Controversial housing bill splits Palo Alto council | May 19, 2023 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - May 19, 2023

Controversial housing bill splits Palo Alto council

As members vote 4-3 to oppose SB 423, some argue that city's opposition does not reflect community views

by Gennady Sheyner

For years, the Palo Alto City Council has been nearly unanimous in opposing state bills that allow new residential developments to be denser and that curb the rights of cities to reject housing projects, characterizing the bills as an attack on local control.

The city's last two mayors, Tom DuBois and Pat Burt, both used their "State of the City" speeches to criticize the state's process for issuing housing mandates and new laws that punish jurisdictions that fail to meet their quotas. Current Mayor Lydia Kou, who has been a particularly vociferous opponent of recent housing legislation, on Monday cited California's approach to housing as one of the major reasons for her decision to seek a seat in the state Assembly.

That pattern appeared to break Monday, May 15, when the council found itself split over the most contentious bill in the current package of housing legislation. Senate Bill 423, which is being spearheaded by state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, aims to modify and extend indefinitely the provisions of SB 35, a 2017 bill that creates a streamlined process for residential development in areas that fall short on housing. SB 423 would eliminate the sunset clause from SB 35, which would otherwise expire on Jan. 1, 2025; revise labor provisions for projects that are constructed under the bill's provision; and get rid of an existing exemption for coastal areas.

Much like in years past, the council voted Monday to submit a letter opposing the new state bill. But unlike in prior years, the vote was 4-3. And unlike in the past, the dissenting members insisted that the letter included the vote count, thus ensuring that the city's opposition for SB 423 would be perceived as half-hearted at best.

"I would not want anyone receiving the letter to think this is a unanimous opinion of our City Council," said Julie Lythcott-Haims, who joined council members Vicki Veenker and Greg Tanaka in voting against issuing a letter of opposition.

She pointed to communities around the state that are creating policies to avoid building housing and alluded to Woodside's recent attempt to declare itself a mountain lion sanctuary. State laws like SB 423 intend to hold communities accountable, she said.

"I'm very interested in why we've been recommended to oppose what at least some of us see as a tool that the state has come up with to hold cities accountable to provide housing for humans," Lythcott-Haims said.

Tanaka similarly said he supports SB 423 because it encourages cities to build housing and streamlines the approval process. Veenker noted that the legislative guidelines that the council uses to determine whether to support legislation were adopted last year, before three new members joined the council. She suggested not submitting any position letters at all on SB 423, but the council majority overruled her.

The four members who supported submitting a letter of opposition to SB 423 — Mayor Lydia Kou, Vice Mayor Greer Stone and council members Pat Burt and Ed Lauing — reiterated their often expressed concerns about state legislation infringing on local rights. They also argued, much like in the past, that adding affordable housing would require major government subsidies and that unfunded mandates from the state do not actually address the region's housing affordability crisis. Burt referred to SB 423 as "SB35 on steroids" and urged his colleagues to approve the letter of opposition. Stone agreed.

"I think our ability to know what are the problems that we are addressing here in Palo Alto and how best to solve them is one of the reasons I'm in local government," Stone said. "I think we can solve a lot of our problems. In areas where we need help, we need money, and we need a lot of money to address affordable housing. To say, 'Do this or suffer the consequences!' is not getting that housing done."

The vote on SB 423 reflects a broader shift on the council since last year's election, which resulted in Lauing, Lythcott-Haims and Veenker taking over seats that were previously held by DuBois and Eric Filseth, both of whom had strongly opposed state housing legislation, and Alison Cormack, who was affiliated with the more growth-friendly faction. Veenker suggested that the last election resulted in some "evolved views by the council."

"I think we're a split community and to the extent that this is a very important bill, I would actually like more information on it," Veenker said. "So I think at this point it's better to not take a position."

The letter comes at a critical time in the state's legislative process. Lawmakers have introduced about 2,600 bills in the current session, many of which will be reviewed on Thursday, May 18, by the Appropriations Committee in each chamber. Legislation would then either advance or wither on the committees' "suspense calendar." Each bill has until June 2 to cross over into the other legislative chamber, according to Niccola De Luca, vice president of Townsend Public Affairs, the city's Sacramento lobbyist.

Council weighs in on other bills

While SB 423 generated the most discussion Monday, the council found far more consensus on most of the other bills it was considering. The council unanimously approved sending letters of support for Assembly Bill 1598, gun-safety legislation by Assembly member Marc Berman, D-Menlo Park, that requires the state Department of Justice to create a study guide that explains the risk and benefits of firearm ownership; and Senate Bill 2, legislation by Sen. Anthony Portantino, D-Burbank, that creates a new process for issuing licenses for concealed firearms in the aftermath of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that effectively made it illegal for California to require applicants to demonstrate "good cause."

They also unanimously supported Senate Bill 634 by Sen. Josh Becker, D-San Mateo, which would expand by-right approval of "opportunity housing" complexes — navigation centers that provide shelter and support services for unhoused individuals.

The council also unanimously agreed Monday to oppose Assembly Bill 1673, a proposal by Assembly member Jaqcui Irwin, D-Thousand Oaks, that would require all cities to switch to a .gov Internet domain.

The city also previously endorsed two bills by Sen. Susan Eggman, D-Stockton, pertaining to mental health. SB 43 updates the definition of "gravely disabled" to include more individuals with mental health or substance abuse problems while SB 363 establishes an online dashboard to display the availability of beds in psychiatric and substance abuse facilities.

Kou had also previously signed letters of support for AB 1505, a proposal by Assembly member Freddie Rodriguez, D-Chino, to appropriate $250 million for seismic upgrades to multifamily homes; and SB 719, a bill by Becker that would require law enforcement agencies to make their radio communications accessible to the public.


Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on May 16, 2023 at 5:35 pm

Annette is a registered user.

Good for CC for opposing SB-423. Cities throughout the state should do the same. Mandates should be funded. Absent that, housing of the sort that is needed is not going to be built. It's really that simple. Developers do what they do to make money and around here, affordable housing doesn't pencil out.

Groups that define themselves as pro-housing should start pressuring the state to fund its mandates rather than constantly decrying so-called nimbyism. Without the funding for affordable housing, Housing Elements throughout the state are futile, wasteful, theory-based exercises. The State also needs to adjust RHNA numbers for post-pandemic realities. Palo Alto's numbers are high because we are - or at least were - "jobs rich". And we supposedly have transit. Now, there are fewer jobs here, commercial vacancies are high, and transit isn't close to sufficient. Even so, there will be changes and some dense housing will be built. But what's added should be what is needed. There's no valid reason to radically change a city by adding housing that doesn't align with what is needed. If we continue to do that by adding market-rate houses for techies who are now working from a home located elsewhere (or, unfortunately, not working) we forfeit any claim we ever had to being a smart or environmentally conscious city.

Posted by fred
a resident of University South
on May 16, 2023 at 7:50 pm

fred is a registered user.


How many people are on waiting lists for affordable housing in Palo Alto? Isn’t that important information for everybody to consider?

Is building 600 units of housing per year a heavy lift?

Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on May 17, 2023 at 6:49 am

Annette is a registered user.

@Fred - I do not know the answer to your question but that is precisely the sort of information that is needed - for starters. Add to that the # of the already homeless and the # of those who don't sign up for affordable housing for whatever reason. And, no, 600 units is not a heavy lift. Cost is key and as things stand, for affordable housing to pencil out we have to build a lot of what we don't really need to get a little of what we do really need. If the state funded its mandates more affordable housing could be built. The state either gets the housing built by reimbursing its mandates, or it pays for the myriad societal and health issues that inevitably result from not having sufficient affordable housing. I think spending on the needed housing is the better use of money. Maybe the researchers at Joint Venture Silicon Valley can quantify all of this. What's needed is money, not more legislation and certainly not more bills that ultimately benefit developers and the politicians they support AND result in more market rate housing (ka-ching) - but don't move the needle on affordable housing. I think it is amazing that Weiner and others like him get re-elected.

Posted by anon
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 17, 2023 at 7:06 am

anon is a registered user.

The heavy lift is by non-profit developers to find funding to outbid market rate developers for land on which to then find funding to build affordable housing.

While Tanaka and Lythcott-Haims behaved in an entirely predictable way - both being big development supporters, Veekner was a huge disappointment on this.

She wants to know more about SB423? Well all she had to do was read it. There isn’t anything arcane about it.

So is she is either not doing basic preparation before council meetings to be informed, or she’s for Palo Alto’s elected council members and their appointees to Boards and Commissions having their hands tied to make land use decisions and policy for our city.

Why she would vote to undermine her and other council members power and mandate is remarkable. Why is she even on council?

Posted by anon1234
a resident of College Terrace
on May 17, 2023 at 7:13 am

anon1234 is a registered user.

Regardless of what the minority thinks, majority opinions are expressed as the opinion of the body even if not unanimous. If one wants more detailed information one can look to minutes to see how the vote split; yes, no, abstain or absent.
It is childish to think that a majority opinion cannot be expressed or delivered in a letter.
Sorry to hear ms Veenker joined Tanaka and lythcot-haims in supporting this destructive bill!
Punitive blunt legislation like this will line the pockets of large property owners and not help with housing affordability and has the potential to further harm our communities by causing greater division, terrible heat islands and destruction of habitat etc…

Last year the state had a huge budget surplus now it’s a deficit. The state still funds the boondoggle known as high speed rail and ignore cities being flooded , terrible public education , agricultural workers ( some children) making below minimum wage and hundreds of thousands who don’t have safe drinking water in California.
If state legislators care so much about “housing humans” why don’t they spend some money doing that instead of imposing unfounded mandates on cities that mostly help large land owners and investment speculators?
Even the ADU laws have no requirement that the units be used for housing!
Alas our Demi attic state looks less and less democratic every day.

Thank you to the Council majority.

Posted by Mondoman
a resident of Green Acres
on May 17, 2023 at 8:30 am

Mondoman is a registered user.

Shouldn't we wait to see if the housing law produced its intended results before removing the sunset clause? This smacks of bad faith by its proponents.

Posted by ALB
a resident of College Terrace
on May 17, 2023 at 8:37 am

ALB is a registered user.

Veenker is known for being a nice person. She knows exactly who benefits from her vote. Her eyes are on the prize — Sacramento. The CC is but a stepping stone to that end as her future goal.

Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on May 17, 2023 at 11:17 am

Online Name is a registered user.

As Burt noted, no one in Sacrament cared who voted for what and it was the city's position and maybe the vote count that was more important.

Methinks Julie only wanted more grist for her campaign fund-raising mill and get more donations from her deep-pocketed pro-development backers.

"While Tanaka and Lythcott-Haims behaved in an entirely predictable way - both being big development supporters, Veekner was a huge disappointment on this. "

It may be a disappointment but was hardly surprising since she, Forsell and Lythcott-Haims were featured in the saturation ads paid for by a some vaguely named commission AFTER the first said it was funded by Steven Levy and other pro-development individuals. When discussing these ads, we called them the "Troika ads"

Doug Moran wrote a lengthy blog post about why candidates chose to hide behind shadow groups rather than report the ad funding as campaign contributions.

Web Link

While searching for Moran's blog, I see that similar ad practices were also used by Liz Kniss, Greg Scharff way back in 2014, too.

Web Link

Posted by Consider Your Options.
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 17, 2023 at 11:41 am

Consider Your Options. is a registered user.

I think SB423 is grossly premature. We don't know what the side effects of the existing housing mandates will be yet. SB 35 forces cities to densify without providing funding for expansion of community services, public schools or transportation, emergency services and public works improvements to support the new density levels. The key to successful land use change and creating a healthy community is BALANCE of land uses and balanced supportive infrastructure. This is the kind of planning that once made Palo Alto a wonderful place to live. What the state is doing makes that kind of context sensitive planning impossible.

These are massively expensive unfunded mandates, and the state should step back to see the effects (that is the whole point of a defined sunset) of this legislation will be. I predict that eliminating the sunset clause will push us toward broad imbalance that will create a whole new set of VERY expensive problems. While I have been supporting housing development, especially affordable housing, but I find the heavy-handed approach in this legislation ill-advised. I don't think it will solve our housing problems. They are much more complex than Sacramento seems to understand.

Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Fairmeadow
on May 17, 2023 at 4:59 pm

Anonymous is a registered user.

The NIMBYs are more vociferous than the YIMBYs, but the tide is clearly turning. As the NIMBY policies create more and more renters who cannot afford to buy their own homes, they will vote for YIMBY policies. We only have to wait and see.

Posted by Gale Johnson
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on May 17, 2023 at 6:22 pm

Gale Johnson is a registered user.

I feel no pressure and no obligation to support Annette's comment just because of her kind words about me in her comment in a previous article, but I do it because it is what I also firmly believe is right. And, "no" I don't have a long beard and you don't have to climb to the mountaintop to get my advice...and of's free! Psst...not always reliable, however! C'mon...lighten up, I'm just trying to add a little humor into this.

But, she was right on one point of her comment about me...that I have many years of experience, living in Palo Alto with issues going back to the 60's. I'm not sure age has made me wiser, certainly not to the "sage" level, but I've seen this play before. It started when Ed Arnold was mayor, and has continued through many years of "ups and downs", pro-growth vs slow-growth (residentialists). I attended a few council meetings back then and I met and talked to Mayor Arnold on several occasions. Council chambers were "spartan" compared to today's chambers, and I think that location is now an Art Center. I found a list of PA mayors, online, going back to the 60's. I remember them, but especially the ones who invited people from my neighborhood to have coffee and chat at Palo Alto Cafe in Midtown. I sat with mayors and city managers and we had open Q&A discussions. They were very informative and gave me a good feeling about what was happening down at City Hall.

The Oregon Expressway was a big issue back in the 60's. Crime, homelessness, and affordable housing, were never issues or an agenda item back then, as far as I can remember. Big towering buildings blocking views of the East Bay hills was an important one, however, for my neighborhood. We lost to Sun MIcrosystems and other companies that built up on Fabian Way. I can barely remember what those hills looked like.

Ed Arnold lived in my part of town. That made his term(s) more important to me.

Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on May 17, 2023 at 6:25 pm

Annette is a registered user.

@Anonymous: all anyone (YIMBY or not) ever had to do was wait. There are natural cycles that occur. None of the name-calling, anger, and disparaging has ever been necessary. Smart, patient people know this and benefit from it. This is one reason that I have come to believe that the issue is more about prevailing than it is about housing. So-called NIMBYs have not created the unaffordability. Sad fact: many so-called NIMBYS are pretty much stuck in their homes b/c they cannot afford to move. Market forces are what they are and if you want to get into a blame game about affordability, look no further than past Council-supported policies that deliberately promoted commercial construction that added jobs but did not mitigate for housing. Basic supply and demand.

Update: Gale Johnson's comment posted as I was responding to Anonymous. I do not know Gale; wish I did.

Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on May 17, 2023 at 6:54 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

"Vociferous"??? Since when is it "vociferous" to ask how a state with a growing deficit is going to fund the affordable housing mandate or to expect someone to explan how increased density is going to lower prices??

High-density cities like Manhattan haven't gotten cheaper, landlords haven't gotten more charitable and land hasn't gotten cheaper.

Re meeting Gale Johnson and other interesting posters, maybe it's time to do another casual get-together like some of us did years ago at Cafe Borrone? We just pick a time and place and invite interested parties to meet us there.

Posted by fred
a resident of University South
on May 17, 2023 at 8:29 pm

fred is a registered user.

Questions: why do so many people assume the state must fund its "mandates"? Many responsibilities of cities require funding that is raised by the cities, The housing laws apply across the board; they are not unique to Palo Alto. Why would Palo Alto be disadvantaged in this respect?

Questions: while the city develops other sources of funding, why not start by developing city owned land, such as parking lots, the old police station, Cubberley, etc? That would eliminate the cost of land, which is the biggest part of the cost.

Posted by Native to the BAY
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 17, 2023 at 9:40 pm

Native to the BAY is a registered user.

OMGosh. “Tanaka and Lythcott-Haims behaved in an entirely predictable way” Really? What absolutely historic rubber stamps are the R1Zoners promoting with the exclusive enclaves of any one of the 10 powerful Neighborhood Associations they promote for their premium SFH homes. Their
pure bred dogs ownership, thier home offices, Expansive garages, 01/03 zips . who all mostly exclude — by rite — multi family home engagement with their bi-laws of snooty tactics. I am going to attend the next PANA meeting and speak my experience. These associations along with the HOA assisting their exclusionary agenda is ripe for a progressive turnover. Greer Stone!!! Haha. word from the rental curb he is cushioned by the comforts of tax credit, local “affordable” housing unit, in one of the premier Alta Housing properties in SOFA. A property which is weighted in gold w a ten year wait list. Totally and utterly predictable that the old guard rank file all vote against the rising tide of us under waged, overly burdened renters. It is really sad that Stone is squandering a potential power base for re-election and not garnering the support of the very pollution he is among and yes, getting a decent fair rent for based on his YTD gross income. I loath the word “despicable” yet his votes (without the backbone, grit or tenacity to reference) are entirely predictable. He’s a graduate of law. Kuo a realtor, Burt an ardent protector of his R1Zone , while Lauing fancies getting the chance to drive his super charged Porsche to and from the CC Dias. [Portion removed.] Ugh. I predict a larger progressive CC change come next election. Too many now suffering under oppressive rental housing burden are gathering steam to upend the decades of “predicable” to more evenly distribute and be recognized as such. Living, working, raising families, investing in our community we call home. Even without the comforts of home ownership.

Posted by Gale Johnson
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on May 18, 2023 at 2:05 pm

Gale Johnson is a registered user.

@Native to the BAY...[portion removed] you've made it very clear whom you think are to blame for causing NIMBY's and ruthless landlords of rental property. Fine! Let's hypothesize...looking ahead to the next election cycle. Let's assume the uprising you are predicting, happens, and the council becomes a solid progressive group, in the ilk of JLH, that will shake things up and do away with the status quo that you think has ruined the city and made it brutally hard for people to live here who can't afford to live here. Then council would have the opportunity to do whatever they want to do to correct all the wrongs and problems that you think were caused by previous administrations.

Now my big question to you is?: What would you have them do, specifically, to make that happen? Policies can be verbalized and put in print on paper (they're just words), but the reality of the action required to make them happen is real and sometimes very illusive. Who does the actual work and who pays for it? Those are serious questions and I'm asking for serious answers...and please stop all those nasty personal attacks on people. It makes it difficult for me to consider your comments worthy of reading. Try getting your points across in a nice and civil way...please! I accept all legitimate concerns and ways to help our community improve.

I feel very lucky to have moved here when we did in 1961. We rented a duplex unit on Alma St for 2 1/2 years before we bought our one story bungalow on Ross Road in 1963. My house stands on land that was once pasture grazing land for Peers Dairy cows before the building boom started after WWII. I fit into that category that Annette describes as 'stuck' homeowners, although I don't feel stuck, even though my town has changed so much, and my neighborhood has also. That feeling could change quickly if my house becomes surrounded by multi-family 2 story units. Will Montana be ready for its 'prodigal son' to come home?

Posted by Native to the BAY
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 22, 2023 at 2:12 am

Native to the BAY is a registered user.

What is splitting is our community. SFH owners v. Renters. What is getting in the way? The 10 Neighborhood PAN associations powerfully wielding iron axe against their anvil of No. denying everything from pets, parking, plants to human pedigree from living & growing here. The louder homes for humans get the tighter the linked chains get around their neighborhood associated members get. When will the chain relax, loosen, drop. Where is our city oversight, checks on these associations?? And many belonging to these associations are on our city commissions & CC & staffed on tax based salaries. Is this not a conflict of interest?

Posted by Native to the BAY
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 22, 2023 at 2:27 am

Native to the BAY is a registered user.

[Post removed; successive comments by same poster are not permitted.]

Posted by Native to the BAY
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 22, 2023 at 3:10 am

Native to the BAY is a registered user.

[Post removed; successive comments by same poster are not permitted.]

Posted by MyFeelz
a resident of another community
on May 22, 2023 at 2:34 pm

MyFeelz is a registered user.

I wish I could vote to abolish the CC and the City Charter. So many of the ordinances the creaky-boned CC members can't/won't enforce. Can we just change it to Lip Service instead of a council? We have a City Manager who is supposed to be doing the following:

Sec. 6. Duties of city manager.
It shall be the duty of the city manager to:
(a) Devote his entire time to the discharge of the duties of the office.
(b) See that all ordinances are enforced.


Strangely, he abdicates this responsibility to a three ring circus.

@Native ...I see your portion removed and raise you a complete post removal.

Posted by MyFeelz
a resident of another community
on May 22, 2023 at 2:38 pm

MyFeelz is a registered user.

[Post removed.]

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