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.