California cities' housing elements are treated as guides that each city must adopt every eight years laying out where new homes can be developed within city limits. Through a state-mandated process called the Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA), each city is allocated a certain number of housing units it is expected to plan and zone for, and this time, cities are seeing substantially higher allocations than in previous cycles. Menlo Park is no exception, with its allocation bumped up to 2,946 units in the upcoming cycle from 655 in the current one, according to Geoff Bradley, principal and president at M-Group, the consultant firm leading the update project.
Menlo Park council members voted 3-2, with Mayor Drew Combs and Councilman Ray Mueller opposed, to not rule out the possibility of rezoning land in city limits that is zoned for single-family use
Councilwoman Jen Wolosin proposed the approach because she favored keeping "all options on the table."
"I see the housing element process as a moment in time when our community is engaged ... this is when people are talking about housing. It seems like a natural place to have these conversations," she said.
"I don't consider it abolishing R1 (the zoning code for single-family homes); I'm considering it enabling more than single-family homes," she added later.
Combs and Mueller said they were opposed to inviting any discussions of single-family zoning changes.
"I don't want, as part of this process, any time to be wasted on looking at single-family zoning," Combs said.
Mueller said he'd favor focusing on the city's downtown housing stock and considering upzoning areas near downtown to permit mixed-use development, including housing and entertainment uses like a movie theater. He said he had concerns that the community discussion over R1 zoning would "consume" the process and would not generate much housing growth. "I don't think it's an appropriate time," he said.
One of the requirements of the state's housing element process this time around is to "affirmatively further fair housing" by proactively combating housing discrimination, undoing historic patterns of segregation and stopping racial bias in the realm of housing statewide.
Some researchers critique single-family zoning as exclusive and inequitable, particularly to racial minorities. For instance, a report from the Othering and Belonging Institute at University of California at Berkeley argues, "Although no longer racially explicit, exclusionary zoning such as single-family zoning is explicitly classist, designed to exclude lower-income residents and more affordable housing options, and can be implicitly racist, designed to keep out certain groups of people based upon racist stereotypes."
However, the "predominance of single family uses and larger lot sizes in racially concentrated areas of affluence" is only one of a number of examples of zoning and land use barriers that cities mandated to "affirmatively furthering fair housing" consider in their analyses, according to an April 2021 report from the California Department of Housing and Community Development.
Several California cities have taken steps to end single-family zoning earlier this year, when the Sacramento City Council signaled support for zoning plans to permit up to four units on properties zoned for single-family use and the Berkeley City Council passed a resolution to end single-family zoning by the end of 2022. In San Mateo County, South San Francisco City Council members in late February agreed to explore the possibility of ending single-family zoning in its upcoming general plan update.
In his experience, Bradley explained, there's been an "unspoken assumption" not to touch R1 zoning in the community engagement process. Opening up the conversation with the community about the possibility of permitting more than single-family homes in single-family zoned areas, even if that feedback is there's not much support for doing so, would be "moving the needle significantly," he said.
In addition to crafting an updated housing element, Menlo Park is required to create a citywide environmental justice element and update its safety element. Those city efforts involve work by consultants from the M-Group, ChangeLab Solutions, ESA, Hexagon and BAE.
One topic the council appeared open to was in response to a question from Councilwoman Cecilia Taylor. She wondered if, since there are already thousands of new housing units proposed in her district, whether District 1, or the area of the city on the Bay side of U.S. 101, would get a pass from having to zone for more homes in the upcoming zoning cycle.
"I think that's totally fair," Combs said, adding that he felt it was a policy discussion the council should work through, rather than getting feedback on it from staff and consultants.
Bradley added that if all of those proposed housing units in District 1 are approved and built, they will count toward the city's overall RHNA requirements, and could actually exceed that total requirement. However, because most of those units are market rate, and the state mandates a certain proportion of those new units to be designated for lower-income households, Menlo Park will still have to make plans throughout the city for how to accommodate more affordable housing units, he said.
In addition, cities are typically expected to zone for around 15% to 30% more units above the mandated number of housing units, putting the expected number of units to plan for at closer to 3,400 or 3,800 housing units, he said.
The timeline for the project is to begin community outreach efforts during the summer, do a community survey later on in the summer and then start talking about land use strategies and alternatives in the late summer and fall. The effort is expected to be complete by the end of 2022, Bradley said.
The City Council also created a subcommittee with members Combs and Wolosin, as well as a Community Engagement and Outreach Committee that will help with public outreach for the housing element update. Its members are: Victoria Robledo, Yadira DiSiena, Dan McMahon, Lesley Feldman, Nehezi Ollarvia, Aaron Spaulding, Max Fennell, Carol Marshall Mayer, Michal Bortnik, Rich Cline, Soody Tronson and Tiffany Dao. Because none of the candidates was from Menlo Park's District 5 area, two spots will be held for District 5 residents. City Council district representative Ray Mueller planned to recruit two district residents for the positions.
That group was set to hold its first meeting Thursday, May 27.