Election season is in full swing across Palo Alto, where campaign signs are becoming more noticeable across town.
To assist local voters in their decision at the ballot box, the Weekly asked this year's seven City Council candidates to fill out questionnaires about their qualifications, vision for the city and priorities if elected. They also explained where they stand on housing, climate change, rail crossings and policing and crime, among other topics.
The candidates' answers on all these topics will be published as separate articles, one per day, through Sept. 19. Here's what they had to say to the following question: How do you propose that Palo Alto plan for the state-mandated 6,000 more housing units while (1) preserving single-family residential neighborhoods' character and (2) incentivizing the building of affordable housing?
Focusing only on the number of housing units can lead to optimizing for quantity over quality, which is the wrong approach.
We need to have a mix of both market-rate and affordable housing units in new developments. It is equally important to have a variety of housing types (e.g., apartments, townhomes, etc.) to provide choices for residents at all stages of their lives.
Along with additional housing, we need to ensure that we also expand our parks, services, and public safety infrastructure so that these new residents are able to enjoy the same quality of life. The focus should be on creating new neighborhoods, not just new housing.
And we do not need to cannibalize our existing single-family home neighborhoods to accomplish these goals. Nor do we need to accept the "San Jose-ification" of our city by relaxing height restrictions or accepting poorly designed development projects. Doing this right will take creative and careful oversight by the City Council, but it is possible.
Building affordable housing in Palo Alto is difficult. It can be almost impossible to make the economics work for these projects. The city should work with the largest local businesses to enlist their assistance with getting these projects planned. Incentivizing these projects is also very helpful and I think that the city should explore a variety of options to do this, such as density bonuses, fee waivers, and/or reduced parking requirements, where and when appropriate.
+ I am committed to preserving the neighborhood character of Palo Alto for all current neighborhoods and entirely new ones which may be created by our growth. It is critical that our existing parks and amenities not be disrupted by housing development. And as our population grows, we must also grow our parks, open space, urban canopy, safe bike paths, transportation and stormwater infrastructure. Developers will naturally object because land that is not used for an office or home reduces a developer's revenue. But City Council has to make this an essential part of our urban planning for our larger population.
+ Apart from state and local laws, there are primarily two ways to get affordable housing. One is to incentivize it. The other is to subsidize it.
Incentives: On the Planning Commission I have worked on many projects to accomplish this in the last 5+ years. The best example is the Housing Incentive Program (HIP). We made a detailed effort in dialogue with many parties to adjust building parameters to get more housing. Coupled with that, we opened up new areas for housing such as the San Antonio corridor in addition to the commercial zoning already there. It worked. We have a number of applications now for housing there.
The PTC recently adjusted the HIP program again, and City Council just approved it.
I also believe we need to keep the office caps in place to restrain any new office development until the office/housing imbalance is corrected.
Subsidies: To make a dent in our 3500 unit "very low to moderate income" state quota, we need massive funding. Traditional funding approaches should continue including impact fees and the tax credit model. Some new options we need to exhaustively investigate include:
+ Business tax
+ Large corporation partnerships
+ City/ developer joint partnerships
+ Bond measure
First, there is a chance that the number of units mandated by the state may get revised since a significant number of people are fleeing out of our state, and some are leaving Palo Alto too. I hope we can reverse that trend.
Second, we need to plan for the infrastructure needed for all these units, including schools, transportation, public services, and more.
Now let's talk turkey.
I met with a member of the housing element committee and also studied what is being proposed now, and I don't necessarily agree with the approach. The current plan reflects the utter lack of real estate expertise and demonstrates how not having a real estate development office is hurting the city.
I think we need to switch to a more proactive approach and target large opportunities to create housing and preserve the character of Palo Alto instead of focusing on dozens of small infill projects, especially the ones located in less desired areas or the ones affecting the residential neighborhoods. We need to be in the driver's seat and not at the mercy of developers or similar organizations that know we are against the wall regarding meeting the state-mandated housing element. My simple math:
• Housing Element requires 6,086 units and 10% buffer would be rounded up to 6,700 units
• Plannings pipeline: 790 units
• ADUs: 512 units
• Three sites of Stanford-owned properties: 839 units
• Fabian, San Antonio, ECR: 1,500 units (conservative numbers)
Therefore, we need to locate large opportunities/projects for about 3,000 units.
Running out of space here but will elaborate during the forum regarding my three options to address the remaining 3,000 units, while preserving single-family residential neighborhoods' character.
The City of Palo Alto has developed a list of potential housing sites that has been reviewed by the Planning and Transportation Commission and by the City Council that is designed to satisfy state mandates while preserving low-density residential neighborhoods.
My plans to increase affordable housing include:
• Ensuring that we maintain existing affordable housing such as Buena Vista Mobile Home Park. We have not always been successful at this — for example losing the President Hotel apartments in favor of a luxury hotel.
• Residents who earn up to 120% of the Area Median Income (AMI) are eligible for so-called "inclusionary housing". I support raising the required percentage of new multi-unit developments dedicated to inclusionary housing to 20% for both purchase and rental.
• The Council should seek out partners to support the development of all-affordable housing projects like Wilton Court and Mayfield Place that provide housing to even lower income categories.
• Using the Planned Community Zone (PHZ) to incentivize new housing while making sure these developments do not have negative impacts on neighbors and local businesses.
• I support the business tax as a future source for these projects.
I believe that we need to provide increased opportunities for the people who work in Palo Alto to live here.
Housing in Palo Alto is a complex issue that intersects with many others. There is growing consensus that we need more housing, especially affordable housing, to have a balanced community; however, Palo Altans are divided on how we get there — and now face a challenging state mandate. I have a track record of bringing people together on tough issues and believe that instead of only reacting to projects as they pop up, Palo Alto should proactively engage residents and other stakeholders to plan what growth should look like here. While the Housing Element identified possible sites, we should make better use of coordinated area plans to empower stakeholders to develop more holistic solutions, such as in our downtowns, that greenlight affordable housing, while keeping neighborhood character in mind.
To incentivize affordable housing, the City created zoning that allows affordable housing to have higher density and streamlined approvals. However, funding remains the big issue because without subsidies the rent generated does not attract developers. To help, we should continue to leverage city funds by seeking contributions from county, state and federal governments, nearby corporations, and philanthropists. We should pass the business tax so our larger businesses can pitch in, and we should identify public land, such as city-owned downtown parking lots, where affordable housing can be built, unburdened by the cost of buying land.
To promote increased housing across income levels, we can add higher density housing near transit and services in our downtown areas, which has the additional benefit of reducing carbon emission and traffic, and revitalizing those areas. More generally, we should re-zone poorly utilized commercial property to also allow housing and consider increasing the housing FAR in those areas. Finally, ADUs and JADUS are a part of the solution and preserve the character of single family neighborhoods.
It is important for Palo Alto to get out in front of state mandates, by creating specific area plans that outline what the city wants and needs.
As we prepare to grow our community by our regionally allocated 6086 households, we need to allow for a mix of options including somewhat denser infill development in our downtown areas and along transit corridors such as El Camino and San Antonio Road. We also need to plan for green space and amenities, and we need to add transportation options so that traffic doesn't get worse.
The City needs to provide developers with clear guidance and predictable processes to incentivize affordable housing. We also need to partner with nonprofits to construct 100% affordable housing. I support the business tax that will be on the ballot in November, and which will provide much-needed funds for affordable housing projects. When the City has a specific affordable housing project proposal that includes some funding, we can apply for regional, state, and private grants to fully finance construction.
First, let's myth-bust. Older Palo Altans say that a century ago, single family homes stood next to duplexes and bungalows, such that doctors, teachers, and plumbers were neighbors. Such communities exist today, for example on Homer, Lincoln, Channing, and Forest, where $5 million dollar homes stand next to four-plexes. So, let's address whatever fears cause us to worry about greater density and diversity, and then let's add the units where we need them in order to meet the housing demands of our era.
Second, the state-mandate of 6,086 units is both fair and necessary. Our housing ecosystem must be rebalanced by adding more units in a manner that is equitbaly distributed throughout our city, both market and below market rate, with incentives for developers including greater density in many if not most neighborhoods, and of greater density and height in downtown, Cal Ave, and segments of El Camino and San Antonio. That way our teachers, nurses, first responders, retail and service workers, and blue collar laborers can live in the town they serve, while seniors downsize, youth who grew up here can remain, and young families enroll kids in our schools.
I prefer market-rate (BMR included at 15% or higher) over 100% affordable, because it pencils out and because we need to undo the vestiges of a discriminatory past by ensuring that people of all income levels live as neighbors instead of segregating our low income neighbors (who are disproportionately of color and/or immigrants) to their own housing in 'less desirable' parts of town.
I am in favor of 100% affordable units for communities such as disabled adults or the unhoused, because it includes wraparound support for their needs, such as at Wilton Court and the newly-approved LifeMoves/Project HomeKey transitional development.