Members of the Palo Alto City Council set aside their differences on the divisive topic of housing Monday night and agreed to explore more than a dozen changes to local zoning and parking regulations, all with the goal of promoting more residential construction in transit-rich areas.
In a vote that further underscored the growing urgency of what council members often refer to as a "housing crisis," the council unanimously supported a wide-ranging memo from Councilman Adrian Fine, Vice Mayor Liz Kniss and Councilman Cory Wolbach that lays out the various areas of the local zoning code that should be reviewed and possibly changed.
One proposed change is creating an inclusionary-zoning requirement for rental projects, thereby forcing developers of these projects to offer a percentage of the units at below market rate. Another would raise the percentage of below-market-rate units that market-rate developments have to provide from 15 percent to 20 percent. Other policies include allowing greater height and density in projects that provide "substantially more" below-market-rate units than required; and establishing "housing minimums" for new developments (as opposed to the current standard of "housing maximum," which limits projects in the RM-15 zone, for instance, to no more than 15 units per acre.
Yet another proposal would scrap the units-per-acre measurement altogether and evaluate projects based on floor area.
Fine, the lead author of the memo, said the proposals in the memo "chart a path to begin producing more housing that is more affordable, less dependent on cars and better positioned for the future." And by focusing housing in areas where transit and jobs are plentiful, the memo advocates for what Fine called "the most environmentally and socially responsible way to add new housing."
In introducing the memo, Fine said he is "looking for solutions to the city's housing issues and also the region's housing issues."
"I also want this council to respond to our community's No. 1 concern, which is housing," Fine said. "We've heard it over and over and over again in many different ways, whether it's affordable housing, transit-oriented housing or rental housing.
The discussion of the memo came just three weeks after the council splintered over a very different approach to addressing the problem of housing affordability. On Oct. 16, the council rejected the recommendations from Councilwoman Karen Holman, Councilman Tom DuBois and Councilwoman Lydia Kou to explore rent-stabilization measures, including capping annual rent increases and prohibiting no-cause evictions. After a long and tense debate, the council voted 3-6 not to move ahead with the memo, with opponents arguing that the measures would distract from the more urgent task of encouraging new housing.
Some of these tensions spilled over into this week, with DuBois and Holman both recommending that staff also explore measures for preserving existing housing. These include regulating Airbnb rentals and figuring out ways to limit "ghost houses," which are often purchased for investment purposes and sit dormant for extended periods of time.
"With the things that are left out -- such as short-term rental ordinance and addressing 'ghost houses,' it's really missing a huge aspect of what the community wants addressed and how we can make housing that's existing be used as housing," Holman said, in lobbying for these measures to be included. "If we want something that's popular and address the issues that the community cares about, I think it's really important to include these things."
The council generally agreed that these issues, while important, are best addressed in a different conversation. Kniss noted that the focus of the colleagues' memo is "creating" -- rather than retaining -- housing, with a focus on transportation hubs and on affordability.
"I really see this memo as really going after affordable housing and looking at ways that we can deal with special populations in our community, whether it's workforce or seniors or whoever they might be," said Kniss, who made creation of housing the centerpiece of her council campaign last year.
The proposal to explore housing-retention strategies fell by a 4-5 vote, with the three memo authors joining Mayor Greg Scharff and Councilman Greg Tanaka, to defeat it -- an outcome that Holman said left her "flummoxed" and "frustrated." Holman's proposal to better define "affordable market rate housing" fell by the same vote.
But the council ultimately united in supporting the housing memo, which also recommends a series of strategies to encourage development in transit-friendly areas. These include reducing parking requirements for projects that can offer significant "transportation-demand management" measures (incentives for residents to avoid cars) and expanding the "pedestrian transit-oriented development zone" -- a designation that grants density bonuses and other concessions to projects close to transit hubs.
The memo alludes to research that points to "the need for more housing at a variety of price-points as essential to solving the housing crisis."
"To prevent urban sprawl and congestion, new housing is best located near transit, jobs and services," the memo states.
With its unanimous vote, the council directed staff to return with a work plan outlining a process for studying and implementing the memo's proposals. After the council approves the work plan, the various proposals would be analyzed by staff and the Planning and Transportation Commission before returning to the council for adoption.