Despite widespread recognition that Palo Alto is experiencing an affordable-housing crisis, the city's deeply divided Planning and Transportation Commission opted on Wednesday night not to approve a new zoning tool aimed at addressing the problem.
For the second time in the past month, members of the polarized commission lauded the objective of creating affordable housing and sparred over best way to do so. After a long discussion and testimony from about 20 residents, most of whom supported the new policy, the commission voted 4-3 not to advance the "affordable housing combining district," which would apply to commercially-zoned sites along El Camino Real and which would provide height, density, parking and other concessions for developments comprised entirely of below-market-rate housing.
But even as the commission balked at approving the proposed new zoning district, it supported moving ahead with the housing development that sparked its consideration: a 61-unit housing complex that the nonprofit Palo Alto Housing is looking to build on El Camino Real, known as Wilton Court. The commission's four-member majority -- Chair Ed Lauing, and Commissioners Przemek Gardias, Doria Summa and Asher Waldfogel -- recommended that the city move forward with the project under the "planned community" process, a controversial zoning tool that Palo Alto hasn't used since 2013.
Much like during their last discussion on Feb. 14, the commission split into two camps: those who felt the proposed ordinance needs much more refinement and those who believed it should be approved. Vice Chair Susan Monk, Michael Alcheck and William Riggs all fell in the latter camp and argued that the proposed district is a necessary tool to address the city's housing shortage.
The City Council has set as its goal the permitting of 300 housing units annually, between now and 2030. According to the city's recently approved Housing Work Plan, the city had only permitted 86 units last year, and just 18 the year before that. In discussing the proposed zone district, Planning Director Hillary Gitelman told the commission that the city is "pretty far behind" when it comes to housing production.
"We're not seeing applications for multifamily housing that we'd like at a time when the region is suffering what we all understand to be a significant crisis," Gitelman said.
Her data was complemented by personal stories: parents whose sons and daughters have developmental disabilities and no viable places to live; teachers who can no longer afford to live in the city where they teach; and housing advocates who have seen their friends and family members driven out of the city by high rents.
Jessica Clark, whose family has lived in Palo Alto for four generations, said her rent has been rising precipitously over the past six years, at one time increasing by more than $1,000. Clark said she got on the waiting list for a below-market-rate unit six years ago, at which time when there were more than 300 people ahead of her. Today, she is in the mid-180's on the list, Clark said. Some of her relatives had already departed because of the high housing costs.
"If my husband and I didn't have such strong family roots and support, we'd be gone as well," Clark said. "It's a stressful and hopeless feeling that we constantly deal with every day."
Eric Rosenblum, former planning commissioner who serves as president of the citizens group Palo Alto Forward, urged the commission to move ahead with the new zoning district. Despite the council's repeated statements in support of affordable housing, the city is just not building the units it needs, he said. Rather, the gap between its regional requirements and actual units constructed keeps growing.
"It's not enough to want or support affordable housing, we need to zone for it," Rosenblum said.
The proposal the commission debated Wednesday was somewhat different from the one it weighed on Feb. 14. Responding to concerns from commissioners and residents about the possible impacts of the new housing developments, staff drafted a revised ordinance with stricter height regulations and parking standards (which would now be 0.5 spaces per bedroom, rather than per unit). And while the February version of the ordinance would have applied to units up to 120 percent of area median income, the more recent one limited it to 60 percent of the area median income and below.
While these changes assuaged some of the concerns, four commissioners felt the new ordinance still needs further refinement. Since the Feb. 14 meeting, commissioners Waldfogel, Gardias and Summa met as an ad hoc committee to discuss possible improvements. They ultimately recommended coming up with different standards for developments that cater to individuals with low and very low incomes and those whose incomes are closer to the moderate level.
Waldfogel said the one thing that developers said they desire the most is certainty. The overlay district, he said, falls short of that. Even if Palo Alto Housing were to use the combining district for its new project, it would still have to go through the city's lengthy review process before winning approval.
"What we'd like to do is construct an ordinance where a developer ... knows what the rights will be so they can move forward without any additional administrative steps," Waldfogel said.
Waldfogel's committee didn't take a stance on the ordinance presented by staff. But to avoid delaying the Palo Alto Housing project any further, the three members and Lauing supported having the developer go through the same "planned community" process that it used in 2013 for its proposal at 567 Maybell Ave. That project, which included 60 units for low-income seniors and 12 single-family homes, ultimately fell through after a citizen referendum overturned the council-approved zone change that would have enabled the project.
The three dissenting commissioners vehemently disagreed with the ad hoc committee's recommendation and lobbied their colleagues to vote on the proposed ordinance and send it to the City Council for final approval. Commissioner Michael Alcheck, a staunch advocate for more housing, criticized those who conflate nonprofits like Palo Alto Housing with market-rate developers and who cite parking as a pretext to oppose any kind of construction in the area.
Citing the critical shortage of housing, Alcheck supported moving ahead with the new district.
"The Wilton Court project probably won't make a dent in the housing crisis. That doesn't mean we shouldn't try," Alcheck said.
Lauing threw his swing vote toward the ad hoc committee. He agreed with the ad hoc committee's assessment that the new ordinance is "not good enough right now." At the same time, the city's effort to fix it need not prevent Palo Alto Housing from moving ahead with its proposal through the "planned community" process, he said.
"In my mind, it's saying we can get the best of both worlds," Lauing said.
The commission's vote means that the City Council will now weigh two competing proposals when it considers the matter in April: staff's recommendation to approve the new affordable-housing combining district and the ad hoc committee's approach, which would delay the establishment of the new district.
The commission's recommendation could prove a tough sell for the council. Even though the "planned community" zone enabled the construction of most of Palo Alto's affordable-housing developments, the process had become politically toxic over the past decade as it increasingly became a tool for commercial developers to build bigger projects than the zoning code would otherwise allow.
Recent mixed-use developments at 2100 El Camino Real and 101 Lytton Ave. and Edgewood Plaza each received density exceptions under the "planned community" zone process, which the council put on hold in 2014 as part of its response to the Maybell vote.