Menlo Park eyes below-market rental housing project | May 2, 2012 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


News - May 2, 2012

Menlo Park eyes below-market rental housing project

by Sandy Brundage

The city of Menlo Park has its eye on a Willow Road apartment complex that might be purchased for use as below-market-rate rental housing — something that currently doesn't exist in Menlo Park.

The 12-unit complex, located at 1157-1161 Willow Road, comes with a price tag of around $2 million, according to a representative from HIP Housing, a nonprofit organization that specializes in finding below-market-rate housing and hopes to partner with Menlo Park on the deal. HIP currently operates 13 rental properties in San Mateo County.

The Willow Road complex would rent nine units to people earning less than 50 percent of the regional median income of $81,300, and three units to those making less than 30 percent. Rent at the complex would fall in the range of $610 to $1,016, according to a staff presentation.

A real estate listing described the property as vacant and partially renovated; it also said the complex had won a renewable energy award for upgrades such as solar panels and efficient lighting. Laundry and parking are available on site.

During an April 24 presentation at a council study session, HIP representatives estimated that buying and rehabilitating the property would raise the price to $2.6 million. Under the proposed agreement, the city would fund the purchase through a 55-year, no-interest loan to HIP Housing, while the county and a private partner, Clearinghouse CDFI, would loan money for renovations.

Obstacles to finding affordable homes in Menlo Park are many, according to staff: land cost and availability; relocation expenses for displaced tenants; ability to reduce overhead enough to offer lower rents; and neighborhood resistance.

Former councilwoman Lee Duboc once commented in a newsletter that spending below-market-rate housing funds in Menlo Park was a challenge since "no community in our small city will accept low and very low-income housing."

Timing is one challenge particular to the Willow Road property. The owner wants to sell sooner rather than later, according to HIP Housing, but the council wants to mull over the proposal.

During the study session, City Manager Alex McIntyre cautioned that the council needed to ask whether this was the right deal at the right time, or whether a future opportunity might make better use of Menlo Park's limited housing funds.

Four council members agreed that they needed more information and public input before deciding whether to support the deal. Councilman Andy Cohen, however, called a "wait and see" attitude unacceptable when "there's a screaming need for housing." According to HIP Housing, there are 127 people on the waitlist for affordable housing in Menlo Park.

Fellow council member Rich Cline appeared to take offense at the suggestion that questioning the deal indicated insensitivity to the plight of people trying to find local affordable housing.

"That's ridiculous," he said, and commented that asking questions before spending the public's money is part of the council's job. He also suggested that between Facebook's arrival and the possible approval of the downtown/El Camino Real specific plan, other affordable housing opportunities might be on the horizon.

The HIP Housing Willow Road proposal is expected to appear on the council's regular agenda in May.


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