After sparring and splintering over rental protections this week, Palo Alto City Council members are preparing to focus on another strategy to ease the city's affordable-housing crisis: revising the zoning code to allow more new residences downtown and in other prominent commercial districts.
That's the proposal laid out in a memo that was drafted by Councilman Adrian Fine and co-signed by Vice Mayor Liz Kniss and Councilman Cory Wolbach. All three have advocated persistently for building more housing, and all three opposed this week a recommendation from colleagues to consider protections for renters.
The new memo, which Fine, Kniss and Wolbach submitted Monday and which will be reviewed by city staff before it's released publicly, will focus on downtown, California Avenue and El Camino Real. Specifically, its aim is to increase the density of housing near to jobs, public transit and services, Fine told the Weekly.
The idea is to update the city's zoning code to foster "a greater variety and quantity of both below-market-rate and moderately sized market-rate housing," he said. While the specifics are yet to be hashed out, this could involve changing the city's density requirements for housing projects, extending the "pedestrian and transit oriented districts" zones (which allow greater development flexibility for projects near transit centers) and enabling mixed-use projects with both retail and residential space.
Fine said that when it comes to affordable housing, council members have generally fallen into one of two camps: those who believe that the city should focus on incumbent residents who are getting priced out and those who think the city should promote new housing to address the shortage and cost of housing regionally. While the council members who submitted the rental-protection memo -- Tom DuBois, Lydia Kou and Karen Holman -- favor the former approach, Fine, Wolbach and Kniss prefer the latter, he said.
"I fundamentally believe that the housing crisis is caused by a lack of supply," said Fine, who on Monday helped strike down the other proposal, which recommended the city explore rent-stabilization measures such as an annual cap on rent increases and restrictions on no-cause evictions.
The Monday night discussion over rent control ended on an acrimonious note, with the council's philosophical splits over the topic ultimately devolving into personal verbal attack. Wolbach suggested that authors of the rent-stabilization memo were "insincere" and argued that Kou's comments -- along with her tweet from April ("There's plenty of housing, you just need a superb Realtor like me," Kou tweeted, along with a link to an article about condominium supply in San Francisco) -- point to her unwillingness to look at other options for boosting the city's housing supply.
Wolbach said he also took umbrage at Kou's suggestion that some of her colleagues who want greater city growth were unduly influenced by developers or are in favor of policies that lead to "stack-and-pack housing," characterizations that he vehemently disavowed.
He told the Weekly that he was hoping the rent-stabilization memo "represented a change of direction for those who have previously been against tackling the deep and complex issue of the housing crisis."
Kou's comments on Monday suggested that this is not the case, he said.
"The reasons I referred to things from the past is because I saw continuity between those past things and comments I heard last night," Wolbach told the Weekly Tuesday.
Kou told the Weekly that as a Realtor, she probably would have also opposed rental protection measures like the ones proposed in the memo. But after spending some time on the council and speaking to community members from all backgrounds, she became convinced that this is a subject worth considering. Even though the proposals were ultimately rejected, Kou said she will fairly evaluate the proposals in the new memo, Wolbach's criticisms notwithstanding.
"What he did was very childish and immature, but if they come up with something good, I'm more than willing to be open to it," Kou said.
His comments questioning his colleagues' intentions drew a sharp rebuke from Holman, who chided Wolbach for implying that "we're intentionally wasting staff's time, wasting the public's time, wasting the council's time."
"It's upsetting to me personally because this is sincere," Holman said of the memo.
DuBois and Kou shared her view. DuBois told the Weekly he found Wolbach's comments "extremely insulting."
"I think the City Council took a big step back in terms of working together," he said.
That premise will be put to the test in the weeks to come, as the council concludes its review of the updated Comprehensive Plan and considers the new memo on encouraging new housing. Fine said the goal of the memo is to take a fresh look at the city's parking requirements, density regulations and review processes to see if they can be improved to facilitate more housing.
He and Wolbach both noted that the memo does not propose any changes to the city's single-family residential (R-1) zones or to the city's 50-foot height limit.
It does, however, recommend exploring new below-market-rate requirements for housing developments and reducing parking requirements in areas well-served by public transit.
Fine told the Weekly that the believes the city's housing shortage poses a "threat to the city's prosperity, diversity, stability, environment and community character" and noted that more than 70 percent of residents cited affordable housing as their top concern in a recent survey.
"Our new Comprehensive Plan does include exploration of policy changes to enable more housing," Fine said. "And it really is about time to take a look at the processes and rules we have in place and figure out what they're doing for housing."