For months, Dawn Wood watched hopefully as the four-story building down the street from her family's home transformed from concept to reality.
Every day, the Palo Alto resident would walk by and look through the fence and take note of all the progress: the laying of the rebar, the pouring of the elevator shafts, the installation of tiles in the building's facade, which she was pleased to see were not just Styrofoam boards with veneer.
"I was going, 'That's so cool — actual tiles. That's going to wear really well,'" she recalled.
For Wood, 42, the ritual was not merely an exercise in curiosity. Living with cerebral palsy and developmental Gerstmann's syndrome, a cognitive impairment that makes it impossible for her to navigate around the city, drive or handwrite, she needs assistance to get to her destinations and to fill all the paperwork associated with receiving aid. After living in San Jose, where she attended college and studied anthropology, she moved back to her family home on Wilton Avenue, taking up the back to bedrooms while seeking opportunities for independent living.
The new 50-foot-tall building at 3705 El Camino Real represented her best chance to remain in the community where she grew up. She corresponded with Alta Housing, the nonprofit that developed the project, during the construction and was happy to learn in recent weeks that she would be one of the first tenants at Wilton Court, a 59-apartment complex for low-income residents and individuals with disabilities.
Her new apartment features a galley kitchen, a spacious bathroom and a large closet on the side of a living room that overlooks an outdoor podium furnished with tables, chairs and lemon and lime trees. Every floor in the building is color-coded for easy recognition, and the ground floor features colorful murals, a laundry room, a storage room for bicycle parking and a community room that will feature game nights, fitness programs and classes offered by the Palo Alto Adult School.
"It's like winning a lottery to have it land in your backyard," Wood said during a recent interview in her new apartment. "Normally, you go where the housing is. So, I think it's wonderful that it's an actually available place."
The project, which hosted a grand opening ceremony on Thursday morning, also represents a major milestone for Alta Housing, which was founded in Palo Alto and suffered a stinging setback in 2013, when voters overturned in a referendum a zone change that would have enabled it to build a residential complex on Maybell Avenue with 60 apartments for low-income seniors and 12 single-family homes. In the years following the vote, the nonprofit, which was then known as the Palo Alto Housing Corporation, left its hometown, changed its name and pursued projects in the neighboring communities of Redwood City and Mountain View.
Wilton Court took nearly a decade to plan, design and construct. Randy Tsuda, CEO of Alta Housing, told a crowd of assembled dignitaries, housing advocates and city staff Thursday that the nonprofit is thrilled to be back in Palo Alto, which he said "will always be our home."
"As many of you know, Alta is now building projects throughout San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, but building here in Palo Alto, our hometown, where we had roots for 52 years now, this is an especially meaningful and especially noteworthy occasion," Tsuda said.
Wilton Court also offers a rare victory for housing advocates in Palo Alto, a city that has struggled over the past decade to address what city officials routinely acknowledge is a crisis of housing affordability. When the City Council voted in January 2019 to approve Wilton Court, the development became the first affordable-housing project to win approval in seven years.
Even as affordable housing has consistently topped the council's list of priorities, the city remains well below its regionally mandated target for below-market-rate units. In the current cycle of the Regional Housing Needs Allocation, which stretches from 2015 to 2022, the city has issued permits for just 101 units catering to the "very low" income level and 60 at the "low" income level, according to data from the city's Department of Planning and Development Services.
The task of adding affordable housing will become even more critical in the coming years, with state mandates becoming more ambitious and new laws adding consequences for cities that fall short. In the next cycle, which goes from 2023 to 2031, Palo Alto is required to plan for 778 residences in the "very low" income category and another 778 in the "extremely low" income bracket.
For Alta Housing, the journey toward Wilton Court was decidedly different from its Maybell experience. The Ventura neighborhood has been broadly supportive of the project and the council helped get it off the ground with two loans totaling more than $20 million. Members of the Ventura Neighborhood Association also toured the facility just days before its grand opening.
"It's not every time that you get to say thank you to the neighborhood, but I think it is incredibly noteworthy that the Ventura neighborhood came out in support of this project at the Palo Alto City Council," Tsuda said, singling out Becky Sanders, moderator of the Ventura Neighborhood Association and a project supporter.
Palo Alto leaders hope that Wilton Court will be the first in a series of affordable-housing projects to open in the coming months and years. The city is now working with the nonprofit LifeMoves to open a transitional-housing project on San Antonio Road, near the Baylands. Other projects now going through the city's development pipeline include 525 E. Charleston Road, a development by Eden Housing that will include 50 affordable units; a planned 110-apartment complex for teachers at 231 Grant Ave.; and a project pitched by Charities Housing that would bring 129 below-market-rate apartments to an El Camino Real site formerly occupied by Mike's Bikes.
Mayor Pat Burt highlighted these projects during the Thursday ceremony, calling them a reflection of the city's values.
"There is a shared value structure," Burt said. "There is a value of diversity in our housing and affordable housing. And neighbors will support these projects, we just have to engage and tweak things on the margins. Every one of those things can be accomplished if we take that approach."