After failing five years ago, Palo Alto is once again exploring the idea of establishing overnight parking zones for recreational vehicles.
This time, however, the city preparing to try something new: use public land to jump-start the program.
The City Council agreed on Monday night to advance a proposal from Councilman Tom DuBois and Councilwoman Lydia Kou to consider city-owned sites as possible launch pads for a new "Safe Parking" program. By a 5-1 vote, with DuBois absent and Councilman Greg Tanaka dissenting, the council directed staff to identify such sites, which could include two properties: 1275 San Antonio Road near East Bayshore Road and 2000 Geng Road, which neighbors Baylands Golf Links.
In proposing the ban, DuBois and Kou pointed at the substantial growth in the region's homeless population, with results from a recent census showing a 31% increase of homeless individual in Santa Clara County between January 2017 and January 2019. The memo argued that the city needs to address the matter "from a health and safety standpoint."
"The effort must be made to find immediate short and long term solutions," the memo states. "The ultimate goal is to provide assistance to people to get them back on the path to stable housing."
Several council members and residents pointed out during the Monday discussion that even if the program is adopted, it will not be enough to address the root cause of the problem: a shortage of housing. Councilwoman Liz Kniss argued that the city hasn't built enough low-income housing and the problem of RVs parking along El Camino Real and on neighborhood streets is partly "our own doing."
Vice Mayor Adrian Fine concurred and alluded to the city's failure to meet regional targets to housing production, particularly when it comes to below-market-rate housing.
"When we meet 6% of our very low-income housing (allocation), this what happens," Fine said.
Fine also suggested that the problem may soon become more pronounced. Mountain View, which has recently adopted its own "Safe Parking" program is now considering an overnight ban on RVs, which Fine said could drive many of them to Sunnyvale and Palo Alto.
In a letter he submitted Monday, DuBois agreed that the city needs to increase its efforts to spur more affordable housing. That, however, is a separate issue.
"Tonight is to consider the plight of our brothers and sisters who live in vehicles and ensure they are safe, sanitary, and engaged with employment and housing placement services," DuBois wrote.
The council assigned the task of vetting possible programs to its Policy and Services Committee. Tanaka argued that the issue should first be explored by the city's Planning and Transportation Commission and Human Relations Commission, though his colleagues rejected this idea. Kou said she was concerned about the length of time it would take for all the commissions to complete its work.
"I think it is a matter right now in front of us and I really want it to move more speedily than before," Kou said.
The only provision of the memo that the council rejected was the one calling for staff to consider ways to distinguish between low- and high-income RV dwellers. It also proposed exploring new parking regulations on city streets, once managed spots are available for low-income individuals.
Several council members, including Fine and Councilwoman Alison Cormack pushed back against this means-testing provision.
"It makes assumptions based on data we don't have yet and it extends it from helping people who are currently living in cars to changing parking regulations in the streets," Cormack said. "I'm not comfortable with that."
The council approved an amendment by Cormack to delete the provision by a 4-2 vote, with Kou and Tanaka dissenting.
For Palo Alto, the proposed is just the latest attempt to deal with the issue of RV parking. In 2014, the council briefly explored a safe-parking program at local churches but that program never advanced.
In 2013, the city responded to the growing number of resident complaints about people sleeping in cars near their homes by banning car camping. That council repealed it the following year, shortly after a U.S. Court of Appeals in the Ninth Circuit struck down a similar law in Los Angeles.
Several residents urged the council to move ahead with the new parking program and, in some cases, go a step further. While the council memo proposes equipping RV-parking sites with bathrooms and showers, resident Edie Keating said it would be extremely helpful for the users of the program to also have electricity access.
Steven Lee, who serves on the Human Relations Commission but was speaking as an individual and not representing the commission argued that the proposed program is a good start to address a growing problem.
"If we are serious about helping residents who are homeless and living in their vehicles, we need to do more than to just provide safe parking lots and access to services. We need to address the root cause and get serious about housing," Lee said shortly before the vote. "It's time that Palo Alto follow the lead of neighboring cities and to get serious about the issue of homelessness and individuals living in RVs."