Palo Alto's housing crisis is threatening the city's diversity and making it nearly impossible for the next generation of residents to stay here, Mayor Liz Kniss told the crowd assembled Wednesday for her "State of the City" speech.
Kniss, a three-time mayor and one of the council's most strident housing advocates, made housing the focus of the annual speech in front nearly 100 people and suggested that the city should act like a "social entrepreneur" and come up with creative ways for build more housing.
An example of such creative thinking wasn't hard to find. Kniss chose as her venue for the speech the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center, whose campus in south Palo Alto includes the Moldaw Residences, a 193-apartment complex for seniors. In his remarks introducing Kniss, Zack Bodner, CEO of the Palo Alto JCC, said the development wouldn't have existed without Kniss, who as a Santa Clara County supervisor helped connect the JCC to the affordable-housing developer BRIDGE Housing.
In a speech that was heavy on anecdotes, audience shout-outs and personal reflections and light on policy details or new proposals, Kniss made a case for expanding the city's housing stock by recalling the days when she arrived in Palo Alto, in search for connections with neighbors, good schools for her children and a "sense of belonging." Many people came here during the 1950s and 1960s in pursuit of a "special quality of life" and some still live on the same block, she said.
Today's housing crisis is making it impossible for most people today to have that experience, she said. The reason to build more housing isn't necessarily to "make room for more" by bringing in people from other parts of the nation. It's about supporting the needs of the residents who would make up Palo Alto in the future.
"We're talking about the next generation who want to move into a home, have a family with kids who attend our local schools and graduate from those schools and contribute to sustaining the quality of life in Palo Alto."
Even many longtime residents are worried that they may not be able to retire in the community because of the extremely limited availability of affordable housing for seniors, she said.
Kniss' speech stood apart from most prior "State of the City" addresses thanks to its conversational tone -- with frequent off-script diversions and recognitions of audience members -- as well as its singular ocus on a particular topic and the date of its delivery. Mayors normally present it early in the year. Kniss said she wanted to wait until the council had actually accomplished something.
Earlier this month, the council voted to create the "Affordable Housing Overlay District," a zoning designation that loosens requirements for developments of 100 percent below-market-rate housing. For housing advocates, the council's vote was a rare bit of good news after years of anemic housing production. Kniss noted that the city hasn't approved an affordable housing development in Palo Alto in almost a decade (the council's last approval came in 2009, when it supported a below-market-rate development at 801 Alma St.).
The city, Kniss said, needs to do much better.
"Absent that, we cannot expect our community to maintain its diversity, which I think we all agree is of great importance," Kniss said.
The new combining district is expected to accommodate at least one housing development: a roughly 60-apartment affordable-housing complex that the nonprofit Palo Alto Housing is looking to build on El Camino Real, near Wilton Avenue. Kniss said she hopes the new district will "clear the path, and we'll have at least another (development) to vote on this year." Absent that, the community will not be able to retain its diversity, she said.
"We need and should build more homes, but not necessarily in the official category of 'income restricted' or 'affordable,'" Kniss said. "We need various sizes and types of units so that more people in a range of incomes can be part of a vibrant Palo Alto."
Kniss also cited the city's reputation for startups and tech entrepreneurs and argued that the council should function like a "social entrepreneur" in tackling the housing crisis.
This means looking "beyond the stereotypes of who we think lives in affordable housing and realize it serves those people we already know." It also means engaging and involving residents who are committed to identifying solutions, Kniss said.
"And we need to have the kind of vigilance and enthusiasm that tech entrepreneurs do," Kniss said.