fooled
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 30, 2016 at 1:23 pm

I'm just left speechless by the kinds of ideas people propose in the name of 'affordable housing'. These types of units will end up enriching absentee landlords who have no vested interests in maintaining any sense of community, creating additional parking and neighborhood challenges for those of us who are here to stay for the long run.

Our current situation is bad enough, but it will get much worse once all these units become available as short-term rentals.

There must be something wrong when I suspect that every recommendation coming out from our city's planning commission ends up negatively affecting most residents. Does the commission even represent what residents want? Whose interests do they represent?

4 people like this
Posted by Elizabeth
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 30, 2016 at 1:37 pm

Seeing as the empty nesters here already rent out their grown-up kids' bedrooms for $2000 each, at least a kitchenette is nicer than the microwave and mini-fridge (or sharing the main kitchen) that these tenants usually have to make do with.

30 people like this
Posted by Very Concerned
a resident of South of Midtown
on Nov 30, 2016 at 2:28 pm

This is the dumbest idea I have ever heard - this doesn't fix the problem and will certainly cause more parking headaches and bad blood between neighbors as our already crowded neighborhoods are overwhelmed by renters cramming into new tiny structures on tiny lots. If the City wants some more affordable housing stock in Palo Alto, look to build multi-story units near Cal-Train or on El Camino.

21 people like this
Posted by PA Resident
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Nov 30, 2016 at 2:29 pm

Good ideas. But would it just be a cheaper way for someone who wanted to enroll kids in the PA schools to register an address but not live there most of the time? I know people who do this to gain eligibility to other school districts. Currently, verification is spotty at best.

2 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 30, 2016 at 3:22 pm

My my, are not we inclusive...

11 people like this
Posted by Answers
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 30, 2016 at 3:47 pm

Don't be fooled asks
Does the commission even represent what residents want? Whose interests do they represent?

We know the answers to these question$.

15 people like this
Posted by Ed
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 30, 2016 at 7:50 pm

So, did City of Palo Alto staff write this report, or Airbnb staff?

There are many problems with this proposal.

I suspect that regardless of the intent, most if not all of these so-called “junior accessory dwelling units” in peoples backyards, or mini apartments in homes, will be rented out at fair market value, period. The idea that simply because they could be rented at lower rates is no guarantee that any would, and it’s very unlikely that the city would have any authority to regulate or enforce below market rental rates. It is also highly unlikely that the city would have any authority or inclination to enforce the requirement that rental periods be longer than 30 days.

Since the city has refused to regulate Airbnb rentals as transient housing, and treat those rentals as hotels, which is exactly what it is, this seems to be a gift to Airbnb. I oppose this proposal, way too many details left unaddressed.

11 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 30, 2016 at 8:13 pm

"The thinking is that JADUs would not increase the occupant capacity of a home."

Strange thinking, that. Isn't increasing occupant capacity in order to increase the city population the bedrock rationalization for allowing/encouraging these JADU lashups? Our fair city cannot have it both ways. You need parking for at least two more cars per JADU on the property, in case the original JADUians acquire roommates.

Methinks somebody with city hall influence wants to convert their rentals into people warrens and has hired a devious PR firm to front it.

Like this comment
Posted by Robert
a resident of another community
on Nov 30, 2016 at 11:07 pm

"The idea that simply because they could be rented at lower rates is no guarantee that any would, and it’s very unlikely that the city would have any authority to regulate or enforce below market rental rates."

I don't think you understand the concept, nobody claimed this to be some kind of deeded affordable or subsidized housing. If I rent a spare bedroom out at market rate, it's still a lower cost option.

4 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Dec 1, 2016 at 10:42 am

The question of parking needs to be totally defined. We have asked for sign-age for street sweeping days in South PA which was rejected. Note that at the Gunn vicinity the streets are flooded with signage to prevent student parking.
We have a major problem with parking by near commercial entities which see our streets as a commercial parking lot for their employees. Sorry - we did not buy into a commercial parking lot. So add to that a volume of people in granny units also parking and preventing street maintenance then we have a major problem keeping the street drains clear. Let's get clear on what we are paying for in our property taxes and city utility taxes and what we are entitled to as residents.

4 people like this
Posted by Cid Young
a resident of another community
on Dec 1, 2016 at 11:57 am


Sorry, but there is no ordinance about empty nesters not having a roommate is there? For SOME owners, they may have no family member living with them any more (for varied reasons -divorce, death of a significant other or a couple whose kids have moved out). Seniors who want to stay in their homes and neighborhoods are already finding options to help support their fixed incomes. This will offer them ability to not share a kitchen when renting a bedroom. And allow a single person to have their own space in a nice room and a nice neighborhood at less than a studio apartment might cost.
In other words...
All this seems to say is that in "share rental" situations the landlord-homeowner can install a small kitchenette in a bedroom.


1 person likes this
Posted by Si[lly] Valley
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 1, 2016 at 1:16 pm

Offerings on the alter of "affordable housing." Here, of no more than 500 square feet!

Silly, silly Valley

Like this comment
Posted by Brit
a resident of Palo Verde
on Dec 1, 2016 at 5:27 pm

The British Government has a shared ownership scheme for first time buyers usually for newly built homes. This works as part buy/part rent and is an affordable way to get on the housing ladder. Web Link

There have to be better ways to provide affordable housing than this ridiculous, convoluted idea of granny units.

Like this comment
Posted by stanhutchings
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 1, 2016 at 5:42 pm

stanhutchings is a registered user.

This is not helping a solution to traffic and parking problems, only exacerbates them. 500 sq feet is quite a lot, $1625/mo to over $2000/month if 2 bedrooms, kitchen and bath. So at $600-800/sf construction, a $300,000 investment will return $2000/mo, it's a 17 year payback. Not very attractive, though I suppose rental tax breaks will effectively lower the cost. Of course, you have to put up with the tenants.

I recommend investigating and applying the principles of arcology (Web Link) to place more people near jobs, shopping, food, entertainment and/or schools. "a completed arcology would provide space for a variety of residential, commercial, and agricultural facilities while minimizing individual human environmental impact." They should be built in a location to avoid adverse sea level rise effects, and near public transportation. Think vertical real estate rather than urban sprawl. Consider a residential skyscraper with over 700 rental residences and 35,000 square feet of retail, and sufficient on-site parking. It would be about 66 stories (950 ft). It can be done, one was built in 1932. This is what we should do if we really want to add hundreds of affordable residences in a small footprint with minimal impact on traffic and parking.

2 people like this
Posted by Palo Alto Native
a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 2, 2016 at 1:34 am

Fifty-seven years in Palo Alto and with reflection. Here's what it all comes down to:

The problem with our city (and by extension our state and nation), is this obsession with development. That's why we are in this mess: greed to cash in on Silicon Valley concentrated in one area. The even larger challenge is how most of us (well-educated professionals who are multiple home owners) are duped to support development for increased property values as the largest part of one's retirement nest egg. Meanwhile, the forces behind all development (developers and banks) increase the disparity of wealth between fewer and fewer hands - and the rest of us.

Solution: recognize wealth is not development, it is sustainability. Moreover, quality of life is more important than being the talented workforce for a power elite who define what most will do for a living. In a public policy form: do not allow any new businesses space in Palo Alto. Second, do not allow any additional dense housing projects - especially mixed use one's. Granny Units can help struggling homeowners (misnomer - they do not own the home, they are renting toward hopeful ownership - it's just a good marketing term used by lenders) supplement their mortgage payments. Remember - if you had to take a loan for a home (that's most of us), then you will pay the price of the home plus interest almost 75% of the original cost of the home, over a thirty-year repayment plan, too. Now that is a level of greed we should all want to regulate! Who's with me!

Push the "development," not necessarily the success- of Silicon Valley to other areas in the state in need of tax revenue and to other parts of the nation.

Sadly, the recent election of many pro-development city council members represents the pull to always want to gather more chips in a economic system with few safety nets and one that glorifies wealth accumulation over balance, harmony, and character.

2 people like this
Posted by Oh gosh
a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 2, 2016 at 1:22 pm

The rabid NIMBY-ism in this thread is completely mind-boggling. I, personally, would be interested in building a small unit for my aging parents, and yet to think this would be prohibited due to some of the insane fears mentioned here is just crazy!

Like this comment
Posted by Answers
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 2, 2016 at 1:59 pm

@Oh gosh My sympathies to you that you are so uninformed about what's been going on in Palo Alto for years. And in your very own neighborhood.
You have probably been busy and haven't been paying attention to your environment.
Possibly you don't drive so you haven't experienced the gridlock the rest of us go through.
Since you have enough money to build a small unit, you can probably figure out a way to remodel your house.

Like this comment
Posted by City Policy must be Aware
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Dec 2, 2016 at 2:06 pm

City Policy must be Aware is a registered user.

@Oh gosh -- The difficulty is that the City cannot assume that everyone is like you, building a small unit for aging parents who don't drive, don't go to school, etc. The City has to take into account all actors, and all motivations, within reason. Policies built on wishful thinking are not good policies. It is the responsibility of the City to understand who is likely to live in these units, and at what expense to tenant, to City, and to neighbors, and to construct policies to help ensure the answers to those questions are what we are looking for.

2 people like this
Posted by Gina
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 2, 2016 at 8:15 pm

Don't like the idea. It's already too crowed. People don't have to live in Palo Alto.

2 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 2, 2016 at 8:35 pm

"I, personally, would be interested in building a small unit for my aging parents,..."

Oh really now! Why not let them live in your house with you, like they let you live in their house with them when you were a child? Hmm? Why are you so hell-bent to shove your parents off by themselves that you insist the city rewrite the rules for you?

2 people like this
Posted by Robert
a resident of another community
on Dec 2, 2016 at 9:37 pm


In a sane society discussion of living arrangements with one's parents would be a family matter, not something needing city approval.

2 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 2, 2016 at 10:00 pm

"In a sane society ... "

No approval required to house parents in one's house. Approval needed to exile them to the backyard. Raise your kids lovingly, just in case that changes.

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

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