On Monday night, the debate moved to the council, which heard from more than 40 residents and received dozens of letters and emails on the topic. Most urged the council to move ahead with the new zone, which they argued is deeply needed to keep residents who cannot keep up with the city's soaring rents. Others urged caution and asked the council to make sure the developments won't burden neighborhoods with inadequate parking and excessive heights.
Just about everyone in the crowded room agreed that affordable housing is an important priority, but there was disagreement about what exactly this means. Some people favored a relatively expansive definition that would apply to housing for residents earning up to 120 percent of area median income; others advocated for a more restrictive zone that would be limited to housing for residents who make below 60 percent of area median income.
Ultimately the council voted for the broader definition, which was recommended by the city's planning staff and heavily favored by Mayor Liz Kniss and Councilman Adrian Fine. In explaining her support, Kniss hearkened back to the 1970s, a period when, she said, Palo Alto enjoyed more diversity in occupations and income levels.
"It's important for our kids, it's important for you and it's important for those people who are here. Without (housing) production, you no longer get that diversity," Kniss said.
The proposal for the new zoning district was inspired by two sources: Palo Alto's dismal record in creating affordable housing and a recent proposal by the nonprofit Palo Alto Housing to construct a 57-apartment affordable-housing development on El Camino Real, near Wilton Avenue.
While the council and the planning commission have each expressed support for the Palo Alto Housing proposal, members in each body sharply disagreed about the best way to get there. Some favored the new affordable-housing district; others recommended negotiating a "planned community" (PC) zone for the Wilton project and taking more time to refine the proposed affordable-housing ordinance. The PC zone, which the city hasn't used since 2013, allows developers to negotiate with the city over zoning concessions and "public benefits" on a project-by-project basis.
Fine, whose memo last November sparked the creation of the city's new Housing Work Plan, made a case for moving ahead with the zone change and to make the new district applicable to housing for residents making up to 120 percent of area median income: up to $102,000 for a two-person household.
"Our community is speaking loudly and clearly about the need for affordable housing," Fine said. "This overlay is aimed at 100 percent affordable housing. It doesn't get much better than that."
Many agreed. More than 300 signed a petition circulated by the citizens group Palo Alto Forward in support of the affordable-housing combining district. Elaine Uang, co-founder of the group, said the new zoning tool would create a "structured process for approving projects."
"We need a more predictable tool and a better set of project requirements for affordable housing," Uang said.
The PC zone, which was last used by Palo Alto Housing for a housing development on Maybell Avenue (a project that faltered after voters overturned the PC zone in a referendum), is a "waste of people's time and money," she said.
Some took a different view. Holman and Kou both championed the approach favored by the majority of the Planning and Transportation Commission, which wasn't sold on the new affordable-housing zone and which recommended the PC-zone approach and further refinement of the new district proposal. On March 14, the commission voted 4-3 not to create the new district just yet, prompting the three dissenting members to draft a minority opinion, urging the establishment of the zone.
Holman argued Monday that allowing the new zone to apply to any project for those who make below 120 percent AMI would put projects that target the lowest-income levels at a disadvantage. She also objected to a provision in the motion that would allow properties that currently allow office space to continue to do so.
"The people developing (housing for) up to 60 percent AMI will be in direct competition with those developing more expensive housing," Holman said.
Some speakers Monday agreed and said the new zone should be laser-focused on those in the lower stratum of the "affordable housing" spectrum.
Resident Jieming Robinson said the zone should be for the lower-income housing category and urged the council not to relax the parking standards too much. Staff had proposed requiring only a half-parking-space per housing unit, which Robinson said is not reasonable.
Becky Sanders and Sheri Furman, co-chairs of the residents' group Palo Alto Neighborhoods, rejected as "wishful thinking" the premise that many people in affordable-housing complexes won't drive.
"There is no data to support the claim that people who live in apartments will ride the bus and not own cars," Sanders and Furman wrote. "It is misleading that ECR (El Camino Real) and Cal. Ave. are transit-rich when frankly there is only one significant public bus route and not enough trains to meet peak-hour demand."
The council largely agreed. Fine's proposal raised the parking requirement to 0.75 spaces per unit, while allowing the planning director to modify the standard based on a parking study showing that fewer spaces would be needed. The council also agreed to set a requirement of no more than 0.3 spaces per units for housing projects aimed at residents with special needs.
The council made a few other refinements to the ordinance. It directed staff to explore including moderate- and high-density residential zones — RM-15 and RM-30, respectively — in the new combining district. This would be an expansion of the staff proposal, which only made commercial zones eligible for the district.
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