Almanac

News - March 27, 2013

Portola Valley volunteers chafe over limits on their affordable housing role

by Dave Boyce

==B Editor's note:== Portola Valley resident Susan Dworak said she was misquoted in a story on affordable housing in the March 27 issue of the Almanac. Ms. Dworak, a member of Portola Valley's Ad Hoc Affordable Housing Committee, said she did not say that the committee should be exempt from open-meeting restrictions and have a budget for legal counsel. "I inquired about these and other subjects pursuant to multiple prior discussions, but I did not make definitive suggestions as quoted," Ms. Dworak said in an email. The topic of state-mandated plans for affordable housing in Portola Valley is not a pathless landscape. Many avenues of inquiry offer themselves: Why is the state inserting itself into local affairs? Is socio-economic diversity important in a community of very high value homes? What does it cost to build such housing in such a town, and do the economics even work? Where exactly should such housing go?

It's complicated and controversial, but for the nine volunteer members of the Ad Hoc Affordable Housing Committee, these topics are unavailable. The mission, as defined by the Town Council, which has wrestled with the issue and has been scorned by affordable housing critics for its efforts: find out what the community thinks about having such housing in its midst. The committee is organizing at least three community forums, with possibly several more meetings in members' houses.

The committee itself has assembled twice for two hours each time to discuss tactics, and there are three more such meetings scheduled. In May, their job concludes with delivery of a written report to the council. Because the committee is subject to the state's open-meeting laws, group conversations among members most of whom are new to this restriction must take place during these five tactical sessions.

In the two meetings thus far, complaining has been a not insignificant feature about being rushed, about having to solicit community views without a better understanding of the topics, about not having answers to basic questions. Among those questions: Where should the housing go? What about its economics? What controls do local governments have? What happens if Portola Valley does not comply with the mandates? Are the regionally derived quotas realistic? What will it cost the town for a property manager if the housing is built?

Former mayor and non-voting chair Steve Toben acknowledged the tight spot in which some members see themselves, but reiterated the mission: discover the community's values and goals, its "broad aspirations" around affordable housing.

"I think we all came together to do a very, very good job," member Carter Warr said. "The Town Council has possibly tasked us with too much to do in too short a time."

The committee may be fielding questions it won't be able to answer, member Bud Eisberg said, and Mr. Warr added: "We start looking like dummies or (like we're) evading the answers."

The community forums, said member Susan Dworak, should open with a 20-minute presentation but, she asked, how can that be prepared if the committee doesn't have answers to its basic questions? The committee, she added, should be exempt from open-meeting restrictions to allow for more conversation, and should have a budget for legal counsel. (The council allotted the committee $5,000, most of which is to be spent on a planning consultant familiar with the regulations.)

Other members pushed back against the complaining.

"It's always important to be looking at values early and have a benchmark," Judith Murphy said. "It keeps it from being sort of a dog fight. ... It's not about solutions. It's about gathering information." The committee, she said, should be accumulating information on what the community wants, what it doesn't want and what it fears.

"What we're doing here is getting the people talking," said Onnolee Trapp. "We're beginning a conversation."

"I do think we can learn by doing," said Andrew Pierce.

"There's never enough time, never," added member Wanda Ginner.

Who is pushing this?

Two questions have come up repeatedly in community forums: Where is the pressure coming from to act on affordable housing, and can't the town buy its way out of this?

The pressure starts with the state Department of Housing and Community Development, said Karen Kristiansson, a consultant advising this committee on planning regulations.

In each town's general plan is a chapter on housing, which is the state's way in. The housing "element" is the only chapter subject to state review and certification, thereby delegating authority to the state, Ms. Kristiansson said. "There is a housing crisis in the state," she added. "Not enough housing is being created. The state believes that one reason is that local government land-use regulations limit the supply."

With a state-certified housing element, Ms. Kristiansson said in an email, a town acquires five ways to reject an affordable housing project: 1) the town has already met its obligations; 2) the project would irreconcilably harm health and safety; 3) the project would conflict with existing state or federal law; 4) the site is agricultural or lacks sufficient water resources; and 5) the project would conflict with local zoning and the general plan.

Findings 1 and 5 are unavailable without state certification, and not having 5 would be painful, Ms. Kristiansson said. Findings 3 and 4 are of limited use, which leaves health and safety. "The bottom line for me," she said, "is that having a certified housing element gives the town more control over where and how affordable housing is provided."

As to whether the town can pay for affordable homes in another town? No, said Duane Bay, who heads the Department of Housing and Community Development in San Mateo County. "It's a very popular notion," he said, "but there really hasn't been a way invented yet to do that."

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