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Opinion: Survey of Palo Alto faith leaders points to new affordable housing possibilities

Palo Alto is too expensive. The average monthly rents have reached over $3,600. The median home sale is $3.2 million. Gone are the days when you could expect your child's teachers to live in the neighborhood or when hardworking families could scrimp to buy a starter home. Palo Alto doesn't have enough housing for low-income or middle-income neighbors.

Angie Evans, a founding member of Palo Alto Renters' Association, in the home she rents in Palo Alto on Sept. 24, 2021. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

But it doesn't have to be this way. If we focused on creative solutions that subsidized the cost of land for new, affordable housing, we could dig ourselves out over the next decade. Queue the churches that have been added as potential housing sites in Palo Alto.

The city of Palo Alto must identify sites and policies for 6,086 new, affordable homes by Jan. 31, 2023. We don't have to build or permit these homes through this process but we do have to demonstrate a willingness to make them feasible here. These sites and policies will be outlined in the Housing Element of the General Plan, which the City Council must review and the state must certify.

The Housing Element Working Group, appointed by City Council in April 2021, meets monthly during this 18-month process to work through the details of the Housing Element. Included in the city's site selection for future homes are 10 churches zoned for 148 homes in total. Each site allows for anywhere between six homes and 45 homes at a density of 30 dwelling units per acre. If they viewed congregations as a policy approach, they could include an overlay that allows any faith-based institution to build affordable housing, or they could increase the density at the 10 churches they've already selected, making hundreds or even thousands of new homes possible. The group is almost done with site selection and will move on to policies in the coming months, but will these policies be ambitious enough to spur new, affordable homes?

AB 1537 outlines how density can and should be used as a proxy for affordability in the Housing Element process. While density doesn't always mean more affordable rents, affordable housing developers cannot feasibly build below what we call the "density default." Santa Clara County is considered "suburban," so townhome-scale development is presumed affordable at 20 units an acre. State density bonus laws, however, permit moderate-scale apartments at twice this density for 100% affordable development. If affordable housing is the goal of our housing element, shouldn't our minimums be at least equal to the state density bonus laws? Palo Alto has consistently looked toward lower densities as a way to maintain local control. But it's time to consider some changes if we want a more affordable city.

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Despite Palo Alto's reputation as an out-of-touch suburban enclave in Silicon Valley, our community has a long history of embracing economic diversity and public service. Many of the south bay's homeless services and programs were modeled after the 1930s Hotel de Zink shelter that was founded here. In 1973, Palo Alto was the first California city to adopt an inclusionary zoning policy to spur more affordable housing production. This policy requires market-rate developers to build affordable homes. So when did things change and how can we work together to move back toward the core values that made our community a leader in the region?

Earlier this year, when the nonprofit Palo Alto Forward began convening faith leaders from local congregations to talk about how to bridge the gaps between temporary shelter and permanent, affordable housing, we didn't have specific goals in mind. The best community engagement starts with questions — not answers. We met with dozens of leaders over nine months. Since land is the most expensive part of affordable housing development, meeting with land owners who are dedicated to serving the community, like churches, felt like a good place to start.

In September, we began surveying them to see where there were trends. Were they even interested in building affordable housing, and where is there land? Churches reported current uses such as preschools and other community serving facilities on-site and adjacent or attached to nearby parsonages. These homes for clergy are critical for local congregations who want their leadership to remain in the community they are serving — and new, affordable housing on these sites might be a welcome addition.

When asked if congregations would be interested in building affordable housing on their lots, most expressed some level of interest When asked if they would be open to exploring a city-led process to explore this further, over 90% responded "Yes" or "Maybe." Congregations are looking to the city for guidance.

Two-thirds of those congregations had explored the development of affordable housing using their land but had experienced roadblocks. Reasons for not moving forward include shared lots and alleys, zoning designation, proximity to single-family homes, and neighbor reactions to previous and current programs. What was surprising to see is that 85% of respondents expected backlash from neighbors if they built affordable housing. Of equal note though, is that several churches indicated a dialogue would be welcomed by neighbors.

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Given the interest, opportunity and stated roadblocks, it seems clear that a robust community engagement program, coordinated with congregations and their neighbors, should be prioritized by the city of Palo Alto. Hotel de Zink was successful and replicated because it brought together a large cross-section of stakeholders from wealthy philanthropists to clergy to the police chief.

Our community needs a transformative approach to dialogue. Paired with a zoning update, these congregations would change the landscape of affordable housing in Silicon Valley's most exclusive city — and revive the values that brought many of us here.

Angie Evans is the executive director of Palo Alto Forward and can be reached at [email protected]

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Opinion: Survey of Palo Alto faith leaders points to new affordable housing possibilities

by / Contributor

Uploaded: Fri, Nov 19, 2021, 6:50 am

Palo Alto is too expensive. The average monthly rents have reached over $3,600. The median home sale is $3.2 million. Gone are the days when you could expect your child's teachers to live in the neighborhood or when hardworking families could scrimp to buy a starter home. Palo Alto doesn't have enough housing for low-income or middle-income neighbors.

But it doesn't have to be this way. If we focused on creative solutions that subsidized the cost of land for new, affordable housing, we could dig ourselves out over the next decade. Queue the churches that have been added as potential housing sites in Palo Alto.

The city of Palo Alto must identify sites and policies for 6,086 new, affordable homes by Jan. 31, 2023. We don't have to build or permit these homes through this process but we do have to demonstrate a willingness to make them feasible here. These sites and policies will be outlined in the Housing Element of the General Plan, which the City Council must review and the state must certify.

The Housing Element Working Group, appointed by City Council in April 2021, meets monthly during this 18-month process to work through the details of the Housing Element. Included in the city's site selection for future homes are 10 churches zoned for 148 homes in total. Each site allows for anywhere between six homes and 45 homes at a density of 30 dwelling units per acre. If they viewed congregations as a policy approach, they could include an overlay that allows any faith-based institution to build affordable housing, or they could increase the density at the 10 churches they've already selected, making hundreds or even thousands of new homes possible. The group is almost done with site selection and will move on to policies in the coming months, but will these policies be ambitious enough to spur new, affordable homes?

AB 1537 outlines how density can and should be used as a proxy for affordability in the Housing Element process. While density doesn't always mean more affordable rents, affordable housing developers cannot feasibly build below what we call the "density default." Santa Clara County is considered "suburban," so townhome-scale development is presumed affordable at 20 units an acre. State density bonus laws, however, permit moderate-scale apartments at twice this density for 100% affordable development. If affordable housing is the goal of our housing element, shouldn't our minimums be at least equal to the state density bonus laws? Palo Alto has consistently looked toward lower densities as a way to maintain local control. But it's time to consider some changes if we want a more affordable city.

Despite Palo Alto's reputation as an out-of-touch suburban enclave in Silicon Valley, our community has a long history of embracing economic diversity and public service. Many of the south bay's homeless services and programs were modeled after the 1930s Hotel de Zink shelter that was founded here. In 1973, Palo Alto was the first California city to adopt an inclusionary zoning policy to spur more affordable housing production. This policy requires market-rate developers to build affordable homes. So when did things change and how can we work together to move back toward the core values that made our community a leader in the region?

Earlier this year, when the nonprofit Palo Alto Forward began convening faith leaders from local congregations to talk about how to bridge the gaps between temporary shelter and permanent, affordable housing, we didn't have specific goals in mind. The best community engagement starts with questions — not answers. We met with dozens of leaders over nine months. Since land is the most expensive part of affordable housing development, meeting with land owners who are dedicated to serving the community, like churches, felt like a good place to start.

In September, we began surveying them to see where there were trends. Were they even interested in building affordable housing, and where is there land? Churches reported current uses such as preschools and other community serving facilities on-site and adjacent or attached to nearby parsonages. These homes for clergy are critical for local congregations who want their leadership to remain in the community they are serving — and new, affordable housing on these sites might be a welcome addition.

When asked if congregations would be interested in building affordable housing on their lots, most expressed some level of interest When asked if they would be open to exploring a city-led process to explore this further, over 90% responded "Yes" or "Maybe." Congregations are looking to the city for guidance.

Two-thirds of those congregations had explored the development of affordable housing using their land but had experienced roadblocks. Reasons for not moving forward include shared lots and alleys, zoning designation, proximity to single-family homes, and neighbor reactions to previous and current programs. What was surprising to see is that 85% of respondents expected backlash from neighbors if they built affordable housing. Of equal note though, is that several churches indicated a dialogue would be welcomed by neighbors.

Given the interest, opportunity and stated roadblocks, it seems clear that a robust community engagement program, coordinated with congregations and their neighbors, should be prioritized by the city of Palo Alto. Hotel de Zink was successful and replicated because it brought together a large cross-section of stakeholders from wealthy philanthropists to clergy to the police chief.

Our community needs a transformative approach to dialogue. Paired with a zoning update, these congregations would change the landscape of affordable housing in Silicon Valley's most exclusive city — and revive the values that brought many of us here.

Angie Evans is the executive director of Palo Alto Forward and can be reached at [email protected]

Comments

John Sack
Registered user
Barron Park
on Nov 20, 2021 at 6:11 am
John Sack, Barron Park
Registered user
on Nov 20, 2021 at 6:11 am

If a church, as a tax-exempt institution, were to convert some of its property to a taxable use, wouldn't it have to go through the challenge of getting is property split into parcels and then pay taxes on the properties that are slated for development?
This wasn't listed in the 'barriers' and I would have thought it was a big one. But maybe there's some way to bypass these challenges?


community member
Registered user
University South
on Nov 20, 2021 at 12:52 pm
community member, University South
Registered user
on Nov 20, 2021 at 12:52 pm

Palo Alto Forward is an organization led by, and for, developers. This writer's working for them reduces her credibility, I believe.


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Nov 20, 2021 at 2:14 pm
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Nov 20, 2021 at 2:14 pm

Besides Palo Alto Forward, Evans is also heavily involved with the YIMBY movement which is also an arm of Peninsula For Everyone, that new group that started the brouhaha in College Terrace when it put up those infamous and incendiary posters equating everyone who opposed the proposed apartment building to the gun-toting couple i St Louis.


RDR
Registered user
another community
on Nov 20, 2021 at 2:16 pm
RDR, another community
Registered user
on Nov 20, 2021 at 2:16 pm

The logic in the piece is conflating the issue of what is zoned with the alleged price of land, even though it says the state laws require zoning but not actual construction. The issue of the church land is bogus. There's not enough of it and it's generally the worst place imaginable for increased density. You'd be better off building market rate new homes on the church land FOR A PROFIT and then somehow diverting that profit to construct the affordable housing elsewhere. So maybe that's what the developers are after...

It's pretty obvious that the only places that could be suitable for housing density are in the office parks. Some of these are located near El Camino Real where they offer little benefit for the R&D offices. Still getting a 20% increase in the number of housing units in the city is a ridiculous goal which is unlikely to happen however things are zoned. There are some single family homes and existing older apartments in areas like this, near commercial/service/retail business.


mjh
Registered user
College Terrace
on Nov 20, 2021 at 4:03 pm
mjh, College Terrace
Registered user
on Nov 20, 2021 at 4:03 pm

"It's pretty obvious that the only places that could be suitable for housing density are in the office parks."

With Sacramento's new housing bill AB9 just passed I believe that rezoning and city permission are no longer required to build 4 housing units on any single family lot, including no parking required. According to SB9 this permit is "by right " with no permission from the city required. In Palo Alto the cost of land is bid up so high I don't know if a developer could make more money on 4 smaller luxury housing units or one big luxury mansion.


relentlesscactus
Registered user
another community
on Nov 20, 2021 at 4:34 pm
relentlesscactus, another community
Registered user
on Nov 20, 2021 at 4:34 pm

"What was surprising to see is that 85% of respondents expected backlash from neighbors if they built affordable housing." -- Why is that surprising, I wondered? Then I saw the author of the article is an affordable housing activist. At some point one needs to realize basic economics. When you make housing affordable to one group of people, and equal number of people the next step up the ladder are now rendered unable to buy. This cycle never ends. That's why subsidized housing is nonsensical.


mjh
Registered user
College Terrace
on Nov 20, 2021 at 6:07 pm
mjh, College Terrace
Registered user
on Nov 20, 2021 at 6:07 pm

Last time I looked, YIMBY had pages and pages of tech companies listed as supporters and donors. These companies, developers, and affiliated high profile "non-profits" are successfully lobbying in Sacramento to replace single family neighborhoods with high density so-called affordable "workforce" housing to fuel their ever increasing hiring expansion plans.

We are told that building additional peninsula housing is "simple" economics 101. Increase the supply and the price will go down. Except this assumes demand staying static. Except in Silicon Valley real estate any increase in housing supply is matched by an increase in demand from companies eager to expand their local workforce.


RDR
Registered user
another community
on Nov 20, 2021 at 6:09 pm
RDR, another community
Registered user
on Nov 20, 2021 at 6:09 pm

SB9's potential effect is way overblown. It requires splitting the parcel in two in order to get 4 units. Otherwise the big deal is that it allows 2 houses on one lot. But we already have mandatory approval for ADU's being added to ANY lot so 2 units is already always allowed. The ability to split a lot is almost always going to require tearing down the existing house, so that's a major obstacle to this idea of reducing lot sizes.

Anyway, having 1 or 2 extra units per existing home is not going to yield any sort of density. The city can't count every home as potentially adding a new unit to meet the RHNA targets.

Also consider that any housing that is new is inherently going to market for a higher amount than older housing. Adding 2nd houses to existing lots will only happen at all because THOSE WILL BE SOME VERY expensive houses.


Amie
Registered user
Downtown North
on Nov 20, 2021 at 11:46 pm
Amie, Downtown North
Registered user
on Nov 20, 2021 at 11:46 pm

We need all the creative solutions we can think of, and this is a good one. There are families sleeping in cars in Palo Alto, those same families include folks who work at the local businesses we all frequent - we aren't talking about just tech workers. This is unacceptable when there is land available for housing and folks who potentially want to build affordable housing. We should build housing wherever we can!


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Nov 21, 2021 at 12:36 pm
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Nov 21, 2021 at 12:36 pm

This is a national problem, rife with speculators, big companies and scammers. It's not just a Palo Alto problem although Palo Alto's sure attracting the scammers.


"The blistering housing market has investors calling homeowners with uninvited offers

Homeowners are being besieged by unsolicited texts and phone calls by people seeking to buy their homes. Some are from individual house flippers, while others are from large real estate companies."

Web Link


My personal favorite was a radio ad saying something like "Cash, cash, cash in 7 MINUTES. We'll close on your house i just 7 minutes."


RDR
Registered user
another community
on Nov 21, 2021 at 2:16 pm
RDR, another community
Registered user
on Nov 21, 2021 at 2:16 pm

It's an example of a nonsense "idea." First, the "faith leader" doesn't own the church or its land. The catholic church in Mountain View did a development on their parking lot. They build an office/retail building complex with underground parking. This made the diocese a lot of money. So it's not unheard of.

But the falsehood is that the churches are going to just give away their land. That's faulty.

But why stop at churches? What's special about their parking lots? They operate schools and day care during the week and use the parking all week long. But every busienss in Palo Alto has a parking lot, as do the schools. Why not build this housing on the elementary school parking lots, and the parking lots at the office buildings in the industrial park? Of course, they'd want money for their land too, and you would need to build them a parking garage as well.


stephen levy
Registered user
University South
on Nov 22, 2021 at 8:54 am
stephen levy, University South
Registered user
on Nov 22, 2021 at 8:54 am

As the op-ed points out, the city is including some church sites already in the site selection process t o identify sites for new housing.
I support the idea of creating an overlay zone (as we have done previously for 100% below-market-rate projects) so that congregations and faith leaders can have housing built on their sites where feasible for low-income congregants, staff and residents.

Palo Alto Forward is pleased that Angie Evans was able to reach out to local faith leaders to listen to their hopes and concerns and I am doubly pleased that they warmed to the idea of providing deed-restricted housing.

I hope council will create an overlay zone as they did for the Wilton Court project and look forward to see what happens next.


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Nov 22, 2021 at 10:56 am
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Nov 22, 2021 at 10:56 am

Of course you and your big tech and big developers are. That's what they pay you to do.


RDR
Registered user
another community
on Nov 22, 2021 at 2:17 pm
RDR, another community
Registered user
on Nov 22, 2021 at 2:17 pm

Interesting. There seems to be an error in the article about the number. The Palo Alto RHNA quota is 6086 Total, but only about 56% of this is for "affordable" units, including "moderate" income level. 44% are market rate housing. If you include "moderate" the BMR units total about 3300.

So, the imagine 148 or so on church properties is a pretty insignificant portion of the goal. It won't help much. The big location the city is seeking seems to be in the office properties, which makes the most sense.


RDR
Registered user
another community
on Nov 22, 2021 at 2:17 pm
RDR, another community
Registered user
on Nov 22, 2021 at 2:17 pm

imagined/hoped for units on church properties.


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