Menlo Park "agrees that California is facing a housing affordability crisis; however, this is not the solution."
That sentence summed up a letter the Menlo Park City Council unanimously agreed to send to California Gov. Jerry Brown on June 21. Signed by Mayor Rich Cline, the letter objects to a proposal by Gov. Brown that would force cities across the state to approve affordable housing developments if those proposals meet certain requirements, instead of allowing cities to grant building privileges at their own discretion.
According to Gov. Brown's proposal, new multi-family affordable housing proposals could skip the local review process if they meet city development rules and are being built in an area already zoned for housing.
Any multi-family housing project with 20 percent or more of its units dedicated for lower-income occupants would be eligible, and in areas near public transportation, that number would drop to a minimum of 10 percent of housing units for "low-income" occupants or 5 percent for those who are "very low income."
One of the largest and costliest hurdles for a development evaluation of how it could affect the environment, under the California Environmental Quality Act could be skipped.
Currently, the state's approved budget has $400 million set aside for affordable housing that can't be spent until the affordable housing bill is passed in some form, according to California Finance Department spokesperson H.D. Palmer.
Menlo Park's letter points out two problems the city finds with the legislation: It takes away local power and it doesn't come with sufficient funds.
"Eliminating opportunities for public review of these major development projects goes against the principles of local democracy and public engagement," Mayor Cline writes.
He argues that public hearings help to guarantee that "property rights will not be impacted without due process," even if it "may be frustrating for some developers to address neighborhood concerns about traffic (or) parking."
That process, while painstaking, can lead to buildings that are a better fit with local preferences, he argues.
Furthermore, he says, the bill doesn't address what some in Menlo Park see as a major contributing cause of the affordable housing shortage: a major cut in state and federal funding for affordable housing in the last decade.
According to Menlo Park City Councilwoman Kirsten Keith, the measure would "limit public engagement, design and environmental review over these development projects" while allocating only $400 million statewide to fund affordable housing. Prior to the statewide dissolution of redevelopment agencies in 2011, she said, the state budget for affordable housing was over $1 billion per year. Funding from the last state housing bond measure in 2006 has been completely drained, she said.
Assembly Democrats this year asked to have $1.3 billion in the budget for affordable housing, but only the $400 million was approved.
By contrast, Santa Clara County just put a $950 million affordable housing bond measure on the November ballot.
According to a report by state legislative analyst Mac Taylor, local communities in California, particularly those near the coast, have built too little housing than is optimal at a "state and regional level." One reason for this, the report says, is that in California, cities can often get more tax money and fewer obligations from commercial spaces or hotels than for residential areas, so there is less incentive for building housing.
Another reason, according to the report, is that the local review process which can involve months and even years of public hearings, planning commission and possibly other commission review, and in some cases, an environmental impact report can still conclude with the denial of a project even if it complies with the city's existing general plan and zoning requirements. Residents opposed to developments can take environmental impact review findings to court or seek voter approval by the initiative and referendum processes, thereby blocking projects.
Menlo Park has a checkered history of meeting a state requirement specifying the number of housing units it needs to allow for, through its zoning laws, in the city. It was sued in 2012 by Peninsula Interfaith Action and other affordable-housing agencies when it was learned that the city's housing element had not been updated since 1992. State mandates say it should be updated every seven years.
Its new requirement, according to regionwide planning agencies, should be to have zoning set up to build 505 housing units in the very low-, the low-, and the moderate-income levels by 2022.
In 2015, the city granted permits for 135 affordable housing units, including 90 for very low-income seniors, according to a displacement analysis by Keyser Marston Associates.