You can't make this stuff up.
Would you believe there is a plan in Sacramento to usurp local democracy and eliminate single-family neighborhoods in Palo Alto and throughout much of the state? Most would say, "Nah, that's nuts. It'll never happen."
Well, think again. State Senator Scott Wiener's SB 50 is moving through legislation to do just that, and it has strong support from the most powerful forces in Sacramento.
Implications for Palo Alto
Under SB 50, any neighborhood within one-half mile of a Caltrain station (University Avenue, California Avenue, San Antonio) or one-quarter mile from a regular bus route (including El Camino Real and University Avenue) would be required by state law to allow four- or five-story apartment buildings, potentially built curb to curb, and with no on-site parking. The building square footage could be 2.5 or 3.25 times the lot size (FAR) — six to eight times the density currently allowed in single-family (R1) neighborhoods.
Cities would also be prevented from requiring parking for those developments. A 10,000-square-foot lot could have 20 plus units of average-size apartments with zero parking. Worse, it encourages the redevelopment of what little more-affordable housing we have with new, high-end units, displacing current residents and diminishing diversity.
For Palo Alto, there is another provision with greater implications. Communities that are "jobs rich" with higher-than-median income and "high quality schools" must eliminate single-family zoning in all neighborhoods.
Fear of displacement
Our greatest concern is the implications SB 50 will have for low- and modest-income residents. There is a myth that upzoning (changing zoning to allow increased building density) will lower the price of housing. Supporters argue housing is just an issue of supply and demand. However, according to two recent Chicago and New York City studies, upzoning has the inverse effect and actually leads to increased housing costs. They concluded that when land is rezoned for increased density, it becomes more valuable, and the price of housing and rents rise.
Urban Research found that housing prices are not based on the housing market but instead rely on the land market. By mandating increased density, the already expensive land in Palo Alto will increase, and prices of housing and rents will follow.
New market-rate housing does not create affordable housing for low- or moderate-income people, and building dense, luxury apartments in single-family neighborhoods will not have trickle-down benefits for those most in need. Rather than being a panacea for our housing crisis, it is a Trojan horse for big developers' profits.
This can be seen across the Peninsula. Mountain View and Redwood City have built housing at prolific rates over the last couple years. However, the vast majority of that housing is not accessible for low- or moderate-income people. New one-bedroom apartments at the San Antonio Center cost $3,750 to $6,675 a month. If SB 50 logic was sound, we should be seeing prices dropping in these communities, but the opposite is true. Over the past couple of years, Mountain View has built thousands of housing units, but the median home price there increased by 15 percent in 2018, according to Trulia.com.
SB 50 will gentrify the Peninsula faster. According to a recent U.C. Berkeley study, rising housing costs have reintroduced segregation to Silicon Valley. With housing prices disproportionately impacting communities of color, SB 50 threatens to further isolate these communities and re-segregate groups of people who historically have been targeted by inequitable housing laws.
SB 50 allows the state to take over local zoning rather than allow recent actions by cities to take effect. SB 50 refuses to recognize how the negative disruption of concentrated, unrestrained and unsustainable growth in big-tech jobs is the primary cause of our housing problems, especially the harmful gentrification impacts on low- and moderate-income workers who are the backbone of any society — the teachers, nurses, public safety workers, retailers and others who have seen their real incomes decline in recent years.
What we can do
Palo Alto has recently taken ambitious steps to increase housing and improve affordability. Rather than reap the benefits of those locally driven solutions, SB 50 pulls the rug from under them with radical, one-size-fits-all state mandates. The city significantly reduced the rate of office growth through our annual and cumulative caps to bring housing demand in line with growth in supply. We created incentives for accessory dwelling units (ADUs) that exceeded state mandates, then created an affordable-housing and workforce-housing zoning overlay. More recently, the city adopted significant upzoning to encourage denser housing in the areas identified in our state-approved Housing Plan.
There's still more we can do. We can re-establish our downtown office cap (and add California Avenue), so market-rate housing will be competitive with office development. Next, we can adopt higher affordable-housing impact fees on commercial development, which were rejected by the council majority in 2017. We can strengthen renter protections and create a managed location for RV dwellers. Lastly, we can adopt a business tax focused on big business that, at just one-third the rate of San Francisco's tax, can pay for a citywide Transportation Management Association to significantly reduce commuter car trips and parking impacts, pay for affordable housing, and help cover our Caltrain grade-separations funding gap.
SB 50 and the related "CASA" state measure will be the most contentious public policy debate of 2019. It's already polarizing our elected leaders. Mayor Eric Filseth described the bill as "horrible" and "a state takeover of local zoning." Vice Mayor Adrian Fine, an adviser to Senator Wiener on SB 50, supports the bill saying, "We need the state to step in and help solve the housing crisis. Local councils and the idolatry around local control are not going to solve our housing crisis."
This is not an occasion when simply deferring to our elected officials will overcome the momentum in Sacramento. Our elected leaders need our active support. Attend upcoming public meetings — such as the SB 50 community discussion this Sunday, March 17, from 4 to 6 p.m., at the Lucie Stern Community Center — write your elected leaders, speak up and get involved!
Greer Stone is vice-chair of the Santa Clara County Human Rights Commission, chair of the Palo Alto Midtown Residents Association, and secretary of the board of the Embarcadero Institute. Pat Burt is a former mayor of Palo Alto and president at TheraDep Technologies, Inc. They can be reached at [email protected] and [email protected], respectively.