Three years in the works, a study on housing in the city of Menlo Park is finally out.
The study, which the city made Facebook pay for when it approved the company's most recent expansion, was led by University of California at Berkeley professor Karen Chapple and involved teen researchers through Y-PLAN, a youth education and advocacy organization based out of UC Berkeley's Center for Cities + Schools. It is aimed at evaluating the local housing supply and inventory in Belle Haven, East Palo Alto and North Fair Oaks.
As part of Facebook's deal with the city, the company agreed to use the findings of the study – which it funded with at least $350,000 – to shape how it spends an additional $1.5 million to create a "housing innovation fund."
The fund is expected to be led by an eight-member advisory group including Facebook representatives, as well as local elected officials and community organization representatives. The city managers of East Palo Alto and Menlo Park would each select one member, and Facebook would pick the rest. It's to be set up as a nonprofit, but may be tied to an existing nonprofit, according to a staff report.
Chapple's team collected input from representatives of around 40 nonprofits and community organizations, she said.
The study, called "Investment and Disinvestment as Neighbors: A Study of Baseline Housing Conditions in the Bay Area Peninsula," looked at the patterns at the parcel and block level in the areas of Belle Haven, East Palo Alto and North Fair Oaks.
The study reported that its findings confirmed that those three communities are experiencing disproportionate pressure in the housing market compared to the rest of the San Mateo County.
While those areas have historically been low-income, working-class communities, the study reports, there are signs of recent change – growing turnover in the population, a decrease in the population of school-aged kids and rising homelessness, as well as a high rate of households that are overcrowded and burdened by the cost of rent.
Close to 60% of households in Belle Haven spend more than 35% of their income on rent, compared to around 40% of households in San Mateo County overall who do so, according to the study.
But the three communities are also undergoing changes that differ from one another. East Palo Alto, for instance, the study reported, "had the most observable signs of disinvestment" such as overgrown lawns, absentee owners and sidewalks missing or in poor conditions, while Belle Haven had more signs of investment and real estate speculation.
The study also found that between 2006 and 2012, Belle Haven experienced twice as many foreclosures as the rest of Menlo Park despite having only roughly one-quarter of the number of housing units and was hit substantially harder than wealthier areas in Menlo Park. It also found that Belle Haven had experienced the highest degree of real estate speculation in the communities studied, with over 6% of residential parcels experiencing at least one flip – defined as being sold twice within one year – between 1995 and 2017, compared to 3% in the rest of Menlo Park, just under 6% in East Palo Alto and 5% in North Fair Oaks.
The study also raised a number of policy suggestions for the City Council to consider. Among the suggestions were that the cities in the study consider a no net loss policy for rental housing demolished for new construction; support the construction of secondary housing units or develop an amnesty program for ones that exist; enforce hotel taxes for homes used as short-term rentals; implement anti-displacement programs like rental assistance or renter counseling; and consider legislation that limits speculation by outsiders.
The students were tasked with surveying every block of the three communities. They also had personal experiences of the problems they were studying; most had experienced overcrowding or knew someone who had been displaced or lived on the street.
The study included neighborhood observations with student surveyors who filled out a Google form for each site looking for signs of investment or disinvestment. Disinvestment was measured on one index using indicators like dumping, graffiti, parking (the number and location of cars), accessory structures or garages being used as living spaces, sidewalk conditions and security measures. They also analyzed each community's database of code violations from 2010 to 2018, building permits and residential property transactions records, among other factors.
The City Council agreed to review the findings of the study alongside a regionwide study on housing at a later date. Councilwoman Betsy Nash also favored having a number of city commissions review the information presented in the study.
Access the full study online here.