I believe that housing is a basic human right in any society. Over the past 45 years or more, the vast majority of Palo Alto housing has been built for the upper middle class and the wealthy. This continues today. Yes, there have been several below-market resident (BMR) projects that serve a tiny percentage of our work force, but if you look at the numbers, it's only a drop in the bucket. Thanks to the Palo Alto Housing Corporation we have a small number of low-income housing units (with waiting lists up to eight years).
Over the years Palo Alto's City Council, planning commission, zoning policies and practices have shaped this city to exclude low-income workers leading to de facto segregation along socio-economic and ethnic lines. Do the majority on the council believe that East Palo Alto and Mountain View, which have low-income housing and rent control, should house our low-income workers? We have done little to provide our service-sector workers with affordable, low-income housing or any renter protections.
Recently, the talk on the council has finally turned to building "affordable" housing. Talk is cheap. Action is what we need.
Walking the talk: Now that the housing dilemma is so critical, and Palo Alto has done so little, compared to Mountain View, Redwood City and surrounding communities, Palo Alto sticks out. But so far, it's still only talk. Meanwhile, I see existing affordable housing being demolished and replaced with housing for the wealthy and more office space.
Look at the downtown area, for example. Notice the new luxury apartments at 430 Forest Ave., which replaced the Palo Alto AAA. Across the street are several large, new, expensive ($1 million and up) condos that replaced below-market housing. A grossly designed glass-and-concrete office building at 636 Waverley St. is situated between a two-story BMR apartment building and another house, soon to be demolished. These new projects undermine the continued existence of moderate-income housing on either side of the office building, let alone low-income housing.
Rents have increased 300 percent in the last three years in several of the apartment complexes on the 400 block of Forest. Look at the building projects in any neighborhood, including the proposal for 565-571 Hamilton-Webster-St., where three buildings of existing, well-built, attractive, low-moderate-income housing for 11 families/individuals will be torn down and replaced with 19 very expensive condos and 7,000 square feet of office space!
This is not housing for our low-income city employees, or service-sector workers, most of whom cannot afford to live here. What about our restaurant workers, teachers, nurses, para-professionals, librarians, baristas, receptionists and clerks, many getting minimum wage, and all who must pay in time, money and ecological devastation as they commute long distances to get to work.
Smoke and mirrors: Some council people say that they are for "affordable" (meaning low-income?) housing and renter protections, but notice how the majority votes. Most members refused to engage in a discussion of concrete ways to slow down the exorbitant rent increases for local renters. They refused to limit office development until more affordable housing is built. They refuse to offer viable shelter for the homeless or safe parking for people living in cars/vans. They have refused to halt the demolition of rental housing until replacement housing is built. Most of the residents of the President Hotel will be forced out of town. So far, it's all smoke and mirrors.
Palo Alto Forward: The group Palo Alto Forward, meanwhile, is pushing for more housing in Palo Alto, primarily housing the "missing middle," those who make $80,000-$150,000 and up. Although they are on record as supporting the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park preservation and the President Hotel Apartments residents, I wish they would focus more of their efforts on residents at the lower end of the income scale. We need them to get involved in renter protections.
Concept of the "Commons": As a child growing up in Montana, I was taught that city government served the people through the concept of the "Commons" — public spaces where elected and appointed public officials serve as responsive servants to the people. City officials protected, supported and responded to community needs and secured spaces for its residents, including safe housing and streets, non-toxic food, safe water, public centers, parks and other city services. Whatever happened to this idea to grow a safer, diverse, more socially just and thus stronger community?
It is unconscionable, the way we treat our local workforce, especially low-income workers. We should provide decent, affordable housing for these people and by doing so increase the city's socio-economic and ethnic diversity, which strengthens us all.
It is time to listen to the many innovative, forward-thinking, and creative people of Palo Alto with good ideas and good intentions: Control rents; place a moratorium on rental demolitions until there is comparable replacement housing; require that large companies and Stanford University, especially, build housing for its workers; charge these new high-tech corporations to support a low-income housing fund.
We should be critical of those who lack the empathy or understanding about how to challenge these gross inequalities in our available housing. Palo Alto could be a model, instead of an obstacle, to solving our major housing/homeless problems.
There are many things that the city could do to promote a more diverse and healthy community. Let's take the next step and focus on the low end of the economic pyramid, rather than on the "missing middle."
Roberta Ahlquist is a professor emerita, author, social-justice activist and 54-year resident of Palo Alto. She can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.