If you’ve followed our coverage over the past two years, you know that the City of Palo Alto has worked intensively to complete several ambitious, and often controversial, steps to address the housing challenges posed by the recent and continuing jobs boom in Silicon Valley. Beginning with adoption of a new Comprehensive Plan focused on pursuing sufficient new housing to meet and exceed our regional share of new housing development (known as the Regional Housing Need Allocation or RHNA), the city has also:
encouraged new accessory dwelling units (known as ADUs or granny flats) in residential neighborhoods, exceeding state mandated incentives;
adopted special zoning overlays to encourage workforce and below-market rate housing development;
revamped the citywide zoning code to create major new developer incentives, including reduction of on-site parking requirements and up-zoning for denser housing near transit, our downtowns, and El Camino Real;
created a new streamlined approval process for residential and mixed use (housing plus office or retail) projects that include affordable units; and
adopted a citizens’ initiative to reduce the cumulative office/R&D square footage allowed in the city over the next 15 years in order to create room for housing to compete with the profitable allure of commercial rents.
Those efforts are just beginning to bear fruit, including 82 new applications for ADUs, and 50-plus unit housing projects approved in both of the special “affordable” overlay zones. This progress and the prospect of more to come from the city’s new up-zoning and streamlining programs is promising. Cities across the Bay Area are similarly making big changes to encourage more housing. Nonetheless, the State Legislature is pursuing a wide ranging strategy to wrest land-use decision-making from local communities, replacing zoning designed to suit local conditions with state-wide mandates that also block cities from making future adjustments as population and community impacts take shape.
You may have heard of Senate Bill 50, but did you know that there are over 200 housing-related bills before the State Legislature this year? Monday, May 6, the City Council will hold a joint study session with council members from Menlo Park and East Palo Alto, to hear from Palo Alto’s state lobbyist about where those bills stand, ask questions, and discuss opportunities to influence state legislation as it moves forward.
“Jobs-rich” designation extends impacts well beyond transit zones in Palo Alto
March 3, 2019 – Palo Alto Matters
Since last year’s defeat of Senate Bill 827, State Senator Scott Weiner has returned to try his hand again at replacing local zoning control with one-size-fits-all, state mandated housing standards. SB-827 sought to encourage bigger, denser housing projects near transit. This year’s version, Senate Bill 50, extends state mandates beyond transit corridors to include all residentially zoned parcels in “Jobs-Rich” areas. Whether a community is jobs-rich would be determined by proximity to jobs, area median income and public school quality. By those indicators, it seems inevitable that SB-50 impacts would reach all of Palo Alto.
SB-50 creates a tiered system of incentives designed to make dense housing projects more appealing to developers by requiring cities to waive or adjust local zoning rules regarding such things as density, parking, height and the size of a building relative to the size of the lot (known as Floor Area Ratio). Eligible projects also must be granted up to three additional density bonuses of their choosing (e.g., site coverage, setback, or daylight plane adjustments, even more height or FAR, etc.). Different sets of incentives apply based on the category of a project’s location:
In a Jobs-rich area or within ¼ mile of a high quality bus corridor.
Within ½ mile of a train station.
Within ¼ mile of a train station.
Within a ¼ mile of a train station, for example, dense housing projects could be up to 55 feet high (rising to 75 feet with density bonuses), with building floor area of 3.25 times the size of the lot, and no on-site parking.
To help make SB-50 easier for people to understand, we partnered with the Embarcadero Institute, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, to commission a professional analysis and visual renderings of what SB-50 could mean, on-the-ground, for Palo Alto. The report explains SB-50’s system of tiered development incentives and maps out where each tier would apply in the city.
The report also calculates the theoretical maximum housing units that could be produced through SB-50 redevelopment, based on both SB50 incentives and underlying zoning. Those calculations take the very conservative approach of counting only transit rich areas (in the unlikely event that Palo Alto is not ultimately deemed jobs-rich) and not counting extra units that could be achieved through additional density bonuses that may be chosen by developers. Still the theoretical maximum comes to 58,000 units, more than three times the entire city’s current housing stock. Adding in the much larger jobs-rich area would yield a much higher number.
Projections regarding increased parking congestion due to the reduction or elimination of on-site parking requirements and new population growth were beyond the scope of the study. However it does note that car registrations per capita in Palo Alto have climbed by 14 percent in the last five years, reflecting car ownership trends across the Bay Area.
Finally, to show the look and feel of increased building density and intensity allowed under SB-50, the report includes before and after images at five Palo Alto locations showing possible projects if developers take advantage of the state mandated up-zoning. Again, a conservative approach was taken to exclude discretionary density bonuses, demonstrating only what could be built under the bill’s explicit provisions regarding elimination of unit density limits, increased height limits, and higher Floor Area Ratios (floor area relative to the size of the lot).
Without local controls, developers decide
Surely some will cheer the potential housing growth under SB-50 and welcome a new look and feel for the city. Others will hate it. But don’t be fooled into thinking that “this could never happen in Palo Alto.” With the elimination of local controls under SB-50, the market-driven choices of individual developers and their “reasonable judgment” about zoning requirements will drive the outcome.
Recent studies have shown that up-zoning to increase density significantly increases land values, creating a substantial market incentive to buy up property for redevelopment. Once a site is acquired, developers will be entitled to take advantage of SB-50’s development incentives, whether the city or its voters like it or not.
The only way the city could stop or constrain an eligible project is through a showing of significant adverse effect on public safety, the physical environment, or properties on the historic registry. In addition, thanks to changes to the state Housing Accountability Act enacted in 2017 (AB-678, SB-167, and AB-1515), courts must defer to the reasonable judgment of the developer rather than a local government’s planning department as to consistency with zoning requirements – without regard for the weight of evidence.
SB-50 is a no-turning-back proposition. Bigger and denser housing projects with little or no on-site parking could result in a radical shift, city-wide, from today’s detached-house development pattern to a townhouse and apartment development pattern. Over time, that may or may not lead to greater affordability or reduced car ownership. Either way, under SB-50’s mandates, it will be up to developers, not the city, to determine whether SB-50’s vision comes to fruition.
SB-50 has been referred to the Senate Housing Committee, chaired by State Senator Scott Weiner, and the Senate Governance and Finance Committee, chaired by State Senator Mike McGuire. Whether it will get amended and/or approved in committee and move forward to passage is still an open question. Let your local representatives know what you think about the bill:
There will be a joint hearing of the Senate Housing and Governance and Finance Committees on March 5, at 1:30 pm focused on: “Addressing California’s Housing Shortage: How Can We Create Environments to Facilitate Housing Development?” Livestream video will be available here. Or you can view it in the media archive after the fact.
Assemblymember Berman will hold a public Open House on March 7, from 4 to 6 pm at his District Office, 5050 El Camino Real, Suite 117, Los Altos.
State Senator Hill will be meeting with mayors and city managers from across the district to discuss housing on March 15.
Touted as balanced compromise, Compact faces criticism from cities and offers no assurance of cohesive legislation
March 2, 2019 – Palo Alto Matters
SB-50 is perhaps the most prominent in a slew of proposed state legislation to implement an ambitious regional housing plan known as the CASA Compact. The Compact was designed as an interdependent package to address all three legs of the housing stool: production, preservation, and renter protection. Supporters describe the Compact as a necessary, if imperfect, compromise and they hope that controversial elements will have a better chance of passing if they all advance together to the state Capitol. However the Compact itself has been met with strong criticism and there is no certainty or commitment that every piece will move forward.
What is the CASA Compact?
The CASA Compact was created by the Committee to House the Bay Area, a coalition of developers, business leaders, elected officials, labor interests and tenant advocates convened by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. Recently endorsed by the MTC and the Association of Bay Area Governments, known as ABAG, the CASA Compact consists of an ambitious ten-point planto:
Spur housing construction through minimum zoning near transit; streamlined approvals and exemptions from the California Environmental Quality Act; property tax breaks for developers; use of public lands for affordable housing; and further incentives for accessory dwelling units. “Sensitive communities” with a high percentage of low income residents, would get a grace period of up to 5 years to propose community-driven alternatives to meet state performance standards (i.e., housing production goals).
Protect renters through just-cause eviction rules and relocation assistance; access to emergency rent assistance and legal help; and a temporary cap limiting the size of annual rent increases.
The Compact calls for $1.5 billion in local and regional “self-help” funding (through taxes, fees, bonds and revenue set-asides) to implement the plan including: $1 billion from taxpayers, property owners and local governments; $400 million from employers; and $400 million from developers. At least 60 percent of that funding would go towards housing production, ten percent would go towards renter protections, and 20 percent would go toward preservation.
Notably, the CASA Compact also calls for state legislation to create an independent Regional Housing Enterprise board comprised of MTC and ABAG representatives and the stakeholder representatives who developed the Compact itself. The unelected RHE would have authority to collect and disburse fees, taxes, and other revenues, allocate funding, and issue debt.
Competing interests of small and big cities
The Mayors of San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose were all on the CASA Steering Committee and voted to approve the final CASA Compact. However, numerous other cities and towns have been strongly critical and objected that the interests of their cities were not represented. The Cities Association of Santa Clara County, representing 15 cities, argued that the Compact’s one-size-fits-all solutions neglect the diversity of needs in each city and threaten to leave cities “without adequate funding for the infrastructure that makes our communities whole – schools, transportation, etc.” Similarly, they argued that the failure to engage cities of all sizes in the plan’s development could lead to significant unintended consequences both locally and regionally.
The intrusion on local land use decision-making (and the associated exclusion of community interests).
The diversion of property tax revenues that are vital to local General Funds and could result in cuts to core services in every Bay Area city; and the redistribution of those funds to counties (perceived as likely to benefit big cities at the expense of smaller cities with lesser voice in county decision-making).
Undermining of effective and promising ongoing local strategies to confront jobs/housing imbalances and finance and support the availability of affordable housing.
Sunnyvale Mayor Glenn Hendricks likened the proposed funding mechanisms and changes to land use authority to “a direct assault on cities” and Mayor Steven Scharf of Cupertino described the Compact as “a product that 97 percent of Bay Area cities think is a terrible idea.” Palo Alto’s then-Mayor Liz Kniss wrote that “[i]t would be problematic for MTC, as an organization representing local governments, to advocate the sweeping legislative proposals embodied in the CASA Compact without clear and robust engagement opportunities for Bay Area communities.”
Selective enactment could subvert the “compromise.”
Without legislative action toward all three goals of production, preservation, and protection, the so-called compromise embodied in the CASA Compact falls apart. Although SB-50 is a fairly fleshed out bill, not every Compact element has received as much attention. And there is no mechanism to ensure cohesion among the bills seeking to implement various elements of the Compact. While housing production incentives have picked up steam, both in Sacramento and locally, they focus mostly on “missing middle” populations earning up to 150 percent of medium income or more. Efforts to expand low-income housing, renter protections and anti-displacement policies have faired more poorly.
Perhaps indicative of the fragile promise of the CASA Compact’s “compromise,” the California Apartment Association, which represents landlords and participated in the CASA planning process, has already said it “will oppose any [CASA Compact] related legislation aimed at implementing the rent control and just cause eviction elements.”
Following the defeat of SB-827 in the 2018 legislative session, State Senator Scott Weiner circled the wagons and returned this month with a new proposal, SB-50, that adds some protections for existing rental housing sites and temporarily preserves local control for “sensitive communities” that are particularly vulnerable to displacement pressures. At the same time, however, SB-50 reaches far beyond the “transit-rich corridors” targeted for state mandates under SB-827.
SB-50 would require local governments to grant housing developers an “equitable communities incentive” not only for housing projects within a half mile of a major transit stop (rail station or ferry terminal) or a quarter mile of a stop on a high quality bus corridor, but also ANYWHERE that housing is allowed in an area deemed “job-rich” based on indicators such as “proximity to jobs, high area median income relative to the relevant region, and high-quality public schools.”
At a minimum, the equitable communities incentive must include waivers of parking requirements greater than 0.5 spots per unit and any maximum density controls, as well as up to three additional incentives and concessions available under the existing State Density Bonus law. Those additional concessions include such things as increased height, site coverage, and Floor Area Ratio limits; reduced side- and rear- setback requirements; and reduced daylight plane requirements.
Projects that are also close to transit and include a minimum, unspecified percentage of affordable units are then entitled to additional waivers as follows:
Within 1/2 mile, but more than 1/4 mile from a major transit stop: no height limits less than 45 feet, no Floor Area Ratio limits less than 2.5, and no parking requirements.
Within 1/4 mile of a major transit stop: no height limits less than 55 feet, no FAR limit less than 3.25, and no parking requirements.
The new, greater unit densities enabled by the waivers will form the baseline for calculating available additional concessions under the State Density Bonus law.
SB-50 has only just been introduced and is likely to undergo some amendment before coming to a vote. However, if passed in its current form it would likely apply to all residential, mixed use, and commercial zones in Palo Alto, including every single-family neighborhood. Council members have already begun to weigh in with differing perspectives. On one hand Councilmember Adrian Fine expressed general support, saying “we need the state to step in … [l]ocal councils and the idolatry around local control are not going to solve our housing issues.” In contrast, Councilmember Eric Filseth said the bill was “horrible for voters” because it ignores that addressing the housing crisis depends on paying for all the infrastructure necessary to sustain regional growth. SB-50 “skips all that.” Whether City Council will take a position on SB-50 remains to be seen.
State Senator Scott Weiner (D-11th District), the author of last year’s “By-right Housing” law, (SB-35), has a pair of new “go-big” proposals. Designed to incentivize construction of dense, multi-family housing near transit, SB-827 would “up zone” all parcels, statewide, within 1/2 mile of a major transit stop or within 1/4 mile of a high quality transit corridor. Residential development projects in those “transit rich” areas would receive a “transit-rich housing bonus” exempting them from local rules regardingdensity, parking, floor area limits and design standards. Height limits would be set between 45 feet and 85 feet, depending on location. SB-827 does not specify any affordability requirements or minimum residential component.
Following on the heels of new State penalties for failure to meet regional housing allocations (RHNA), Senator Weiner’s second proposal, SB-828, would effectively double the RHNA requirements for all local jurisdictions, requiring that they “plan and accommodate for 200 percent of the local housing allocation for every income category in its housing element.”
So what would SB-827 mean for Palo Alto? More than a third of the city’s built environment would be eligible for conversion to dense “housing developments” up to as much as 85 feet high: approximately 6,000 parcels (out of 18,050 total parcels in the city), including 3,694 parcels currently zoned for single family homes and 1,416 zoned for multi-family residential (which currently have height limits of 30 to 40 feet). As written, SB-827 appears to apply across all zoning categories.
Click the image below for a story map with multiple tabs analyzing the impacts of SB-827 on Palo Alto (created by AnimaDesign, courtesy of the Embarcadero Institute, 501(c)3).
The zoomable map shows the new maximum building heights in the areas impacted by the Weiner proposal. Yellow = maximum height of 45 feet, Orange = maximum height of 55 feet, and Red = maximum height of 85 feet. If the project is eligible for another state “density bonus,” heights could go up to 105 feet. On site parking, area wide, will be left entirely to the discretion of the developer.
What do 55 foot and 85 foot buildings look like?
It is widely agreed that passage of SB-827 would substantially curtail the decision-making powers of local government, but community advocates are lining up both for and against the bill. Many avid housing proponents see less local control as a good thing, but it does raise some thorny questions.
Will it disrupt carefully crafted area plans, such as SOFA I/II and the soon to kick off North Ventura Coordinated Area Plan or the local balance and distribution of schools, parks and other community facilities? How will it impact the local economy when all commercial uses within the transit-rich area have to compete with more highly entitled housing developments (akin to government incentives for office growth in recent years)? Will they have to move farther from transit? Will it promote displacement of low and moderate income residents from older, more affordable housing stock? What happens if transit routes change? Will it deter the creation of new transit routes? What will be the likely service demands and fiscal impacts on the City?
Whether SB-827 will move out of committee and forward to passage is still an open question. Let your local representatives know what you think about the bill: City Council, County Supervisor Joe Simitian, State Assemblymember Marc Berman, and State Senator Jerry Hill.
The Daily Journal – by Samantha Weigel / January 22, 2018
Legislation affecting local governments draw statewide attention, could spur more construction
As the new year unfolds, local governments are expected to begin unraveling the practical implications of new statewide laws designed to promote affordable housing.
The laws touch on a range of issues including streamlining the planning process for certain housing developments, which some worry will strip local control; creating a new permanent affordable housing funding source, the first since the dissolution of redevelopment agencies; and encouraging governments to plan for transit-oriented developments.
Mercury News – by Keith Menconi / January 12, 2018
As Cupertino begins a new planning round for the 58-acre Vallco Shopping Mall site, some residents are warning that the state’s recently enacted housing legislation could lead to a skirting of city reviews and pave the way for “massive development.”
A Change.org petition by citizen advocacy group Better Cupertino, which has collected more than 1,000 signatures, calls on the city to examine the consequences of the new laws and create “clearer objective standards” for the city’s General Plan.
The new laws aim to tackle the state’s housing crisis, in part by limiting the ability of local governments to reject housing development applications–including projects that are mixed with non-residential uses–that comply with all “objective” local standards, according to a legal analysis prepared for the city by attorneys from Goldfarb & Lipman LLP.
State’s loosened development standards costing local control raise eyebrows on the City Council
San Mateo Daily Journal – by Austin Walsh / December 7, 2017
New state housing laws requiring city governments to cede a substantial portion of their local control alarmed Burlingame officials who fear the regulations may bring unintended consequences.
Officials raised concerns the legislation will invite development of boilerplate, cookie-cutter plans by sapping officials authority to enforce design driven decisions.
“Burlingame for many years has worked very hard to develop guidelines, but many of those guidelines have to deal with neighborhood consistency, so all of that goes out the door with this,” said Keighran.