For the past month, dozens of Bay Area mayors, city managers and planning directors who are aggrieved by regional housing mandates have been tuning in to virtual hearings where their appeals were heard, acknowledged and invariably rejected.
On Friday, it was Palo Alto's turn to face defeat in front of the Association of Bay Area Governments, the regional agency that is charged with allocating 441,176 housing units to Bay Area's nine counties and 101 municipalities. Over the series of five hearings that began on Sept. 24 and that will conclude on Oct. 29, the ABAG executive board's Administrative Committee heard the arguments, offered its sympathy to the cities and voted to support preliminary denial of their appeals.
The cities' reasons for resisting the mandates in what's known as the Regional Housing Needs Allocation process were varied, even if the outcome was the same. Los Altos argued that the city is largely "built out" and that its low number of jobs doesn't justify the high housing targets. The city of Alameda pointed at the threat of sea level rise as a reason for why it's not well-suited for a housing boom, while Saratoga, Fairfax, Lafayette and Corte Madera cited wildfire threats and suggested that meeting the regional assignment would mean constructing residences in high fire hazard zones. The affluent Marin County enclaves of Tiburon and Belvedere both argued that they simply don't have the space for new housing.
"The town is simply built out and the few remaining vacant parcels are primarily located on steep slopes in the hills," said Christine O'Rourke, a consultant representing Tiburon in its appeal.
None of these arguments held sway with the ABAG committee, which is made of elected officials from throughout the nine-county region. While some ABAG executive board members, most notably San Ramon Mayor Dave Hudson, agreed with cities' critiques of the methodology that was used to distribute housing allocations across the region, they repeatedly reminded appellants that the debate over methodology had already been settled earlier this year. And the committee did not buy any of the arguments from the appellants who suggested that their specific circumstances merit a downward revision in their housing assignments. Nearly every vote to deny appeals was unanimous, though a few denials went ahead with a single dissenting vote from Novato Mayor Pat Eklund.
Palo Alto's plea met a similar fate, with all ABAG board members present voting to deny the appeal. In its appeal letter, the city argued that its assignment of 6,086 units between 2023 and 2031 is unrealistically high. The city stated that ABAG had made inaccurate projections for housing capacity at numerous city parcels, leading to more than 1,000 excess units. And it also pointed out that the city had recently imposed office caps that limit commercial development, a move that effectively lowered Palo Alto's historically high jobs-to-housing imbalance, which is estimated at greater than 3 to 1. The city's moves to better align jobs to housing should be counted in the city's favor, the appeal argued.
"Instead of recognizing Palo Alto for taking measures to minimize job production in favor of restoring a better jobs/housing balance, the City is assigned a greater number of housing units than it otherwise would have been assigned without these measures," the city's appeal states.
Palo Alto Planning Director Jonathan Lait and City Council member Eric Filseth reiterated these points during Friday's hearing. Filseth told the ABAG committee that because of commercial restrictions that the city had adopted, it effectively stopped jobs growth even as other parts of the region are still approving job-generating commercial developments.
"Please don't punish us for this," Filseth said. "Instead, give us credit for attacking this and executing a plan that works."
The appeal proved futile. In addressing the city's points about technical errors, ABAG staff noted that even if there are discrepancies associated with particular parcels, that does not impact the city's overall housing obligation.
"The Bay Area has millions of parcels and identifying a potential data issue on specific parcels is not a valid case for RHNA appeal," ABAG senior planner Gillian Adams said.
Committee members quickly agreed to deny the city's appeal. Hudson, who has long criticized Santa Clara County for exacerbating the region's housing crisis through massive jobs growth and meager housing production, suggested that Palo Alto can find ways to build many more housing units if it only makes the effort.
"We have to solve the problem," Hudson said during Palo Alto's appeal hearing. "Housing (production) is more than 1 million homes behind and the primary offenders are in Santa Clara County and one of them is before us right now."
Several housing advocates urged the committee to reject Palo Alto's appeal. Kelsey Banes, a Palo Alto resident who is the regional director for the Peninsula and south bay at YIMBY Action, was one of several speakers who rejected Palo Alto's contention that reduced office growth should be factored into housing quotas. Unbuilt offices, Banes said, don't put roofs over people's heads.
"The reality is that Palo Alto turned its nose up at hundreds of apartments this year, saying they are too tall, too dense, or have not enough parking," Banes said.
The biggest criticism came from East Palo Alto Mayor Carlos Romero, an ABAG executive board member who observed that Palo Alto had already seen its initial allocation of more than 10,000 units reduced by more than 4,000 before ABAG finalized its methodology. The city's arguments that it cannot meet its housing targets is belied by its success over the past three decades in attracting commercial development and creating jobs. He called Palo Alto "one of the wealthiest communities around, with a lot of wherewithal."
"For you to come before us and say that the past is forgotten and that now we must have other folks who have not had that type of generous jobs development carry the burden that has been created by your fabulous economic development, I do believe is disrespectful of the counties and neighbors around you," Romero said.
For Palo Alto, the verdict was in some ways predictable. The city's own planning staff had warned the council that the regional body is unlikely to further reduce the city's housing allocation before the council voted in May to nevertheless challenge the numbers. In supporting the appeal, Mayor Tom DuBois said at the May 18 meeting that the council has "a responsibility to the city to protect ourselves from state override, using all the means we can." He called the RHNA housing numbers "aspirational."
The Friday vote means that the city will have to either accelerate its housing production or find its powers to reject housing projects significantly curtailed thanks to recent state laws such as Senate Bill 35, which creates a streamlined approval process for housing developments in areas that fall short of their housing targets.