The Palo Alto City Council Monday night will consider whether to approve a new mechanism that would, for the first time, allow for the easing of some zoning requirements for housing projects designed exclusively for lower income individuals and families.
The so-called "affordable housing combining district" would provide the city flexibility to ease some development standards for 100-percent affordable housing projects in areas that are in existing commercial zones and close to public transit.
For example, the city would be able to allow a development to have a greater density of units by relaxing current lot coverage, open space, parking and ground-floor retail requirements. The proposal maintains the city's 50-foot height limit and requirements such as setbacks and daylight plane restrictions when a housing project is adjacent to low-density residential neighborhoods.
The issue of how to encourage 100-percent affordable housing developments instead of market-rate projects that have only a few units set aside at below-market rate comes to the city council from a divided Planning and Transportation Commission.
The four-person commission majority was not ready to support the new overlay zone proposed by the staff and is instead recommending the council defer adopting it to allow for more study and outreach to both potential affordable-housing developers and the public.
Instead, for now, the commission recommended the council bring back the use of the highly controversial "planned community" (PC) zoning tool, which allows a developer to negotiate a specific project with city staff that allows for an easing of development requirements and greater density than zoning allows in exchange for providing "public benefits" — in this case affordable housing.
The two alternative approaches — the staff-recommended overlay zone versus the planning commission's proposed return of the PC zone — aren't dramatically different in their intended outcomes, but the PC process was repeatedly abused and lost all credibility, so much so that the city council finally chose to stop using it in 2013. We see little benefit, or likelihood of success, in trying to resurrect and fix all the problems the PC zone created and overcome the widespread public outrage it attracted.
The planning commission did suggest several improvements to the initial overlay zone proposal that have been incorporated in what the city council will consider, and since any specific project proposed under the new zone would be reviewed by the commission and the city council, we think there are adequate safeguards to protect affected neighbors and ensure public input.
City officials are anxious to move forward on an affordable housing strategy not only because of the acute shortage of units for lower-income residents and the need to meet our adopted and state-mandated housing goals, but because the nonprofit Palo Alto Housing is ready with a proposal for a housing project on land it has purchased at El Camino and Wilton Avenue, adjacent to the Ventura neighborhood.
It is exactly the type of housing project the city should be encouraging, and that rarely comes along because of the city's high land costs. Thus it is the perfect test case for the new overlay zone.
With the new affordable housing zoning in place, that project, which currently proposes 61 affordable housing units and ground-floor retail, could ask, for example, for relief from the ground-floor retail requirement, thereby reducing parking requirements.
As we have urged previously, the city should have a laser focus on encouraging 100-percent affordable housing projects aimed at the lowest-income individuals and families. Not only is this the group — earning up to 60 percent of the area's median income — that is most endangered due to housing costs, but these residents require fewer parking places, generate the least traffic congestion and enable the project to be eligible for federal housing funds.
We need not worry about a sudden onslaught of proposals. The last 100-percent affordable project, a 50-unit low-income family apartment complex at 801 Alma St., was approved nine years ago. While it will undoubtedly be improved with experience, the proposed affordable-housing overlay zone is a sensible first step in supporting the kind of housing to which we believe most residents of Palo Alto give the highest priority.
One thing the community doesn't need is inflammatory rhetoric from public officials disrespecting the positions of others and questioning their motives. Planning commissioners Michael Alcheck and Susan Monk, for example, undermine the process, inflame emotions and make it harder to achieve successful outcomes when they accuse their colleagues of not caring about the housing shortage and accuse them of "delay tactics" and "NIMBYism." That behavior and language seeks to divide rather than unite Palo Altans and is a distraction from sound policy making.
We hope for more from the City Council Monday night.