For several years now, Palo Alto officials have been looking at one possible way to ease the city's affordable housing crisis: allowing homeowners to build small rental units on their properties.
These rentals - variously known as in-law cottages, granny units and, now, accessory dwelling units – could boost Palo Alto's housing stock without the expense to the city of building a large, new affordable-housing development.
The push has been met with both fears and cheers: Some residents decry the spectre of more-crowded neighborhoods, while others clamor for the chance to provide housing for an elderly relative – or supplemental income for themselves.
On Wednesday night, the city's Planning and Transportation Commission took a stab at crafting an ordinance that would encourage homeowners to build such rentals. But even as they pinned hopes on accessory-dwelling units being the David that might slay the city's affordability-crisis Goliath, they acknowledged one sobering fact: If not regulated properly, the accessory-unit idea may end up being no more than a boy with a slingshot and bad aim.
The uncertain potential of accessory dwelling units was acknowledged by Commissioner Eric Rosenblum, who observed that such rentals comprise only 1 percent of Portland, Oregon's housing stock, while in Vancouver, Canada, about one-third of eligible property owners have added accessory units.
Until now, Palo Alto's accessory-dwelling ordinance has resulted in a measly four units per year, according to the city's Housing Element.
The commission, which was generally supportive of accessory units, on Wednesday squarely took aim at the barriers residents have said have prevented them from adding on the rental housing: requirements for added parking and qualifications of a minimum lot size.
Currently, only properties that are 35 percent larger than the standard lot size in a specific residential zone can host an accessory unit. According to a planning department staff report, about 2,500 parcels are large enough under existing city rules to add a unit. So by a 4-2 vote, the commission did away with the additional percentage, opting to recommend to the council that the ordinance permit the rentals be built on properties that are the standard size for their districts. The result, in the city's R-1 zones, would be that 8,200 parcels would be eligible to add accessory units, up from the 2,300 R-1 parcels that are 35 percent larger than standard.
When it came to parking, the commission sought to ease the regulations that homeowners provide parking for their tenants. The staff's draft recommendation, which follows new state law on accessory units, already reduced the requirement from two parking spots to one per unit or one per bedroom, whichever is greater. A new variant of accessory units -- junior accessory dwelling units, which would be created by converting an existing bedroom in a home and adding a kitchenette – would require no parking spaces.
The draft recommendation allowed for parking exemptions for properties within a half-mile of public transit, under the assumption that people living in smaller units might not own cars. Rosenblum asserted that people who live three-quarters of a mile from a Caltrain station -- not a half mile -- could also be inclined to use the rail service, and the commission supported his idea 4-to-2 to expand geographic reach of the parking exemption.
Greg Tanaka, who was recently elected to the City Council, attempted to address fears of more cars parking on streets by suggesting the city explore underground parking in single–family zones. With changing technology, he said, methods such as elevator lifts could be used to house cars underground on residents' properties. That motion was supported 5-1.
Tanaka also proposed that the council direct staff to explore the option that homeowners who can't provide the additional parking spaces could pay an in-lieu fee. Given the cost to the city of building a parking spot, which has been estimated at $65,000, homeowners could pay that or a similar amount instead. Fellow commissioners declined to support that idea, however.
One of the more contentious issues of the evening was Rosenblum's motion that the city consider studying all neighborhoods to assess how many cars are currently parked on their streets. The resulting information, he said, could suggest that homeowners in lightly parked neighborhoods could be exempted from the parking requirement, thus spurring the construction of accessory units. His motion passed 4 to 2, but Vice Chair Asher Waldfogel dissented, calling it "a really bad idea."
The City Council, he said, made it clear that quality of life needs to be considered and that high levels of street parking are acceptable only in places like the city's downtown core. When Rosenblum defended the parking exemption idea as valuing "people over parking spaces," Waldfogel took exception: "(It's) an offensive way to describe the quality of life-versus-housing question," he said.
The commission's decisions Wednesday also acknowledged some residents' concerns, including that the rental units would create a "constant turnover" of tenants in neighborhoods. Rosenblum moved that the minimum lease be increased from the suggested 30 days in the draft recommendation to 60 days. That amendment passed unanimously.
When commissioners dissented, they often said they had not had time to consider the possible consequences of the recommendations.
In the end, the proposed ordinance, which was drafted in part to comply with state regulations that Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law in September, passed 5 to 1, with Przemek Gardias dissenting.
"Removal of the minimum-lot requirement may be right, but not at this time because we didn't have the public input," he said. "We may end up with surprised citizens. We don't have a good feeling about what this proposed change would create. We are setting up our constituents for a surprise."
Accessory housing has been a polarizing subject in the community. Among the 10 residents who spoke to the commission Wednesday, most supported relaxed regulations, with caveats. Old Palo Alto resident David Wills, however, voiced his concerns about crowding and parking congestion.
"In our six house area, there are seven families," Wills said. With accessory units, "it could easily expand to 11 families That's quite a big addition to my neighborhood."
But resident Peter Maresca advocated for the opportunity to add small accessory housing.
"I'm not the only citizen with a relative with a disability or who is aged and needs assistance," he said, lauding the independence that a unit would afford that person, while also keeping the relative close so his or her needs could be met. "I'm not alone in responding YIMBY" -- Yes In My Back Yard, in contrast to those opposing accessory units.
"We don't have to assume it's going to be an Airbnb unit," he said, addressing fears of short-term rentals.
The council is expected to review the draft recommendations, with additional staff input, in early 2017.