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Publication Date: Wednesday, June 11, 2003

Guest Opinion: Recognizing a 'bad beginning' on housing dialogue Guest Opinion: Recognizing a 'bad beginning' on housing dialogue (June 11, 2003)

by Doug Moran

A bad beginning makes for a bad ending, it is said.

The June 1 meeting on affordable housing sponsored by Peninsula Interfaith Action (PIA) was a bad beginning of the magnitude of the Historic Preservation Ordinance five years ago, whose "bad ending" came only after two years of gut-wrenching conflict that not only produced nothing, but effectively eliminated the possibility of doing something reasonable.

I am worried because the public[dbm1] reaction of the City Council members present did not indicate that any lessons-learned were being applied here.

The Weekly's story and editorial on this meeting used the terms "divisive" and "an attempt to intimidate and embarrass" -- but this falls far short of what happened at the meeting. The focus of the meeting was creation of an Affordable Housing Task Force, but the city already has a substantial established effort in this area.

Why is a separate task force needed? What are the expected benefits? Would they outweigh the costs? These basic questions were not addressed. Instead, the meeting's apparent sole purpose was to pressure council members to commit to providing public funding for an ill-defined task force.

In the private world, you are expected to have a solid business plan before seeking money (The Bubble years excepted).

The advertised speakers were the four council members whose seats are up for election. These "speakers" were given a token two minutes each, followed by a single question from the organizers, asked repeatedly with minor variations: "Will you sign the covenant supporting the creation of the task force and endorse providing City funding and City staffing to support it?"

When Mayor Mossar explained why she couldn't sign the covenant that had been sprung on her, the questioner repeated the question as if she had said nothing.

Vice Mayor Beecham said he was looking forward to signing the covenant in the near future but he had some of the concerns Mossar had. But the questioner repeatedly pressed him to sign immediately (he didn't).

Yet it was not just the treatment of the council members that made this a bad start. The organizers had invited a wide range of supporters of affordable housing, me among them. But our only role was to create an audience while the organizers badgered the council members.

The first 30-some minutes of the meeting were spent preaching to the choir. There was a lengthy benediction, "testifying" by two people who needed affordable housing and presentations of the most basic facts about the housing problem.

Many of us supporters left feeling not only that our time had been wasted but that we had been duped and used.

Three additional "speakers," representing a neighborhood association, the Chamber of Commerce and the School Board, spoke only after the council members had already been pressed to commit to funding and staffing for the task force. The clear message was that their comments were irrelevant, and that they were present simply to provide an illusion of broader community support.

My fear is that PIA's proposed task force will impede progress on affordable housing rather than assist it. Other stakeholders are unlikely to waste their time participating in forums dominated by a group whose notion of dialogue is "Do you unequivocally agree with us? Answer 'Yes' or 'Yes'." Instead, the disagreements will be aired before the council, leading to virtual paralysis.

Disagreements between different groups of affordable housing supporters arise from their making simplifying assumptions to a very complex problem. One mistake I see repeatedly is losing the connection between the intent and the implementation. Most of us can agree on the desirability of having public employees, such as police, fire, teachers, live in the community they serve. But, will a directive to "build X units of Below-Market-Rate (BMR) housing" actually serve the desired purpose?

I live in a 750-square-foot house, which is slightly larger than the current typical BMR unit. This would be unacceptable to me if it weren't for a great yard. Yet BMR units rarely have easy access to such amenities -- and for families with children being close schools, parks and other services can be as important as size.

The City Council should treat PIA's proposed task force as DOA. A crucial role of the council is to ensure that all stakeholders are included in the process at an appropriate time and that all opinions are given meaningful consideration.

The schedule and format of council meetings effectively limits council to choosing between a few well-developed alternatives that are the result of this process. The Historic Preservation Ordinance was doomed virtually from the beginning when a key group of stakeholders -- the owners of historic homes -- were excluded from the early meetings.

Doug Moran has been a resident of Palo Alto since 1986 and has been active in civic affairs for the past decade, primarily through the Barron Park Association, of which he is currently president. The above is his personal opinion. [dbm1]Jay, I wanted to emphasize that some of the council members may have said something in private to the organizers. I got vague comments from Mossar and Beecham that they did say something more than what they said in public. If you have a better way to ensure that readers don't simply slide over this word, I would be pleased to use it.


 

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