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About this blog: I grew up in Los Angeles and moved to the area in 1963 when I started graduate school at Stanford. Nancy and I were married in 1977 and we lived for nearly 30 years in the Duveneck school area. Our children went to Paly. We moved ...  (More)

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Relaxing the Height Limit for Housing with Conditions

Uploaded: Feb 6, 2016
Palo Alto has a 50 foot height limit for new buildings although there are provisions for exemptions in certain circumstances.

The origin as I remember was around proposals to build a number of large office towers downtown like the one at 525 University.

So let’s put office buildings aside for the moment and discuss whether allowing taller housing structures in locations near services, shopping and transit is a good approach for the new housing that will be built in Palo Alto.

There are a number of taller housing structures downtown where I live including two apartment buildings on Forest and Gilman that most people consider very attractive. There is the President Hotel building also considered attractive.

In the future it is likely that there would be demand for another facility like Channing House. And what if the 27 University site had taller housing and was connected to the shopping center, which also had housing? And could it be a good idea to have this kind of housing near California Avenue and the Stanford Research Park?

I understand that some residents do not want more development of any kind. This blog is not for them. It is for people interested in the best way to build new housing and all of the Comp Plan alternatives before the council have a considerable amount of new housing over the next 15 years.

Would relaxing the height limit for housing with conditions on location and type be a good way to expand housing choices in Palo Alto?
What is it worth to you?


Posted by KSRTC, a resident of Community Center,
on Feb 6, 2016 at 9:30 pm

deleted. Not about the topic-- link to promotional website.

Posted by Curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North,
on Feb 6, 2016 at 9:41 pm

More important than raising the top floor height limit is raising the floor height minimum, to permit constructing edifices that float above the surface so we can build them free of the costly necessity of purchasing land and demolishing existing structures. Otherwise, last I looked, you need vacant bare dirt land to build something, which ain't in abundant supply around here, and what little exists is being built up with office and other commercial space.

Portion deleted.

SL response: Actually most all new developments here now are demolitions of existing structures to build larger structures. On our block of Forest this is now being done for housing at 430 Forest where housing is replacing an office building. I think it is possible that raising the height limit for housing only would encourage more such redevelopment of older office structures.

Posted by more housing please, a resident of Midtown,
on Feb 6, 2016 at 9:49 pm

I'm all in favor of this. Palo Alto badly needs more housing. Upzoning and raising the height limit for homes will be an effective long-term solution.

Posted by Apple, a resident of Atherton: other,
on Feb 7, 2016 at 10:37 am

Yes, raising the height limit is a necessary step for a city that has limited available land for additional housing.

The key to bringing down housing costs is to increase supply. If the density limit is lifted, it should require only high density housing units can be built there. Otherwise, builders will build lower density luxury housing, especially if BMR requirements are in place.

High density housing means each housing unit cannot exceed a set square footage to bedroom ratio. In exchange, BMR housing requirements would be eliminated. That ensures that developers could still make a good return on their business, while bringing much more supply online.

Your biggest opponent will be NIMBYs who don't want more traffic, more crowded schools, and more housing supply since it will indirectly make their own homes appreciate more slowly.

The first two items can be mitigated. Stanford has done this in their recent proposal for new housing buildings as tall as ten stories. But the NIMBYs will still fight this.

Posted by Model available, a resident of Another Mountain View Neighborhood,
on Feb 7, 2016 at 12:25 pm

Steve--you are likely the one to answer this question. Have there been any studies done to forecast how the addition of housing units would affect pricing in PA?

For example, given three realistic scenarios of 500, 1500 or 2500 units built over one year....what would be the resulting median home price in PA? There seems to be a common thought (or market law) that adding supply MIST reduce price, but where is the supporting studies?

Most importantly, even if all were to agree that addition units would lower price, there still is the question of how MUCH that price would be lowered. Perhaps the price drop would be insignificant compared to the loss in quality of life for existing residents?

Thank you.

Posted by Berta, a resident of Midtown,
on Feb 7, 2016 at 12:56 pm

"Upzoning and raising the height limit for homes will be an effective long-term solution."

I hope you mean upzoning and raising the height limit by the train tracks near transit, not in Midtown or in sight of Midtown or any similar neighborhood. Else you will have a fight that makes Maybell look like a Sunday school picnic.

Posted by stephen levy, a resident of University South,
on Feb 7, 2016 at 2:38 pm

stephen levy is a registered user.

@ Berta

In the blog I cited location as one of the conditions and talked about areas close to services, shopping and transit like downtown where I live and near Cal Ave and the Stanford Research Park. i do not envision taller buildings in other areas except perhaps if they work along some parts of El Camino or Alma.

@ Model Available

I do not claim nor do i see claims that more housing of types similar to what is built today will reduce prices. I do see evidence from other places like Seattle where more housing does reduce the rate of growth in prices and rents substantially.

On the other hand since all new housing will not be detached single family housing, it is certainly likely that building more apartments especially if they are smaller than 1,000 square feet can offer rents below those of larger units and will be attractive to a wide range of people.

Posted by Allen Akin, a resident of Professorville,
on Feb 7, 2016 at 7:46 pm

"Would relaxing the height limit for housing with conditions on location and type be a good way to expand housing choices in Palo Alto?"

What are the other options? It would be helpful to compare them.

Posted by Observer, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Feb 7, 2016 at 7:58 pm

Allen Akin - another option would be to allow small multi-unit dwellings at low-density in neighborhoods throughout Palo Alto. I lived in a triplex in University South, along with other homes that were single-family. It was fine for me and fine for them. The triplex I lived in looked like a converted single-family home. It probably was. Aesthetically, it fit into the neighborhood, and pragmatically it was mostly occupied by young families with kids - the exact type of family that would have bought in Professorville thirty years ago.

University South and Downtown North are the most expensive per square foot in all of Palo Alto (I believe), but they are also the most affordable because it's possible to have a smaller unit there. In other words, these neighborhoods are both absolutely attractive to homeowners as well as (relatively) affordable for renters. What's not to like? Certainly, I never knew anyone who lived in University South when I lived there who wished it was more like Barron Park.

Posted by Curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North,
on Feb 7, 2016 at 9:33 pm

"On our block of Forest this is now being done for housing at 430 Forest where housing is replacing an office building. I think it is possible that raising the height limit for housing only would encourage more such redevelopment of older office structures."

Actually, that small housing conversion at 430 Forest is in the next block over from your place, on the other side of the street.

SL response: yes it is 3/4 of a block away on the other side of the street although I do not see how that is relevant to the point that this is an office space converted to housing.

Portion deleted.

SL response: The poster wants to argue that no housing will not be needed in the future, which is not the point of the blog.

This city council has adopted a Housing Element for 2014-2022 that has plans for 2000 more housing units. It will be followed in 2021 by another Housing Element that likely will have even more units in view of the extraordinary and projected continued growth in the region's jobs and population.

So it is entirely reasonable to discuss options for planning for this housing and raising the height limit in certain locations is one such option. The council will soon be discussing alternative ideas and locations for planning for this growth.

Allen Akin above asked about other options and the next poster started what could be an enlightening discussion for others to weigh in on.

Posted by Crescent Park Dad, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Feb 8, 2016 at 6:11 am


CPD, you are usually a reasonable poster. Please take a crack at answering Allen Akin's question. I thought raising the height limit to allow more buildings like Channing House or the President Hotel or the two apartment buildings across from me or 101 Alma would expand our ability to serve residents and newcomers. if you have other approaches to meeting the 2000 units in our unanimously adopted Housing Element or the 2500 or so in the following Housing Element, share them.

The idea the the buildings I mentioned are like Manhattan or even SF seems bizarre. There is a difference between the 6-10 story residential complexes here and 40-60 story towers.

Would you really deny our aging population the chance to move into a second facility like Channing House as the demand will certainly grow. The extra density in Channing House may or may not affect the price but it certainly expands the range of services and amenities.

help solve the housing challenges with your ideas, not just saying no to one idea.

Posted by mauricio, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Feb 8, 2016 at 8:55 am

Deleted--see the response to the poster above. Join in if you have ideas of how to meet our housing needs and legal obligations.

Posted by Fool_Me_Twice, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Feb 8, 2016 at 10:12 am


If you think that the current council acted incorrectly by unanimously passing a Housing Element with 2000 new units, take it up with them.

I think the council is sincere in revisiting the best ways to meet our housing goals and the needs of residents, which is why I started this blog.

This blog is about options for those 2000 units and the ones that will follow. Join in if you have ideas besides saying no.

See the response to CPD above.

Posted by Curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North,
on Feb 8, 2016 at 11:13 am


Curmudgeon I do not delete views contrary to my own.

I accept that the council is exploring ways to locate and size/provide guidelines for the housing goals they unanimously adopted.

If you have other ways to locate and size/provide guidelines for the adopted housing goals in Palo Alto, please share if you do not like raising the height limit in certain locations with conditions as I suggest might be helpful.

Arguing there is no vacant land is irrelevant as new developments will nearly always replace existing developments as the new housing replacing office on Forest.

Arguing that commercial always pays more is also irrelevant and probably not true given the restrictions council has put on new commercial development.

In that case council chose locations and design guidelines and can certainly do so for housing. The incentives can change and council can provide incentives for housing if they choose.

If you have a disagreement with the council, take it up with them.

Posted by Allen Akin, a resident of Professorville,
on Feb 8, 2016 at 2:02 pm

I don't think we'll get much traction in this discussion because the topic is too narrowly framed. But here's the sort of thing I'd like to see.

Without a set of goals (accepted at least for the sake of argument), there's really no way to evaluate a housing option. Is building high better than building small? Is building downtown better than building elsewhere? There's no way to know unless you can measure how well each choice meets the goals. I suspect a lot of the deleted comments were motivated by this problem. But I'll sidestep it for now, and just concentrate on feasibility.

Every housing option needs to be checked for feasibility. Off the top of my head, I can think of three dimensions: engineering, political, and financial.

The first step I'd take in engineering is to think about how to use volume. You can increase volume by building out (over more land area), up, or down (underground). ALL of these are options in Palo Alto. We have an enormous amount of open space within the city limits; some of it could be converted for housing. (Whether you feel open space is more important than, say, maintaining an economically diverse population is one of the "goal" issues that I alluded to above.) We also have buildings currently used in industrial applications that could be replaced with housing. (Whether you feel jobs and economic diversity are more important than new housing is another "goal" issue.) Small open spaces (like yards of single-family residences) could be converted to small housing units. Building up is doable. Building down is also possible, to some extent. And inverting the problem, you could keep current housing volume unchanged, but rebuild to reduce the amount of volume required per resident.

Engineering feasibility also has to cover implications for transportation, water, environmental quality, and other things. I'll skip those for now.

Political feasibility includes concerns about who wins and who loses for a given housing choice, and whether the potential losers are able to mount effective opposition. A housing option may meet the test of engineering feasibility, but if it can't pass the political test it isn't viable, no matter how good its intentions might be. See comments above about goals.

Financial feasibility includes concerns about initial funding and long-term economic sustainability. Can a developer get an adequate return from building a given housing option? Is a subsidy necessary? How are subsidies maintained long-term? And so on. We don't live in a centrally-controlled society, so any housing option needs to be economically attractive as well as meeting the other feasibility tests above.

So my advice is if you want to have a productive discussion on housing choices, you need to open it up to cover at least those topics. (And if you propose a particular housing choice, you need to do the homework: Show how it measures up.) I'm sure this sort of thing is happening, hopefully as part of the Comp Plan update, I'm just not privy to it. Steve, if you are, it would be a service to discuss more of it in your blog.

Posted by stephen levy, a resident of University South,
on Feb 8, 2016 at 2:23 pm

stephen levy is a registered user.

Thanks Allen. As you may have noticed I asked all the posters to answer your questions so thanks for carrying on.

The deleted comments argued that more housing was either impossible (contradicted by your examples) or undesirable.

As I have said this blog while narrow in one sense is broad as long as you accept the council's adopted Housing Element, which the deleted posters do not.

Also the council has broad range to craft engineering and financial guidelines as they have done with the office cap. With slowing job growth and restrictions on office development, housing may well become more attractive if we plan for that to happen.

As to the politics that gets back to whether you want to work with council on their adopted Housing Element to make improvements as they have pledged to do and how creative the council can be in designing incentives and guidelines.

Re the CAC housing seems to be important to a wide number of members who voted overwhelmingly to ask council to be part of their housing discussions.

We shall see what happens

Posted by mauricio, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Feb 8, 2016 at 3:22 pm


Give it up Mauricio. The council has adopted a Housing Element for 2,000 units by 2022 and added housing as a 2016 priority at their retreat.

This blog is about ideas to help them as they reexamine the sites in the plan.

If you think they are acting unwisely talk to them, not me. I take them at their word.

Posted by Allen Akin, a resident of Professorville,
on Feb 8, 2016 at 4:42 pm

Building more housing is certainly possible in a narrow engineering sense, but any given project very well could be blocked if it doesn't handle the broader engineering issues as well as political and financial concerns. Aspirational statements in the Comp Plan are not enough to change that (as we've seen in many other cases over recent years).

In the absence of credible analysis, I doubt I'd support any housing project just because it claims to reduce rental prices or improve economic diversity. Those problems are systematic, dauntingly large, and regional, not local. I know I'll actively oppose any downtown project that lacks a convincing, fully-funded plan to address traffic, parking, impact on schools, and a handful of other issues. Growth without addressing those concerns up-front is just not responsible.

So, give me a housing project that's well-planned, whether it's tall or not. :-)

Posted by Common Sense, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Feb 8, 2016 at 6:59 pm

There is no need to increase height if we are only talking ~2,000 units. There is plenty of space near the University and California Street CalTrans stations as well as on both sides of 101 at the Embarcadero interchange.

If the land adjoining the stations was truly developed into mixed use four story complexes and a parcel of land on the other side of 101 was rezoned for residential mixed density housing including a park and ride then we could accommodate everybody's needs without changing the character of our city.

Posted by Gale Johnson, a resident of Adobe-Meadow,
on Feb 8, 2016 at 7:15 pm

Yes, I think raising the height limit would have a positive impact on easing the housing problem and I've stated so numerous times. Of course it's critical to choose zones for relaxing the ordinance that will have maximum effect without further adding to the other problems (traffic and parking) that have been plaguing us. Your focus seems to be on the need for more dense, small unit housing that will be more affordable. I’ve written several times in support of more housing near the downtown area and transit hub where the big office buildup has occurred. I've advocated raising the height limit in zones in that area to accommodate at least one, maybe two, additional levels (stories). A big question, I’ve also posed, is what mix of micro, studio, 1 bdrm, 2 bdrm, and yes, even 3 bdrm apartments or condos will be needed to fix today’s problem? I have yet to get a response to that question from anybody.

I think most of the current thinking is focused on the downtown tech and office workers, many whom now drive to work. And it's my observation that a large percentage of them are young, and I'm guessing, single. That will change as they age, marry, and start raising families. Then what happens? They move miles away to areas where single family housing is affordable and they once again become commuters...clogging our streets and adding to the parking problem just like we have now.

I think there needs to be serious non-political analyses done by consultants who are experts in the field of determining current and projecting future demographics so the right mix of housing units will be built. Also, what is the measure of affordability for units that will be built. What income levels will it take?

Another important question in this discussion is what will entice developers, who prefer building offices, to build housing only projects.

I hope PACC did some preliminary research on these questions before they made their decision on the Housing Element.

We can't ADU our way out of this dilemma.

Posted by Jerry Underdal , a resident of Barron Park,
on Feb 8, 2016 at 8:19 pm

I would favor some relaxation of height requirements for housing with conditions as you suggest at the head of this topic. I would tie any such relaxation, though, to a requirement that it produce affordable housing. Other than that, I would let the developers produce as much market rate housing as they can under current limits.

I'm sympathetic to arguments made by opponents of adding housing that the added supply won't significantly reduce housing costs in the near term, especially if the boom continues. But it could significantly slow the rate of increase going forward. And housing that is guaranteed affordable for varying income categories over the long-term would have a major impact on the city's ability to retain a degree of economic diversity among residents that would make for a better Palo Alto in the future.

Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood,
on Feb 8, 2016 at 10:50 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Yes, increase the height limit for high density housing which:
1 - If within walking distance of a CalTrain station
2 - If residents are contractually obligated to not own a car
3 - And no resident parking spaces are provided

Posted by thielges, a resident of another community,
on Feb 9, 2016 at 12:09 pm

Peter - Your #3 requirement takes care of #2 mostly which is fine because you really cannot enforce a prohibition on residents owning a car. But eliminating the onsite parking is a strong deterrent against owning a car.

Housing built without parking is also more affordable.

Of course some will rent parking nearby. Nothing you can do about that. Others may want to park on the street. If that results in a loss of street parking viability, it can be fixed via a combination of parking restrictions.

Posted by george drysdale, a resident of Professorville,
on Feb 9, 2016 at 1:54 pm


Hi George, Thanks for posting.

Unless you have evidence that rent control is prominent in Palo Alto, this is off topic. I have never heard that raised as a barrier in our city. On the broader issue, I might well find common ground with you but it is not the subject of this blog.

But if you have ideas about the residential height limit or other policies to site housing in Palo Alto, please share them.

Posted by the_punnisher, a resident of Whisman Station,
on Feb 9, 2016 at 8:08 pm

the_punnisher is a registered user.

Web Link

Web Link

From mega mall to TOD solution. Yes, Wells Fargo and Chase still have major highrises. The Cinderella Drive-In was closed and apartment buildings have risen where we watched movies (~400 drive-ins left nationwide )

Swedish Medical Center has 3 blocks away Senior Living Apartments.

Englewood is ready for the aging population. The residential buildings at the former Cinderella City Drive-In are a short walk to the RTD Bus and Light Rail transit systems.

I chose Englewood, CO because it is roughly the same size as Palo Alto and is land-locked because of other cities. They also have a world class hospital grounds like Stanford Medical Center.

Here is a solution that meets the height limits and can handle 2000+ new residents.

Please have an open mind when I present FACTS and a SOLUTION to the problem discussed here. Use Google Maps for more proof.

Posted by yes!, a resident of Old Mountain View,
on Feb 10, 2016 at 10:48 am

Personally, I am all for it, particularly downtown with good access to Caltrain and El Camino, to further enhance the walkable community here. I do not find 444 Castro to be unsightly, I would urge the City to solicit an RFP for a building of similar height for residential use. It would be an attractive proposition for many developers, the City should set high expectations for the benefits we expect in return (20% or more affordable housing, or even better leased directly to the school district so they can rent housing stock to their teachers)

Posted by the_punnisher, a resident of Mountain View,
on Feb 10, 2016 at 11:38 am

the_punnisher is a registered user.

Palo Alto USED to have a drive-in theater. I should have stated that in my earlier posted comment.
The real issue is that there may be no realistic way to add housing unless some existing structures are demolished including residences. You can expect some strong oppositions to that process.

When the Cinderella City Drive-In was closed, it was not for lack of business. It was for the cost to go digital. The same setup people have in their living rooms cost drive-ins $500,000 to create.

This is an example of the changes technology forces. People RESIST CHANGE, especially if change affects them personally.

2000+ people mean that the population density in Palo Alto MUST CHANGE. 2000 new dwellings into existing land within the borders of Palo Alto.

The easy way to get this done ( and insure developers see the ROI ), would be to build Russian " block of flats " housing. Yes, Mr. Levy, that means raising the height limits and large spans of concrete complete with posters or advertising spaces. The living spaces would be small, yet cost much less per month.
Residents have no cars and depend on local transit to get to work, only the vlasti ( fat cats ) in Russia have cars.

I think some very hard ( and unpopular ) decisions will have to be made in the near future about those 2000+ people who will need housing.

What happens when those people want families?

Posted by Citizen, a resident of Charleston Gardens,
on Feb 10, 2016 at 8:34 pm


I take the council's unanimously adopted Housing Elemnet as a given for a starting point on new housing units and invite readers to explore ways to achieve this as the council will soon be doing the same,

Some posters think relaxing height limits would help. Others think it is not needed or the best way to plan for the 2000 new units.

If you disagree with council, take it up with them, write them a letter, post your own thoughts elsewhere.

Posted by mauricio, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Feb 11, 2016 at 6:11 am


Read the blog Mauricio. Look at the last sentence.

Height limits are posed as a question, not a given, and readers are invited as many have done to share alternative ideas to meet tgecadoptevhousng goals

Posted by Marie, a resident of Midtown,
on Feb 12, 2016 at 2:47 pm

Marie is a registered user.

I don't believe it is necessary to raise the 50 foot limit, given the many acres of housing that is only two and three stories. We can increase the housing stock significantly with today's limits. For example, Palo Alto has a very attractive two story subsidized housing at the end of Cambridge street, with lots of empty space and lawns. I suggest that it be replaced with a fifty foot high complex, utilizing all available space, before we start building towers.

Another way to increase housing is to have the city stand firm and refuse to rezone any areas that are today zoned for multi-unit housing and insist it be used only for multi-unit housing. Indeed, I think that the city should change the zoning on commercial only areas, to allow and encourage more housing. The city should stay resolved that the land around what is today Fry's be converted to housing as planned.

The city could rezone portions of the Stanford Research Park to allow housing as well, which would have the virtue of allowing people to live near where they work.

There are many ways to increase housing without building higher than 50 feet. Let's do that first before adding towers.

Posted by Harry Merkin, a resident of Ventura,
on Feb 12, 2016 at 6:51 pm

There is an easy, quick, nonintrusive housing increasing option: Simply convert one house on each block face to a duplex. No height limit relax needed. No NIMBYs.

Posted by mauricio, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Feb 13, 2016 at 12:44 pm

deleted. Mauricio, the council has adopted a housing goal. This blog is about ways to meet their goal. If you disagree with council members, you can start your own post.

Posted by Tim Buck II, a resident of Downtown North,
on Feb 13, 2016 at 1:02 pm

Our R1 areas undeniably are our least efficient land use. This is egregiously evident in the many overlarge lots in Crescent Park and Old Palo Alto.

All of Palo Alto should be redeveloped to a mix of high density interspersed with single family residences, as has been done in Downtown North. The result is a highly desirable, walkable, diverse residential neighborhood.

Posted by mauricio, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Feb 13, 2016 at 2:05 pm

You delete again posts that contradict your ideology and show how misguided and destructive to our city and area it is.

Portion deleted.

SL response

Mauricio, try actually reading the posts.

Harry merkin disagreed with relaxing height limits.

Marie disagreed with relaxing height limits.

The_punisher disagreed with relaxing height limits.

Common sense disagreed with relaxing height limits.

Other posts could be interpreted that way.

But they all proposed alternatives.

Posted by mauricio, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Feb 13, 2016 at 4:23 pm


Mauricio, if you want to propose alternative ways to plan for the 2000 units in the unanimously adopted Housing Element, give it a shot. If your "alternative" is to disregard the unanimously adopted Housung Element, you are free to post your own thread.

If you ate so dissatisfied living here you are free to move as you seem willing to tell other people to do.

Posted by Harry Merkin, a resident of Ventura,
on Feb 13, 2016 at 6:11 pm

To clarify, I have not disagreed with relaxing height limits. I proposed a simple infill option for adding approximately 2,000 housing units.

However, the tone of the blogger's subsequent response to maricio leads me to wonder if the primary advocacy of this blog is for housing, or for raising building height limits which would certainly be a boon for developers. Perhaps the blogger can clarify.

Posted by Steve Levy, a Almanac Online blogger,
on Feb 13, 2016 at 6:53 pm

Steve Levy is a registered user.

Thanks for clarifying Harry.

The purpose of the blog is to explore alternatives for adding housing in Palo Alto, which the council will soon discuss. You mentioned one. Thanks for contributing.

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