The COVID Recession is having drastic impacts on our economy that will be felt for years, including long term changes to work locations, commuting, and housing needs. As companies embrace increasing remote work, our housing priorities must focus on those who make up a balanced community: our teachers, nurses, professionals, trade and services workers, and others.
The new City Council will need strong, experienced, collaborative leaders who can work with state and regional partners to be able to tackle these issues. I’ve done this in the past and I look forward to applying my skills to tackle these issues.
State mandates to pre-empt local zoning
Cities throughout the Peninsula are about to be hit with state mandates that will override local decisions on land use with state control. Automatic approval of new mixed-use (office/housing) will be required. That will generate more jobs than housing; and too little low- and moderate-income housing.
The Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG), is now moving forward an unachievable TRIPLING of the Regional Housing Allocations (RHNA) for Palo Alto from ~2000 units for the next 8 years to 6,000-10,000 units for each coming period. This represents a mandated 20-35% growth in Palo Alto’s population every 8 years. The graph below shows the scenarios being proposed based on different formulas under consideration that would require Palo Alto to build ~4,500-15,000 housing units increasing the city’s population from 18-50% and then continuing at that growth rate in the future.
These mandates are enormous. Until now, the state approved each city’s zoning plan as long as they ZONED for their RHNA allocations because the state recognized that cities can only approve housing; they don’t construct it. With the passage of Scott Weiner’s SB35 in 2018 cities will now be required to automatically approve projects without discretion if they don’t meet their unachievable goals. The combination of unreachable mandates with the consequence of loss of local decisions on project approvals creates a “trap door.” We are virtually guaranteed failure, forcing a huge giveaway to big developers and a state takeover of local land-use decisions.
SB35 claims to focus on “affordable” housing, but its primary impact will be accelerated office growth along with high-income housing, widening the jobs/housing imbalance while expanding the deficit of affordable and moderate-income housing. Worse yet, other new state legislation limits cities’ ability to charge developers full “impact fees” for providing the additional new infrastructure incurred by developments – schools, parks, public safety, and community services.
The City Council needs to oppose these unreasonable mandates:
- Join with other cities to insist on a pause in the RHNA process while cities contend with the drastic impacts of the COVID emergency, and after the economic and work patterns of the COVID Recession become understood then incorporate these changes in the ABAG plan.
- Work closely with our state legislators to reform SB35 so that it meets its stated affordable housing purpose.
A Better Housing Plan
Palo Alto has been moving in the right direction, but more actions are needed. From 2015-2018 we addressed our jobs/housing imbalance by first capping our office growth and then enacting a broad Housing Incentive Program (HIP) for all income levels in 2018. We are now seeing the impacts of those decisions in the wave of new housing projects now coming before the Council. Affordable housing projects need the greatest support: density incentives, and financial subsidies with current resources able to meet just a fraction of the funding needs. Here are my plans for real progress:
- Convert certain areas from “office” zoning to higher density “residential” so that housing does not compete on land costs with the higher investment returns of offices.
- Allow affordable housing on city-owned surface parking lots above the parking in our downtowns to help reduce land costs.
- Reinstate the full impact fees on new office construction that were reversed by the Council in 2017. These impact fees fund affordable housing and are doubly important because the county’s fee structure for Stanford developments is based on our fees.
- When the economy begins to normalize, enact a business tax, focused on big developers and big business. Despite the highest office values in the country, Palo Alto is one of the few California cities without a business tax. A tax modeled on East Palo Alto’s and at only a quarter the rate of San Francisco, would fund transportation needs, and TRIPLE our affordable housing funding.
- Palo Alto should adopt as a city policy the Obama era AFFH requirement, recently eliminated by the Trump administration, for fair housing practices..
We need real solutions that will help build a balanced economy and community, not giveaways to big developers that compound our problems.