Editorial: A reasonable solution for affordable housing | September 12, 2012 | Almanac | Almanac Online |



Viewpoint - September 12, 2012

Editorial: A reasonable solution for affordable housing

Sooner or later, Peninsula cities will have to make a good-faith effort to plan for affordable housing, whether their residents like it or not. It is state law and city councils ignore it at their peril.

The consequences for not acting can be dire for any community that ignores the state mandate, including a freeze on building permits, forced passage of zoning for up to 20 homes per acre, and a restriction on the amount of time given to develop properties for affordable housing.

The issue has popped to the top of the agenda in Portola Valley, where a decision by the Town Council to purchase a 1.68-acre potential affordable housing site on Portola Road has stirred up a rash of criticism, mostly from neighbors who live directly behind what once was a family-owned nursery. Residents of Wyndham Drive, some of whose homes abut or are very close to the rear of the property, strongly oppose the council's plan to develop eight to 12 affordable housing units where the popular Al's Nursery did business for more than 20 years.

The homes would be sold to people who live or work in Portola Valley and whose incomes are within the moderate range for San Mateo County, as determined by the California Department of Housing and Community Development. A moderate salary for an individual in the county is set at around $86,500 a year, and $123,600 for a family of four.

The plan to buy the nursery property emerged after a plan to build eight homes on four parcels in the Blue Oaks subdivision fell through due to the expense of grading the irregular terrain of the property. Town council members hope that sale of the Blue Oaks land can bring enough to cover the $3 million purchase price of the nursery site, which includes $400,000 to clear away hazardous waste.

But while outside observers might believe the council has acted prudently in view of the consequences for not meeting the state affordable housing mandate, many Portola Valley residents strongly oppose approval of such a dense housing development in the community. A similar effort by the council to rezone 3.6 acres for 15 to 20 small homes at Nathhorst Triangle near the intersection of Alpine and Portola roads was defeated 54 percent to 46 percent in a citizen-led referendum in 2003. In that case, most of the homes were to be sold at market rate, with 15 percent reserved for people of moderate incomes.

Purchase of the nursery site only begins what is sure to be an exhaustive process by the town to attempt to develop a plan that is acceptable to all residents, including those who live on Wyndham Drive. If the property is acquired and is zoned for affordable housing, the town must exhibit a good faith effort to make sure housing is built.

The Wyndham Drive neighbors have wondered whether the town's affordable housing obligations can be met by identifying granny units, often placed behind a main house on larger properties. But Steve Padovan, the town's interim planning manager, told the Almanac that after discussing the matter with state officials, "we think it would be difficult to get our housing element (part of the general plan) certified if we relied solely on second units."

After a 4-0 vote (with Ted Driscoll absent), the Town Council decided to forge ahead with purchase of the nursery property, knowing that it would be controversial and encounter strong opposition from neighbors. On the plus side, the site is near a small shopping complex at 884 Portola Road, as well as two churches and the Town Center. With proper landscaping, a small cluster of housing could blend easily into the neighborhood.

This project would not, as some opponents fear, be the beginning of more calls for affordable housing in Portola Valley. The project would help the town meet its affordable housing obligation, and provide a handful of people who work in Portola Valley an opportunity to live much closer to their jobs, or allow some current residents to scale down without leaving their community.

Meanwhile, city officials in Menlo Park are suffering the consequences of missing multiple deadlines to upgrade the housing element of the city's general plan, which covers roughly 12,500 housing units. Now city officials are on a tight deadline to identify nearly 2,000 additional sites where affordable housing could be built. That is what can happen when a city fails to keep up with the state's affordable housing obligation.


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