Editorial: A wake-up call on affordable housingCity Manager Alex McIntyre said it all in his comments about settling a lawsuit with three nonprofit groups that want Menlo Park to get moving on making more sites available for affordable housing.
"We're 10 years behind," Mr. McIntyre said. "We should have taken care of the Housing Element Update before now but fell behind due to other priority planning projects. These planning projects could achieve a substantial portion of what is required to meet the housing element law."
In the lawsuit, Peninsula Interfaith Action, Urban Habitat and Youth United for Community Action said that unless ordered to do so by the court, "... the city will continue to refuse to carry out those duties and will continue to violate the law ..." meaning that "... lower income persons and affordable housing developers and/or housing service providers will continue to be injured as a result," according to the lawsuit.
At this point, it appears that the city had little choice but to negotiate for more time, which was granted. Mr. McIntyre said, "The benefit of the settlement agreement is to allow the city additional time to incorporate a public outreach and participation process that would otherwise not be possible under a shorter, court-ordered timeline." Without the agreement, the city would have had only 120 days to complete a new housing element to its general plan.
City staff members told the Almanac that Menlo Park currently has 12,500 units of housing. The settlement will require the city to come up with zoning for an additional 1,975 units, including market rate, moderate to low and very-low income units. Early in the process the city must conduct an inventory of all housing units, including capacity for new units under current zoning. And in a break for the city, any new housing built since 1998 can be deducted from the preliminary number.
There are pockets of affordable housing in Menlo Park, but by and large, school teachers, police officers and firefighters and other workers who serve in schools, local government or local businesses cannot afford to buy a home in the city.
If approved, the new downtown plan will authorize nearly 700 housing units along El Camino Real, including some priced in the affordable range. Given their proximity to downtown shopping and transit, we suspect these units will appeal to city workers and to older Menlo Park residents who hope to stay in the community but no longer want to live in a single-family home. These "empty-nesters" may have spent 30 or 40 years in the city and want to stay connected to their friends. More affordable housing will appeal to this demographic and add more vibrancy downtown at the same time.
Over the years a few plans have been promoted for relatively dense housing projects in Menlo Park, but for various reasons were discarded. Former City Council member Chuck Kinney was unable to win approval for affordable housing built over a parking garage on Oak Grove Avenue, mostly due to fear that the impact of construction would disrupt the downtown for a year or more.
With the arrival of Facebook, and its mostly young and single workforce, Menlo Park needs to get moving on zoning that will enable development of housing that can meet the needs of these workers, who would prefer to bike or take a shuttle from downtown to the company's home on Willow Road. Menlo Park definitely has some catching up to do as it begins to write a new housing element at Tuesday's City Council meeting. But with the downtown plan already teed up and ready to go, the city will be able to make a good start at reaching the agreed-on goal of building a new housing plan by March of next year.