Palo Alto's effort to craft a new housing vision got off to a rocky start Monday with the City Council at odds over appointments to a new citizens panel before approving the roster through a partisan process and a razor-thin vote.
With the council's recently empowered "residentialist" wing pitted against the rest of their colleagues, the elected leaders appointed the new Housing Element Working Group by a 4-3 vote, with Vice Mayor Pat Burt and council members Alison Cormack and Greg Tanaka dissenting. The group, which consists of 15 members and two alternates, will be charged with drafting Palo Alto's Housing Element, a state-mandated document that will lay out the city's strategies for boosting its housing supply and identify potential sites for new residential developments.
For those in dissent, the biggest problem was the appointment process. Faced with 80 applicants for the 17 positions, as well as specific criteria for membership, council members had different ideas about who should fill these spots. Any substantive discussion of the group's roster was curtailed, however, when three council members — Mayor Tom Dubois and council members Eric Filseth and Greer Stone — presented a list of their preferred appointments that they had put together over the weekend. Council member Lydia Kou, who frequently aligns with DuBois, Filseth and Stone on the council's slow-growth wing, added her vote to their list, giving them the majority that they needed to advance it.
The 15 members who were appointed to the panel are Anupa Bajwa, Sheena Chin, Aishetu Fatima Dozie, Hamilton Hitchings, Rahsan Hosqur Karahan, Kathryn Jordan, Arthur Keller, Sheryl Klein, Ed Lauing, Jennifer Liu, Pat Markevitch, Keith Reckdahl, Jean Snider, Jessenia Solorio and Randolph Tsien. The two alternates are Jessica von Borck and Dina Bartello. Consistent with the council's prior direction, members include representatives from an affordable housing provider (Klein of Alta Housing), Stanford University (Snider), as well as residents who are renters, school and community volunteers and neighborhood leaders.
Notably missing from the final list are any residents who have publicly supported state legislation that would have relaxed zoning rules in single-family neighborhoods. Raven Malone and Steven Lee, who both ran for council last year, did not get appointed. Neither did Stephen Levy, an economist who helps regional organizations develop housing methodology, nor Angie Evans, who works with Palo Alto Forward . Planning Director Jonathan Lait observed that the list also does not include any market-rate housing developers — an omission that none of the four supporters of the final list deemed to be problematic.
"I don't think there's a problem with representation and market-rate developers," Kou said. "They know their way around."
Those in the council's dissenting camp acknowledged that there is no easy way to make real-time appointments, given the size of the applicant pool. Burt called it the "strongest group of applicants I've ever seen for any board commission, advisory body that we've had in Palo Alto." But while he said that he would likely have supported some of the candidates that DuBois, Filseth and Stone brought forward for consideration, he took issue with the take-it-or-leave-it tactics of his three colleagues.
"I think you pushed us into a circumstance where the rest of us will have to offer substitute motions that will probably fail and you're insisting that we vote up or down on your list," Burt said. "And I think this is really wrong."
Filseth said that he, DuBois and Stone had spent considerable time prior to the meeting going over each applicant's background and checking, among other areas, their social media posts to evaluate whether they would be a good fit for the group. DuBois said he was looking for "tone and civility and thoughtfulness" as key criteria in choosing candidates. Filseth said the group looked at the creation of the Housing Element as a "problem-solving exercise" that will consider each part of the city and its suitability for housing growth.
"This is an area where there's a lot of passion and advocacy around this," Filseth said. "But we viewed it that when you kind of set aside all the eloquence, the task itself is really an analytic thing. … It's about optimizing pragmatically within a fairly stringent set of constraints."
Burt and Cormack strongly objected and tried to modify the list by adding other candidates that they should be considered, with the hope that the council would then vote on each candidate. Among the candidates they had tried to add to the list were Malone, architect Jessica Resmini, who specializes in accessory dwelling units, and Cara Silver, a Midtown resident and former assistant city attorney. Tanaka also proposed adding Levy to the roster, citing his expertise in economic modeling.
But with DuBois, Filseth, Kou and Stone holding firm, all attempts to modify the list or change the appointment process fell by a 3-4 vote.
Cormack joined Burt in strongly rebuking the way in which her colleagues went about constructing and presenting the list, including their use of social media posts as criteria for making appointments.
"I don't think this is a balanced list of people. … I just feel like we're been presented with a list that three people worked on," Cormack said.
Burt similarly argued that it's not right for three candidates to "do the thinking for all of us and limit the options to those that you had selected as a committee."
"You weren't given the mandate and yet you acted that way and it's coming to the council," Burt told DuBois, Filseth and Stone. "And I think it's inappropriate."
The new panel will hold its first meeting on May 6, with the goal of completing the Housing Element for the 2023-2031 period by October 2022.