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Innovation towards very small AFFORDABLE housing

Original post made by Periwinkle, Downtown North, on Jan 28, 2007

Here's a thought-provoking article in the always-interesting "Metropolis Magazine" Web Link

here's a quote from the article:

"Portland, Oregon. Seattle, Washington. Vancouver, British Columbia. In these three Pacific North­west cities, the progressive power of urban planning is taken very seriously, and concepts like livability and sustainability dominate the local civic culture to such an extent that to visit all three in rapid succession, as I did in October, is to drop in on another country. It’s not the United States or Canada, but a more highly evolved combination of the two. "

How about considering some of these ideas for Palo Alto? One of newly-appointed Mayor Kishimoto's mandates is "innovation". I nominate some of the innovative ideas in this article for consideration by our policy makers and citizens.

Comments (28)

Posted by bikes2work
a resident of Mountain View
on Jan 29, 2007 at 12:42 pm

Sounds good to me. But I already live in such a place:

Web Link

Quote from the link: "The Crossings is an excellent example of Mountain View's transit-oriented development plans. In 2002, the American Planning Association gave the city the Outstanding Planning Award for Implementation for its transit-oriented development program that produced communities like The Crossings"

However, I don't feel that the price I paid was "affordable" from an East Coast point of view. But I really like the neighborhood, and the fact that I can walk to buy just about anything I need. All you need is a little red wagon for the bigger stuff.

Posted by a big house
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 29, 2007 at 11:17 pm

1500-1600 square feet, I could use that extra square footage. I live in a 1350 square foot house that would easily go for 1.3 million. Its not the structure thats a barrier to entry in this town, its the land.

Posted by Mike
a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 30, 2007 at 12:51 am

how about building small units UP? Why not permit small granny units, or multi-story builds that concentrate on really small units; how about garage conversions - etc. etc.

Posted by Sheridan Tatsuno
a resident of Stanford
on Jan 30, 2007 at 6:34 pm

As a friend of Mayor Kishimoto, an urban planner by training, and a former Stanford employee (now Santa Cruz consultant) who visits often and enjoys Palo Alto, here are some ideas for innovative housing:

- Rooms clustered around common living rooms and kitchens, which are designed like hostels or communes, would provide community-based living for residents who like socializing.

- Heat-sink thermal shafts dug 50 to 60 feet into the ground with circulating water/liquids to transfer heat into the walls and floor could provide year-round heating/cooling and reduce the need for natural gas or electricity. A housing complex in Ridgemont, Colorado installed these geothermal systems many years ago.

- Multi-purpose rooms like those used in Japan, Mayor Kishimoto's place of origin, are very useful for crowded places. In fact, Japan and Europe have many excellent ideas for high-quality, high-density housing and transport.

Sheridan Tatsuno, Principal
Dreamscape Global

Posted by Chris
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jan 30, 2007 at 7:13 pm

Can somebody please explain to me why Palo Alto citizens would support an increased density of ticky-tacky units in this town? Not only are these proposed units UGLY, but they will overburden our already overburdened schools and services.

What the heck are you urban designers smoking? We are NOT your laboratory!

Posted by JL
a resident of Ventura
on Jan 31, 2007 at 2:32 am

Chris, Who said anything about ticky-tacky? Read the article.

btw, right now we're running a lab experiment that is creating quite a unique community - one that keeps public safety employees (police and fire), teachers, municipal workers, retail workers, tradepersons, university academics, nurses, social workers, independent craftspersons, shopowners, maintenence workers, administrative support personnel, restaurant workers, landscapers, and many others from being able to afford housing here.

Who will you call for help if we have a 7.9 earthquake at 3AM? Are you aware that most of our public safety personnel would not be able to help, because they don't live here?

It's time for some new thinking, and action.

Posted by Parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 31, 2007 at 9:36 am

Whereas I agree it would be ideal to have our service people living in Palo Alto, and I think there are a lot of them here anyway, it is the fact that we have to be very careful about suggesting new housing of any description. Our schools are very overcrowded, the majority of our residents rarely shop in Palo Alto because of its upscale retail philosophy, public transport is practically ignored as an issue, traffic and other transport infrastructure is already having a hard time coping with the number of residents presently here, etc. etc. etc.

What we really need to do is rethink Palo Alto as a city and what the expectations for the future really are. This city was built up around a university in a fertile valley. At the time technology started gaining ground, back in the 50s, the majority of new housing at that time was cheap cookie cutter neighborhoods for the service workers. These neighborhoods are now full of rich techie types who can afford the $1m+ price tag, come here for the schools, and turn the small cheap (eichlers, sterlings, etc.) housing into comfortable (?) large homes, bringing the prices above what the service workers can afford. Now look at the mess we are in. Instead of having our service workers living in Palo Alto, where do they live? I have heard stories of grocery clerks and garbage workers being bussed in from the central valley!! This really is getting ridiculous.

Lets get the city sorted out for the residents who live here and then lets get the service workers in. This should not be a decision to put off affordable housing, more phase 2 in a city wide scheme to get things done in a well thought out, expedient manner.

Posted by Crhis
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jan 31, 2007 at 10:19 am


That red house up in Seattle (first post on this thread)sure looks like ticky-tacky to me (and it is considered a top exapmple of the proposed housing).

The issue of service workers is always thrown out there by the pro density groups. However, they never seem to have an answer when they are asked about who is going to live in these small units. Police, fire, teachers may actually prefer a three-bedroom house in Tracy to a teenie-weenie in Palo Alto. Maybe they want to raise their kids in a suburban environment. It would be easy to get that answer: Just limited a few small units in Palo Alto to our service workers (with kids). I doubt that any of them would take the offer, except possibly as a second home.

Posted by Elaine
a resident of University South
on Jan 31, 2007 at 10:40 am

In discussing housing it is useful to know just how much housing we are building now.
For a list of housing that is now being built in Palo Alto, and housing in process of development see Web Link The list does not include any Stanford construction or individual homes.
For an easy to print copy, see Web Link

Posted by Mike
a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 31, 2007 at 11:10 am

Looks to me like there is a denial that anything innovative can be done to solve our the affordable housing problem. Rather, what twe're hearing from again is all the folks who keep repeating the same old "no" saw on this issue.

Where are the Sheridan Tatsuno's? I want to hear from more of them.

Posted by Elaine
a resident of University South
on Jan 31, 2007 at 12:51 pm

It would help if you could quantify your assertion, Mike. Can you tell us how many affordable units we have, and how many we need?
For years I heard people say we need more housing, even though construction was visible all over the place. So I put together the numbers. It turns out that there are about 3,700 housing units built recently or planned in the near future (not counting individual homes).
Web Link
The city recently allocated something like 10 million dollars to build a low income project on the site of the electrical substation on Alma St. (8 million for the land and over a million to move the substation)

Posted by Mike
a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 31, 2007 at 2:19 pm

Elaine, this thread is more about innovation towards AFFORDABLE housing. It appears that whenever the issue of housing is raised, we inundated with cries from the "no more housing" folks.

The fact is that Palo Alto needs to grow, both in housing and commercial capacity, if it is going to continue as something other than a high-priced haven for the privileged. The latter may be nice for some, but it doesn't bode welll for those of us who want to stay for a while.

"How many affordable homes do we need?". Good question. How many of Palo Alto's public service and retail personnel would like to live within reasonable driving distance of their workplace? What's the price that Palo Alto and its neighbors play for not enabling that? How many seniors threatened with having to leave Palo Alto for lack of affordable space? Where are those numbers? Has anyone ever made the "number query" from these perspective? Probably not.

Palo Alto is projected to 80,000+ citizens in less than 25 years. My sense is that even more housing than is on your list will be approved nd built. There is no stopping that, unless Palo Alto wants to become a high-priced backwater, where people have to "drive until they qualify" to live. That's a projected sad state of affairs, and likely resulting in a community that will lose much of its dynamism.

btw, it's not only the city that can provide innovative solutions to housing. Why aren't we soliciting innovative ideas like the ones Mr. Tatsuno suggested - and others - from developers? Why aren't we being proactive and *reaching out* to innovative developers. the latter action, in itself, would be innovative.

I've heard these "warnings" about housing explosions for so long that it does nothing but raise a "boy who cried wolf" response. Most of my neighbors (those that follow these things) feel the same way. The warnings - along with the dire predictions of doom that accompanied them - have not come true. If Palo Alto policy makers had listened to all the no growthers during the last decade, we'd be the worse off for it.

So, let's move on. Co-housing, multiple dwelling structures, granny units, high-density, well-designed infill, etc. etc. Why aren't we _aggressively_ pursuing these options. The opportunity, technology, and consumer need isi there. Let's do it!

Posted by Sean
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jan 31, 2007 at 3:17 pm

Mike, you say that there have been no adverse consequences to increased density. Really? How about the overcrowded schools and increased demand of current services? Only expensive homes come anywhere near paying their way in PA. Small secondary units don't increased the property value enough to make up for the services that are demanded by them.

The more fundmental issue, Mike, is what market those tiny units will serve. Your side always says it will be for teachers and police and fire, etc. Your side never provides any proof of that. In fact, it is probably the opposite.

I think it is much more likely, Mike, that your side has other agendas. For example: Urban design by the cogniscienti, mass transportation bosses, social engineers, etc. It is no surprise to me that your neighbors don't trust your side.

Posted by Elaine
a resident of University South
on Jan 31, 2007 at 3:29 pm

Mike, you respond to a question with more questions and more noble sentiments. Housing in PA is expensive. What to do about it is a serious question. Increasing density will not do it, the demand is unlimited. No one is opposed to housing for the poor or working people (certainly I'm not) but just for starters, please specify a few easy things like how many units there are now, or anything relevant, so we have an idea of what we are talking about. It's not that hard to find out.
Who is opposed to innovation and creativity? You set up a straw man and write at length shooting it down.

Posted by Parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 31, 2007 at 4:34 pm

I have no numbers on this, but from my perspective and anecdotally from those I come across and also from realtors, new housing along the lines described, do nothing to serve those who we expect to live there, e.g. service workers and their families. The people who move in are single adults buying their first home near their work and plan to stay there for up to 5 years before buying something more fitting for a family as that is when they think they will start a family, dinkys (double income no kids yet), gays (nothing against them, just that they don't usually expect to be raising a family) and one side of a divorce who hope to remain near their kids (this latter group often sell a bigger home and buy a small house for the one with full time custody, and a smaller unit for the single parent). Now I have nothing against these groups and they do need to live somewhere, but to say that these are for teachers, police officers, etc. etc. is to deny the truth. Many of the teachers I know already live in nice houses either in PA or surrounding cities, and I expect police do also. These units (because they can hardly be called homes) are not suitable for families who want to stay here for sometime. Btw, PAUSD teachers and even janitors can get their kids into PA schools regardless of where they live so the argument that they want to live here because they teach here and want their kids in the good schools holds no water.

Posted by Mike
a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 31, 2007 at 4:49 pm


Sure, there is increased demand for services in Palo Alto; our citizens will (or will not) decide to to continue to pay for osome of them.

Also, there is an implied fear, coming from you, about "who" will be served by low income housing. Looks like you want to paint those who would think about using innovation to ease constraint as "cognoscenti", and social engineers. What you're missing is that innovative city planning can bring real profit to a city, and its people. Deny that at your peril.

Elaine, You purport to have all the numbers, and contine to pound on the "too much housing issue", which is off topic for this thread. Now you're wanting to continue the old "no housing" saw by accusing me of not wanting to discuss this issue based on what I consider to be (your) faulty assumption - i.e that we have too much housing. IN fact, we need MORE housing - not just in Palo Alto, but throughout the peninsula. The more dense, the better, with one caveat - that density os acccompanied by sustainability in materials, design, transport, and open systems that permit municipal innovation.

We all know how difficult it can be to change one's perspective in the face of looming reality - especially if the counter-reality that one has been proposing, and invested so much time in, seems to not gain as much mindshare as it did in Palo Alto's more salad days. My challenge to you is to reconsider personal assumptions about growth that are running out of gas.

Would that you spent more time on suggesting how some of those 3000+ housing units could be designed in ways that - for instance - take them off the grid, or are built in ways (as long as there's profit margins sufficient for developers) that create more open space. I don't hear you talking about things like that. Why not?

It's human nature to get used to a tune; I expect to hear the "no growth" tune keep playing, until most of the rest of Palo Alto wearies of hearing it (especially all the newcomers) and it gets drowned (it's already sinking) out by a more hopeful message of growth AND sustainability.

Here's a challenge for you, and Sean. Instead of thinking about all the constraints caused by additional population, try thinking about some of the advnatages - including new social dynamics - that wouldn't exist otherwise.

Without reading too much into it, I wonder what the raw motivations for the current "no growth" cries are. I see fear there, and it's not the fear of too many people; it's something else altogether.

I'd like to hear some substance about why more people is a bad thing; that's whata you're clearly implying, and by doing so denying that those additional people, in addition to those ofo us who are already here, won't be abl to move forward together, to innovate, to thrive. I want to hear from you why you think that's not possible.

Posted by Sean
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jan 31, 2007 at 6:21 pm

Mike, you are a true believer. Most of the rest of us are not. I suspect that you will find that many of us stakeholders in PA will not support your micro-homes approach.

I have lived outside PA, while I worked inside PA. I have also lived inside PA, while I worked outside of it. What makes you think that families want to constrain their natural interests to satisfy your socially-engineered solutions?

Palo Alto is slowly coming to the realization that it cannot afford all sorts of creative solutions. Yes, it can afford parks and libararies, because it has an established tax base, but it cannot afford to erode the essential element of its tax base, which is the value of its resiential land. Micro-housing would do just that.

Posted by Mike
a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 31, 2007 at 9:12 pm

Sean, I don't qualify as a true believer - read Eric Hoffer, the person who created that term.

Tell me, Sean, how does a viable resident _subtract_ from the value of community?

No growthers assume that a 'stable' nirvana is possible through no growth and change, and constantly find themselves disappointed when problems occur anyway. Yet they persist. THAT's a true believer.

Really, no growth is as much utopian fantasy as perfect planned growth. We need to grow up and realize that growth is a part of the urban dynamic, and we should do our best to adapt to it as efficiently as we can, while compelling growth to be sustainable, and using our brains to invent ways to ameliorate negative impacts and change.

Palo Alto is more populated than it was 20 years ago. The populace appears to have adapted quite well - this is a pretty happy place, everythinng considered. Palo Alto will be a lot more populated 20 years from now than it is today. In that future time, citizens will continue to solve problems, and enjoy each other, just as they do today. Read Alfred E Newman :)

Call it whatever you will, change will happen - in this case, population growth, including the problems and solutions that come with it. We'll either be innovative in our approaches to solving the problems that accompany this coming reality, or suffer needlessly if we don't.

Posted by Sean
a resident of Palo Verde
on Feb 1, 2007 at 4:50 pm

Mike, I am quite open to change. Are you?

Our current PA zoning rules restrict the natural market. That is what zoning always does. Your view, it seems, is that micro units should be allowed (they are not currently allowed) . My view is that that would be a bad deal for most of us who are currently here. I have already explained my reasons. However, if you really want to have freedom of choice, going into the future, why don't we just allow the market to sort it out? I would guess that you would welcome this experiment. You would probably think that it would be a great new openess for increased density. My view is that it would go exactly the opposite way, with many more multiple scrapes and replacement with mansions.

I think we have it about right, currently. We don't need a bunch of micros and neither do we need a bunch of new mansions. But I am open to the idea of letting it rip! Are you?

Posted by cal poly student
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 1, 2007 at 10:32 pm

What the heck? A response to the first comment - The Crossings in Mountain view is a horrible community and a bad example of the kind of housing Palo Alto needs. That was an infill project on land that wasn't wanted by hardly anyone else but the cheap developer who built nasty row housing that isn't even efficient.

Posted by Mike
a resident of College Terrace
on Feb 1, 2007 at 11:34 pm

Sean, You speak of the 'market' as if it were a neutral, natural thing; nothing could be further from the truth.

Markets are _made_ by dollar and policy intersection, and invention. Deny this at peril to your argument.

Right now, the "market" is made by zoning limitations (as you correctly state) that keep micro-housing out of the picture.

Why not open up the regulations to permit micro-housing, and see what develops from there, instead of letting the currently biased market open up under rules that favor large scale construction?

Posted by Just want to know
a resident of Mountain View
on Feb 2, 2007 at 11:30 am

Cal poly student, can you tell us more about The Crossings? It faces the railroad tracks so I'm sure noise is a problem. What else?

Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 2, 2007 at 4:51 pm

Palo Alto needs some Studio Apartments. 160 square feet of minimumalist living. Toilet, shower, kitchenette, and living room/murphy bed.
Then the same square footage parking.

Posted by Sean
a resident of Palo Verde
on Feb 2, 2007 at 7:03 pm

Mike, The unencumbered market is a natural thing. It is based on supply and demand. However, when regulations are put on the market, it becomes less natural. It then becomes focused on how best to manipulate the rules to one's own advantage.

I am OK with the current regulated residential home market in Palo Alto. You are not.

I challenged you to let it rip. By this I mean a non-regulated market. I think this would make Palo Alto into Atherton overnight. You seem to think that we would end up as a densely green utopia. Care to bet?

I sense that you are true believer. However, I would never take the bet.

Posted by Mike
a resident of College Terrace
on Feb 2, 2007 at 11:08 pm

Sean, my final comment on this thread.

Show me one "perfect" market - one that is *entirely* unencumbered by an outside variables. Just one.

Posted by Sean
a resident of Palo Verde
on Feb 3, 2007 at 8:20 am

Mike, Outside variable are always present in establishing supply and demand. I was talking about outside regulation. For instance the current gold market is a relatively natural market, but when the gold price was regulated it was an unnatural market.

You want micro units in Palo Alto, and I do not. That is a basic disagreement, no matter what we think about the theory of markets.

Posted by Bob Gardiner
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 3, 2007 at 6:02 pm

Does high density housing lower or increase the quality of life in Palo Alto?

By bringing more people into a given area, high density housing leads to higher gas, water and electric prices, increased noise and air pollution, increased commute costs due to longer waits in traffic, unsafe streets, which raises the number of injury accidents, higher insurance (medical and car) costs, increased use of public facilities, which forces citizens to wait in line for use of those facilities, which has a real cost. All of these are external costs, which are not quantified, and rarely reported on by the local press.

Unfortunately, our council does not seem to know how to quantify and base a decision on these things or they choose to ignore them, instead taking into account the benefits to special interests who benefit from increased density housing. Those special interests commercial real estate owners, who get companies to rent their facilities at higher rates, thereby increasing the value of their property, and residential housing developers, including the Palo Alto Housing Corporation, who make more profit with high density zoning.

The bottom line is high density housing erodes the quality of life for Palo Alto residents, but is very profitable to special interests. Unfortunately, in our political system, the very nature of special interests makes it difficult to stop them. The financial gain to individuals composing the special interests outweighs the individual gain to the individuals trying to prevent their actions. So even though high density housing lowers the quality of life for Palo Alto citizens, we will continue to see developers pushing through zoning changes at city hall. It is very profitable for them to do so, and our representatives for the most part, haven’t shown the where-with-all to stand up to them.

Posted by A NO on high density in residental neighborhoods
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Feb 8, 2007 at 12:31 am

I wonder if Mike is a renter or owner in College Terrace. If he owns is he open to college terrace becoming a "Redevelopment Area" where high density, high rise buildings could be built. It is walking distance to the Industrial Park where the jobs are. Declaring it a Redevelopment Area would probably bring the price of the homes there down as only the agency would buy them and bulldoze them. Developers would buy or be given the land by the city . Mike should go around his neighborhood and get a petition to create a redevelopment area there.

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