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.