"There is a housing crisis destroying our community and Silicon Valley," Palo Alto City Councilman Cory Wolbach proclaimed during a February meeting.
In years past, this assertion could easily be dismissed as a hyperbolic declaration by the council's staunchest housing advocate. But as 2016 progressed, and more residents began to demand solutions to the city's housing-affordability problems, he found himself preaching to a steadily growing choir.
More than any other issue, Palo Alto's housing shortage was the leading driver of City Hall discussions. It was adopted as a City Council priority at the beginning of the year. It was the most divisive issue during November's rancorous council elections and the biggest wildcard the new council faces as it prepares to adopt an updated Comprehensive Plan in 2017.
At the February meeting, Wolbach failed to sway his colleagues to consider a city-growth scenario that would set a high goal for new housing between now and 2030. He had more success in August, when the council agreed to explore a new scenario that includes 6,000 new housing units.
Evidence for the "housing crisis" was particularly easy to find this year. Roughly 400 residents of Buena Vista Mobile Home Park face displacement as the park owner pursues his plan to shutter the park. In June, the council reaffirmed its commitment to spend $14.5 million to preserve the park as part of a broader plan that also includes the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors and the Housing Authority of Santa Clara County.
Hundreds of people -- including seniors, techies, attorneys, teachers, millennials, baby boomers, architects and former mayors -- have attended meetings over the year, urging the council to "Go Big" on housing.
The citizens group Palo Alto Forward spearheaded a petition in March, signed by more than 1,000 residents (including eight former mayors), that stated a growing number of decades-long Palo Altans are moving out because of skyrocketing rents.
"We are on the path to being a city composed only of longtime landowners and wealthy newcomers," the petition stated.
There was the explosive resignation letter from planning Commissioner Kate Downing, who accused the council of "ignoring the majority of the residents" and who predicted that, unless the council adopts less-restrictive housing policies, the "once-thriving city will turn into a hollowed-out museum."
And various citizen surveys the council commissioned this year revealed it's not just activists like Downing and Wolbach who are passionate about solving the housing problem. In the city's annual National Citizens Survey, just 52 percent of people rated the city as a "good" or "excellent" place to retire (down from 68 percent in 2006 and 60 percent in 2014), while the percentage of those giving the city the top two grades for "variety of housing options" slipped from 27 percent in 2014 to 20 percent in 2015.
And when the council commissioned a survey last year to see if a transportation-tax would be feasible, members were surprised to see 76 percent of the respondents rank "cost of housing" as an "extremely serious" of "very serious" problem, even more than the statewide drought and traffic congestion.
And there was the November election, which swung the political pendulum away from the slow-growth "residentialists" and toward those members more amenable to development. Three of the four candidates who were favored by the Chamber of Commerce (incumbent Liz Kniss, Adrian Fine and Greg Tanaka) won council seats, compared to only one of the four candidates backed by the citizens group Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning (Lydia Kou).
Given the rising prominence of the issue, the council spent much of 2016 exploring -- and debating -- possible solutions. To be sure, a wide range of opinions remain about what kind of housing should be encouraged (some say Palo Alto needs all types of housing; others say "affordable housing" should be the priority), how much new housing is feasible, where it should be located and what it should look like.
But these divisions notwithstanding, 2016 has also been a year of remarkable consensus, as the council agreed to explore zoning changes that would enable the construction of more accessory-dwelling units and "microunits" of several hundred square feet. Mayor Pat Burt was one of several council members who said in November that he would support bringing back "planned community" zoning (a controversial process that allows developers to exceed zoning regulations in exchange for negotiated "public benefits) for affordable-housing projects. And in December, the council agreed to raise the impact fees charged to developers to support affordable-housing projects.
But even as the construction of housing that's affordable remains paralyzed, the council's multi-year effort to fix up outdated city infrastructure has surged. Palo Alto officials this year began work on the long-delayed renovation of the city's municipal golf course. They also ended the year by approving design contracts for new garages in downtown and near California Avenue. The latter would be located near the city's new public-safety building, a project that also charged ahead in 2016 after years of delay.
In Burt's final meeting on the council (he and Councilman Greg Schmid are both termed out after nine years of service), he acknowledged both the benefits and the challenges of the city's recent prosperity. The latter include the need to protect local retail so that much-needed stores don't move away or shutter, relieving traffic and parking congestion and addressing the needs of low-income residents.
But he also struck a hopeful note and urged residents not to lose sight of "what brings us to Palo Alto -- a beautiful and safe city with great parks, open space, exceptional services; a local economy that is the envy of many and that is centered on innovation and ideas for the future; an engaged and educated citizenry who cares deeply about their city, schools and the value of knowledge."
"These are among the reasons people come -- and stay -- in Palo Alto and why, despite our challenges, we value our community and are committed to its well-being," Burt said.
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