Menlo Park City Council members sided with state law on Oct. 23, voting 3-2 with councilmen Cline and Cohen opposed, to endorse a resolution that pledges the city will do its part to build its fair share of apartments and/or single-family homes.
The decision means Menlo Park is officially on board with the Regional Housing Needs Assessment, a state program that requires cities to build enough homes to maintain a sufficient housing-to-jobs ratio.
"This doesn't mean we're going to go build 993 homes by 2014, but it does mean that morally, if not legally, we have an obligation to figure out what available land we have, and what can be zoned for housing," said Councilman John Boyle.
Mayor Kelly Fergusson and Councilman Heyward Robinson noted that 993 homes is a lofty goal, but both council members said the city must follow the law and create a plan to determine what type of housing the city needs.
A weak law?
Under state law, cities are required to adjust zoning for a specific number of homes — a process referred to as a city's housing element.
But the law is loosely enforced by the state, and Menlo Park has ignored recent requests by the state to update its housing element.
"I don't think our city is ready to commit to what [the state] is demanding, and I'm not satisfied the law has the teeth sufficient to compel us to do it," Councilman Cohen said after the meeting.
Councilman Cline said adjusting zoning for 993 more homes would put a lot of pressure on the council to approve housing projects — something residents don't necessarily want to see more of in Menlo Park.
He said too many housing developments have been "shoehorned" into the Linfield Oaks neighborhood — a phenomenon he doesn't want to see occur in other parts of town.
"I don't think Menlo Park can hit that number, and I don't want it being hung over our heads on a regular basis," Mr. Cline said. "By making this promise to add housing, we become a prisoner to this number."
Although the state has yet to punish cities that fail to create and uphold housing elements, housing advocacy groups have taken it upon themselves to take legal action against cities without enough homes — and they've won.
So why hasn't Menlo Park gotten in any trouble over the years?
"Because they haven't been sued yet," said Paul Peninger, the co-policy director of the Nonprofit Housing Association of Northern California.
Mr. Peninger said recent lawsuits have been filed against the cities of Benicia, Corte Madera and Gilroy by housing advocacy groups, such as the Western Center on Law and Poverty.
Advocacy groups often claim the city isn't providing adequate affordable housing — a claim that is hard to deny without a certified housing element, Mr. Peninger said.
"You have a housing element adopted by the state, or you don't," he said. "It's a pretty straightforward issue. If you don't have a housing element, you can get sued."
Aside from the legal requirements, Mr. Peninger said, planning for more homes is necessary to accommodate a growing population.
"In Menlo Park's case, you have a city that has housing needs to plan for, as it is part of a region that's growing," he said. "The city hasn't been shy about creating new jobs, so it needs to build more homes."
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