With a range of housing bills now sweeping through Sacramento, elected leaders from Menlo Park, Palo Alto and East Palo Alto met in a rare summit Monday night to swap ideas and share concerns about the shifting political landscape and its implications for local zoning.
Though the unprecedented joint session didn't revolve around any particular bill, most of the council members and many of the residents who attended the meeting focused their comments on Senate Bill 50, the most ambitious of the roughly 200 housing bills now moving through the state Legislature.
Members of the three city councils did not reach any consensus about the bill, which was variously described as an attack on local control and a much-needed — if somewhat flawed — attempt to address a problem that has reached crisis levels.
The only thing they agreed on is that each community would benefit from greater collaboration and, if possible, coordination in addressing the regional housing shortage.
The discussion underscored the highly contentious and polarizing nature of the bill, which seeks to create denser housing near transportation hubs by allowing three- and four-story buildings near rail stations, ferry terminals and high-service bus lines. Authored by state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, the bill was revised on April 24 and, unlike its prior iteration, now distinguishes between counties with populations that have more than 600,000 residents and those that have less.
The revised SB 50, which is a mashup of Wiener's initial bill and state Sen. Mike McGuire's proposed legislation (formerly known as SB 4), received a boost on April 24, when the Senate Finance and Government Committee voted to advance it. But even with the revisions, the bill found a mixed reception among many Midpeninsula council members. Palo Alto council members (with the exception of Vice Mayor Adrian Fine) continue to oppose it, framing it as a "one-size-fits-all" approach to zoning and an affront to local control.
"Local control is really fundamental to our democracy," said Palo Alto City Councilman Tom DuBois, who last month successfully encouraged his colleagues to endorse a letter that explicitly opposes "one-size-fits-all" legislation, a veiled reference to SB 50.
Palo Alto City Councilwoman Lydia Kou, also a staunch opponent of the bill, also took aim on Monday at SB 330, a proposal by state Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, which would streamline the approval process for housing developments and fine cities that fail to approve residential projects that meet objective zoning standards. Kou called the bill "intense" and "obnoxious."
"It really imposes its will on the city without looking at ... whether its infrastructure can take it or not," Kou said.
While Palo Alto council members spent much of the meeting criticizing Sacramento's proposed solutions, their counterparts in East Palo Alto emphasized the scope of the housing problem and their measured support for SB 50.
East Palo Alto Councilman Larry Moody challenged cities that oppose the proposed legislation to offer their own plans to address the humanitarian crisis, as evidenced by people living in RVs and sleeping under bridges and highways. The scope of the problem, he argued, creates an imperative for city leaders to take strong action.
"If they're not going to be supporting SB 50, tell us what you're doing. What's the plan in Menlo Park? What's the plan in Burlingame? What's the plan in San Carlos?" Moody asked. "East Palo Alto can't be the dormitory of the tech industry and for the job growth taking place. We can't and we shouldn't have to be the only city that has an active strategy around affordable housing."
Opponents of SB 50 in Palo Alto and elsewhere have consistently called for tighter restrictions on commercial development, which they view as the root cause of the housing crisis. East Palo Alto council members had a vastly different take. The city has massive traffic problems, though as Moody noted, many of the cars passing through the city are commuters heading to jobs in Menlo Park, home to Facebook, or Palo Alto, which has Santa Clara County's highest ratio of jobs to employed residents.
"You have the jobs; we don't have the jobs in our community," Moody said. "We're trying to build our economic strand for the first time in a long time."
East Palo Alto Mayor Lisa Gauthier acknowledged Palo Alto's concerns about "local control" but reserved her sympathy for residents who have to drive from Modesto or Tracy to get to work in the Midpeninsula or to young people who get priced out from the cities where they grew up.
"There has to be a regional approach to this, and we're trying to figure this out," Gauthier said.
East Palo Alto Vice Mayor Regina Wallace-Jones also pushed back against the common perception that tech workers are the cause of the housing problem. Wallace-Jones, a former Facebook employee who now works at eBay, said even young people tech industry are looking to leave the area.
"For average tech workers, they're also saying, 'I can't wait until I vest in four years, go some place and buy a house and build my family," Wallace-Jones said.
Both Wallace-Jones and East Palo Alto Councilman Ruben Abrica urged opponents of SB 50 to propose alternative solutions. Rather than fight the state, Abrica said, cities should make suggestions to the Legislature to address the problem.
"Housing will continue to be a top issue in our state," Abrica said. "Why? Millions of people ... cannot afford a place to live. It's just an undeniable fact."
While Palo Alto is leaning against SB 50 and East Palo Alto is rallying to its banner, Menlo Park remains by and large agnostic. Vice Mayor Cecilia Taylor said the council will be discussing SB 50 independently and that the council does not have a unified voice on the legislation.
Menlo Park Mayor Ray Mueller last month came out against the bill in an opinion piece in the Palo Alto Daily Post, calling the legislation "a misguided precedent-setting centralization of power in the state that weakens the foundation of local representative government and devalues the voices of its electorate."
His colleagues, however, have largely refrained from publicly taking any positions on the bill.
That continued Monday night. Mueller did not attend the Monday meeting (he listened by phone but did not speak); Councilwoman Catherine Carlton was absent; Councilwoman Betsy Nash attended but didn't make remarks; and Councilman Drew Combs limited his comments to questions about the bill and its likely passage.
Taylor didn't offer a position on the bill but said she believes one of the reasons SB 50 exists is because cities have not done a good job in entering into development agreements with employers that address some of the impacts caused by commercial projects. Each city, she said, should adopt an "all-inclusive policy" that requires local hiring and contributions toward improving transportation and education.
She noted that the constituents in her district, Belle Haven, have trouble getting out of the city and getting home because of all the traffic. Schools, she added, are underperforming.
"I believe SB 50 exists because we didn't take care of our own city," Taylor said.
Residents were similarly split over SB 50, with some calling it a critical solution and others framing it as a state takeover of local powers. Menlo Park resident Judy Adams was among the former.
"We have to build up; we're running out of land," Adams said. "If the cities had done their jobs and built low-income affordable housing, it wouldn't be necessary for the state to step in and ask us to in conscience provide more low-income housing."
But Palo Alto resident Greer Stone called SB 50 an attack on single-family neighborhoods. He characterized it as "trickle-down framework" for housing that will spur the construction of market-rate housing. In a city like Palo Alto, this basically means "luxury housing" that would be unaffordable to nurses, teachers and public employees. (SB 50 does, however, requires housing developments with 20 or more units to designate a percentage of these units to below-market-rate housing. The percentage varies based on the income-eligibility level.)
"SB 50 is not a panacea for our housing crisis. Rather, it's a Trojan horse for development interests," Stone said.