The Palo Alto City Council formalized its resistance to recent state and regional efforts to boost housing supply on Monday night, when it adopted a resolution reaffirming its commitment to "local control."
In a 6-1 vote that illustrated the council's increasingly antagonistic stance toward Sacramento in the aftermath of last November's election, the council endorsed a proposed resolution from council members Lydia Kou and Greer Stone. Alison Cormack was the council member who voted against the resolution, which commits the city to strongly opposing the practice of the state Legislature of "continually proposing and passing multitudes of bills that directly impact and interfere with the ability of cities to control their own destiny through the use of the zoning authority that has been granted to them."
In a memo to their colleagues, Kou and Stone cited numerous bills that state legislators had tried to pass in the past two years, including Senate Bill 50, which would have allowed more density in transit corridors and job-rich areas, and Senate Bill 1120, which would have allowed up to four housing units in single-family residential zones. While neither bill ultimately advanced, Kou and Stone assert in the memo that state legislators have indicated that they "will continue to introduce legislation that will override local zoning ordinances for the development and production of affordable housing in conjunction with mixed use and/or luxury condominium and apartment housing."
The adopted resolution states that the majority of these bills "usurp the authority of local jurisdictions to determine for themselves the land use policies and practices that best suit each city and its residents and instead impose mandates that do not take into account the needs and differences of jurisdictions throughout the State of California."
The council "feels strongly that our local government is best able to assess the needs of our community and objects to the proliferation of State legislation that deprives us of that ability," the resolution states. It also declares that the city is "strongly opposed to the current practice of the legislature of the State of California of continually proposing and passing multitudes of bills that directly impact and interfere with the ability of cities to control their own destiny through use of the zoning authority that has been granted to them."
These efforts, Kou argued Monday, fail to recognize and account for the "unique character" of individual cities.
"The kind of legislation that is enacted in the end does not give homeowners — people who have invested in their community — a sense of confidence, not knowing what's going to be coming up next to them and what kind of cumulative negative impacts there will be," Kou said.
Stone, a vehement critic of Senate Bill 50, said that one of the major frustrations that he and other members of the community have had with recent state legislation is that it imposes a mandate without providing any funding to address the community's most urgent need, affordable housing. Instead, the bills being issued by state lawmakers are "creating much more market-rate housing but not providing the funding mechanisms to be able to create affordable housing."
"My belief is that local governments are in the best position to know what is right for their communities and understand the historical complexities and issues that get in the way of addressing our most critical problems, which is the affordable housing piece, and helping create the diversity of community members who have historically been left out of the process," Stone said.
Despite its opposition to state mandates, the council and staff are still exploring new ways to encourage housing construction projects and meet its obligations under the Regional Housing Needs Assessment. In recent years, the city has created a new zoning district that allows additional density and other zoning exemptions for below-market-rate housing and formed a "planned housing" zone that allows residential developers to negotiate with the city over zoning standards.
Last month, the council signaled preliminary support for a 113-apartment project that is seeking to use the "planned housing" zone. Next week, it will evaluate another housing proposal to build 290-apartment complex at the corner of Fabian Way and East Charleston Road.
Vice Mayor Pat Burt, who had strongly opposed SB 50 in 2019, maintained on Monday that the state has a strong role to play when it comes to housing. He lauded the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing law that the state passed in 2018, which requires cities to take proactive measures to target housing inequality relating to factors such as race, national origin, ancestry and religion.
While Burt said he welcomes such guidance, he criticized bills that impose new zoning standards such as height and density restrictions. He cited Senate Bill 35, which creates a streamlined approval process for housing projects in cities that fail to meet their obligations under the Regional Housing Needs Assessment process.
Palo Alto has consistently fallen well short on the regional housing targets, particularly when it comes to units that target "low" and "very low" income individuals. In the current RHNA cycle, which goes from 2015 to 2023, the council had approved only 43 units in the "very low" income category of the 691 units it was assigned, according to an August 2020 report. In the "low" income category, the city had approved 65 units, well below the 435 units it was allocated.
Now, having failed to achieve its housing targets in the current cycle, the council is bracing for higher housing targets in the next one. The Association of Bay Area Governments, which is charged with making the allocations to individual cities, has released preliminary methodology showing that Palo Alto will be required to plan for about 6,000 new housing units between 2023 and 2031.
"We now have seen that SB 35, coupled with the latest dubious RHNA allocations, will mandate on cities that they have to streamline and automatically approve projects that are massively above their zoning, that create more jobs than housing, exacerbating the jobs-housing imbalance, and provide disproportionately little affordable housing," Burt said Monday.
The Monday resolution was inspired by similar efforts elsewhere in the state. Kou pointed to the city of Torrance, which had taken a similar stance. Mike Griffiths, a council member of Torrance, submitted an email to council members from Palo Alto and other cities last year, urging them to take a stand against state mandates.
The council's position against broad state legislation hardened this year, with former council members Liz Kniss and Adrian Fine both concluding their council terms. Both had strongly advocated for housing and Fine was the only council member who supported SB 50. By contrast, both Stone and Burt had written opinion pieces criticizing the bill prior to getting elected.
While Cormack, who had frequently sided with Kniss and Fine on votes pertaining to housing, dissented on Monday, other council members happily endorsed the memo from Kou and Stone and approved the resolution.
Even before the Monday hearing, members have routinely disparaged state and regional efforts to impose housing targets, which they argued are unrealistic and unachievable. At the council's annual retreat on Saturday, council member Eric Filseth called the recent Sacramento bills and regional housing mandates "a giant pile of virtue signaling."
"I continue to be disappointed in Sacramento and the region, which blithely hands out enormous affordable housing targets that they know perfectly well will not be built because they're not funding them," Filseth said.