As Palo Alto braces for an ambitious new housing mandate from Sacramento, three City Council members are requesting that the state delay the contentious process and reconsider its requirement that the Bay Area roughly double the number of housing units in its upcoming growth plan.
The three council members — Vice Mayor Tom DuBois, Councilman Eric Filseth and Councilwoman Lydia Kou — are also criticizing city staff in a separate letter for failing to give the council and the community a chance to provide meaningful feedback on the allocation process, which is expected to more than double the number of units that Palo Alto will have to plan for between 2023 and 2031.
The two letters that the council trio submitted this week echo some of the recent concerns that have emerged from numerous local residents, including former Vice Mayor Greg Schmid, and from their counterparts in Cupertino, where the City Council voted on July 8 to send out a letter requesting that the state delay the Regional Housing Needs Allocation process.
The letter specifically responds to a June 9 determination by the state Housing and Community Development Department (HCD) that the Bay Area has to plan for 441,176 units between 2023 and 2031. The Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) will now use this number to develop specific targets for each Bay Area city. Those allocations are scheduled to be released this fall.
In recent weeks, Schmid and other residents have argued that the process is moving too fast and that the numbers are far too aggressive. On July 8, they argued that Palo Alto should submit a letter asking ABAG to appeal the HCD allocation, a request that the city's Planning and Transportation Commission did not pursue.
The Palo Alto City Council has yet to discuss the new numbers. It has been in recess since June 24 and will not hold a meeting until Aug. 3. But even though the full council did not weigh in, three council members took the unusual action of submitting a joint letter on behalf of themselves, as individual elected leaders. Much like the Cupertino council, the three Palo Alto council members are arguing in their letter to ABAG and HCD that the state estimate for new housing units is unrealistic and unachievable.
"These numbers are based on a model based on aggressive jobs growth in already jobs-rich areas," the July 7 letter from DuBois, Filseth and Kou states. "These job growth numbers have been translated into unachievable housing growth rates, especially affordable housing growth rates, that simply cannot be met under any zoning without massive outside investments — subsidies which have never been forthcoming in the past, and are unlikely to appear in the future. The HCD plan represents a gigantic unfunded mandate."
The letter argued that ABAG should file an objection to HCD's numbers and that the appeal deadline should be postponed by at least three months "to allow further participation and review by the local governments and communities who will be affected by this sweeping plan."
The letters from the Cupertino council and from the three Palo Alto council members represent little more than symbolic opposition. Cupertino council members recognized on July 8 that there is virtually no chance that ABAG would appeal the state process based on its letter. Furthermore, ABAG has not given any indication that it would protest the state number. The deadline to appeal was July 10 and the ABAG Executive Board has not had any meetings since June 18.
The letters do, however, represent growing public awareness about new Sacramento mandates after a period in which most council discussions have been focusing on response to the COVID-19 pandemic, budget cuts and issues relating to police reforms.
In addition to cosigning a letter to ABAG and HCD, the three Palo Alto council members also took the highly unusual step of submitting a public letter to City Manager Ed Shikada, City Attorney Molly Stump and Planning Director Jonathan Lait demanding more public discussions of housing allocations.
"The failure of staff to agendize any updates on the Regional Housing Needs Allocation in order for Council to be able to be briefed and provide feedback on these items is troubling," the July 9 letter states. "The Palo Alto community and Council must have the ability to weigh in on these issues which could have dramatic impacts on our community. Moving forward staff should be informing the relevant Commissions and Council in a timely manner to provide comments or responses, including ample time to inform the general public.
The allocation process, the letter argues, presents "a serious problem for Bay Area cities" and is based on "an aggressive and unrealistic job growth projection for the Bay Area and Silicon Valley in particular — even before COVID-19."
"These jobs growth numbers have been translated into unachievable housing growth rates, especially affordable housing growth rates, that simply cannot be met under any zoning without massive investments — subsidies which have never been forthcoming in the past and are unlikely to appear in the future," the letter to Shikada, Stump and Lait states.