Responding to a flurry of housing bills moving through Sacramento, Palo Alto's elected leaders took a stance on Monday night against any legislation that proposes a "one-size-fits-all" approach to land use decision-making.
By a 4-2 vote, with Vice Mayor Adrian Fine and Councilwoman Liz Kniss dissenting and Councilman Greg Tanaka absent, the city aligned itself with a position paper that was recently adopted by the Cities Association of Santa Clara County, of which Palo Alto is a member. While the paper doesn't take a position on any specific bill, some of its principles echo the most common criticisms levied at proposals like Senate Bill 50, which would increase housing density in transit- and jobs-rich areas.
SB 50, which was authored by Sen. Scott Wiener, is set for a hearing in front of the Senate Finance and Governance Committee on April 24. While it has energized many housing advocates throughout the state, it has also triggered intense opposition from mayors and council members throughout the Peninsula, who have characterized it as an affront to local control.
The council backed the association's position at the behest of Mayor Eric Filseth, an outspoken opponent of SB 50, and Councilman Tom DuBois. The two council members co-authored a memo last week urging their colleagues to adopt the association's principles, which they argued will make it easier for the city to determine its positions on particular bills.
The memo argued that the action is particularly timely right now, with various major housing bills moving toward public hearings.
"Since some of these bills may have large impacts on Palo Alto's future evolution, and its residents' ability to define that evolution, it makes sense that Palo Alto should provide input," the memo from Filseth and DuBois states.
The position paper adopted by the association states that it fully endorses "local and regional efforts to encourage the production of more housing, preserve and increase subsidized below market rate housing at moderate- and below-income levels, and provide benefits to minimize the impact for current residents in rapidly changing neighborhoods."
It takes issue, however, with the CASA Compact, a broad document that was cobbled together by a 21-member committee consisting of mayors, large employers, housing advocates and other stakeholders. The document includes 10 different "elements" for addressing the state's housing crisis, including zoning reforms, rent stabilization and streamlined approval processes for residential projects.
While the association paper explicitly endorses some of the key features of the CASA elements, it also notes that small and medium-sized cities "were not well represented" in the creation of the compact, even though they represent 66 percent of the Bay Area's population. It urges the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Association of Bay Area Governments — both of which had approved the CASA Compact — and state legislators to "collaborate with all cities on the ideas contained within the CASA Compact so that we can collectively formulate workable solutions to address the Bay Area housing need."
The association endorses numerous state initiatives, including Gov. Gavin Newsom's proposed investment in affordable- and workforce housing, incentives for construction of accessory-dwelling units, tenant-protection measures and investment in transportation that provides connections from job centers to existing housing.
It also expresses support for "maintaining local control of the entitlement process" and opposition to a "one-size-fits-all approach to housing densities and land-use decision-making," as well as "any diversion of existing revenue sources from cities."
Filseth said the council's endorsement offers a "more general approach" to expressing the city's position, in contrast to adopting positions on specific bills. He called the paper "thoughtful and balanced."
"Most residents want to control their community's evolution," Filseth said. "I think one-size-fits-all is not good for our community, which is one of the things in this position."
DuBois agreed and called local control "really fundamental to our democracy." Like Filseth, he said the city should oppose "one-size-fits-all."
"Things are moving very quickly and now is the time in the legislative process for us to weigh in," DuBois said.
Not everyone felt that way. Kniss argued that the city should take more time to really consider the principles in the paper before signing on as supporters. She also rejected the notion in the paper that the cities are already "actively addressing the housing shortage." Palo Alto, she noted, has come nowhere near meeting its housing allocations. Even though the city has loosened some of its zoning regulations to encourage more housing, very little is actually getting built.
Kniss suggested that the city take more time in developing positions on housing bills, many of which are still undergoing changes.
"This is becoming our war cry at this point," Kniss said of the association's paper. "I hope we are more thoughtful than that."
Fine, who supports SB 50, found some irony in the fact that the city, in its effort to support local control, is effectively allowing another regional group to drive its positions on housing.
"We're essentially allowing an unelected regional body make the decision, like much of the criticism of CASA," Fine said.
Council members Alison Cormack and Lydia Kou joined Filseth and DuBois in supporting the association's paper, calling it a "pretty reasonable approach" for declaring the city's positions on housing legislation.
"I'm convinced that there is strength in numbers and that by working together we can accomplish more than separately," Cormack said.
• Learn more about state bills on housing currently working their way through the Legislature by watching the April 5 episode of "Behind the Headlines," now available on our YouTube channel and podcast page.