Palo Alto's effort to spur construction of new affordable-housing developments could see a boost Monday night, when the City Council considers creating a new zoning district that offers concessions to such projects.
But before the city adds the new zone, the council will have to answer two questions on which there is currently little consensus: Will the zoning district achieve the city's goals? And what exactly constitutes "affordable" housing?
The former question has polarized the city's Planning and Transportation Commission, which last month voted 4-3 to not recommend the new zone, known as the Affordable Housing Combining District. In response, the three dissenting members -- Vice Chair Susan Monk, Michael Alcheck and William Riggs -- submitted last week a minority opinion urging the council to move ahead with the new district, calling it "the most promising tool our body has considered to address the enormous shortage of affordable housing."
The commission's four-member majority -- Chair Ed Lauing, Przemek Gardias, Doria Summa and Asher Waldfogel -- took the opposite view and suggested that the zone, as proposed, would not achieve the city's housing goals. In February, a subcommittee composed of Gardias, Summa and Waldfogel issued a recommendation calling for the new zone to only apply to developments targeting "very low-income" residents: those making 60 percent or less of the area median income (AMI). Concurrently, the city should undertake a separate effort to accommodate those with higher income levels.
In explaining their position, Waldfogel, Gardias and Summa argued that affordable-housing projects targeting individuals with "very low" income levels are fundamentally different from those catering to residents in the "low" and "moderate" categories making between 61 and 120 percent of AMI. As such, the city should have different mechanisms for addressing the different types of housing.
Developers targeting residents with "very low" incomes, for instance, compete for federal-tax credits to build their projects (a tool only available for projects where units target residents with up to 60 percent AMI). Housing for those making between 61 and 120 percent of AMI, by contrast, could be accommodated through other methods, including "inclusionary zoning" (where a market-rate development is required to offer a percentage of its units at below-market-rate levels).
The three-member subcommittee also agreed that the units targeting individuals with very low incomes are particularly urgent. Summa noted at the March 14 meeting that individuals making up to 60 percent AMI are "the people most in need right now."
By contrast, the February proposal from planning staff didn't distinguish between different types of "affordable housing."
In March, planning staff had revised its proposal to limit the new zone to those making up to 60 percent of the area median income, a revision consistent with the subcommittee's recommendation (despite the revision, the committee members did not support the staff proposal). But the latest proposal, which the council will consider Monday, once again reverts to the earlier version and eliminates the distinction. If the council moves ahead with the staff recommendation, the new zone would apply to all affordable-housing projects, including those targeting residents in higher income categories (between 61 and 120 percent of AMI).
The two factions on the commission did agree on one thing: Each would like to see the city make some zoning changes to accommodate a proposal from the nonprofit Palo Alto Housing, which owns a property at 3703-3709 El Camino Real, near Wilton Avenue, and which is hoping to build 61 units on the site. One group, which includes Lauing, Gardias, Summa and Waldfogel, believes the city should pursue a development agreement (or a "planned community" zone) with Palo Alto Housing specifically tailored around this project. The other, which includes Alcheck, Monk and Riggs, says the city should immediately approve the new combining district, which could then be used for other projects as well.
As proposed, the new district would apply to commercially zoned sites within a half-mile of major transit stops and within a quarter-mile of high-quality transit corridors. The new zone would relax the zoning standards pertaining to lot coverage, open space, required parking spaces and density. Developers who apply for a project under this zone would still have to go through the regular review process, which includes hearings before the Planning and Transportation Commission, the Architectural Review Board and the City Council, before securing approval.