Palo Alto has become a community that is affordable only to those who have owned their homes for decades, inherited them or hold highly paid jobs. Or for the lucky few who made it to the top of a waiting list for subsidized units through the Palo Alto Housing Corporation.
And like it or not, there is very little that our city government can do to affect that reality short of a massive change in the character of the community.
A group of young professionals frustrated at the lack of housing opportunities in Palo Alto has found allies among some former council members and longtime advocates of subsidized housing and are putting pressure on the City Council to more aggressively zone for higher density housing in the city.
In spite of the current angst about this situation and the desire to find solutions, this is not a new phenomenon, nor is there any answer that will make market rate housing here affordable to middle class individuals or families. That day is long gone.
The number of people who want to live here is so mismatched to the supply of available housing that no amount of building is going to bring down the cost of home prices or market-rate rents.
Over the years, through alternating cycles of new housing development and new commercial development, we have repeatedly had this discussion. What's been learned is that zoning for more housing, even where the units are small, brings no easing of the overall affordability.
New construction costs and the need for developers to make a profit will always make such units more expensive than those that were built decades ago, pushing rental and for-sale housing prices up, not down. And increased traffic and demand on community services such as parks and police come along with the resulting population increases.
One need only look at the high rents for new high density units in Mountain View to confirm the fallacy of a simplistic "zone-for-dense-housing' strategy.
Monday night the Palo Alto City Council will try and sort out what housing policy direction it wants to give city staff and the Comprehensive Plan Citizens Advisory Committee. Among the options presented by the staff are creating zoning for new higher density housing along El Camino, downtown, in the parking lots at Stanford Shopping Center and in front of the Palo Alto Square office buildings, in the California Avenue area, and zoning changes to encourage small accessory dwelling units. Also under consideration is zoning for very small apartments of only 200-300 square feet.
The city has already submitted and received state approval for its updated Housing Element, which is required by law and designates the areas where almost 2,000 of new housing units assigned to Palo Alto could be built between now and 2022. The current discussions focus on specific zoning incentives and possible additional locations for new housing.
A petition being circulated by members of Palo Alto Forward, the nascent organization that is spearheading the housing push, urges the council to pursue these ideas so that "Palo Alto can be the community of opportunity it has historically been; a family-friendly city that welcomed interesting thinkers and doers of all ages and all incomes."
While commendable in its aspiration, we have traveled this road before and discovered that new housing does not accomplish these aims. The small housing units that have been built in the last 20 years in Palo Alto have done nothing to make the city affordable to lower- and moderate-income individuals and families.
Palo Alto and its leaders need to bring a laser-focus to the challenge of how to create significant numbers of new subsidized, low-income housing without their being an appendage to a market-rate project. Approving two or three housing units as part of a "mixed use" commercial development is not a viable strategy for achieving more diversity.
There is no easy fix to our housing problem. But let's at least be clear that the goal is not to just create more housing units, it is to devise a way to make sure the units we do allow address the most critical need: affordability by non-highly paid workers whose presence enriches our community.
In the meantime, one non-controversial step the city should take is to heartily support Stanford's current proposal to build new graduate student housing on Serra Street between El Camino and Campus Drive. This single project will relocate more than 2,000 students currently occupying rental housing on the Peninsula to campus, reducing commute traffic and opening up those units for others.
The university needs the county's permission to move forward, which we hope and assume the Santa Clara County Planning Commission will do when it considers the request on March 24.