The Invisible Housing Crisis in Los Altos

The Invisible Housing Crisis in Los Altos, Nov. 15th at Silicon Valley Community Foundation

This discussion was planned by the Los Altos Women’s Caucus and co-sponsored by our LWV, along with our local AAUW, Los Altos Community Foundation and GreenTown Los Altos.  Perhaps because of this wide sponsorship, the room at the SVCF was filled to its capacity of 125 people.

The program began with “Making It Real & Personal”, comments by Sharif Etman, Admin. Services Director for the City of Los Altos and Sam Oden, Executive Director of The Terraces.  Both gave their personal stories as well as startling data on their difficulties in hiring and retaining employees, due to the high cost of living in or near Los Altos.  For example, out of 130 employees last year, the City of Los Altos had 20 vacancies.  Only 3 live in Los Altos and more than 100 don’t live in a neighboring city.  These long commutes mean that Los Altos is having a harder and harder time recruiting and keeping good talent, as when applicants/employees see opportunities closer to where the live, they opt for a better quality of life/shorter commute.

Next, Mayor Mary Prochnow gave a grim assessment of how dire the affordable situation is in Los Altos, pointing out that progress towards its Regional Housing Needs Allocation, sometimes called its “fair share”, Los Altos has already produced 218 above moderate income units out of its 97-unit allocation, but only 2 moderate income out of a 99-unit allocation, 20 low income out of its 99-unit allocation, and 4 very-low income and extremely low income, out of its 169-unit allocation.  She raised 3 questions: what are we doing to meet the needs of the workforce, such as described by Sharif and Sam?; What do we do to make progress? And finally, should we be focusing less on above-moderate income housing? (note: income definitions and more information about RHNA is on the LWV website)

Then Joe Simitian, County Supervisor, explained that the jobs/housing imbalance has been created mainly because cities have not wanted to say no to jobs.  Should we try to reduce the demand by not allowing as many jobs?  He pointed out that the free market may work for some housing, but it will never work to create housing for those with lower incomes. He offered three basic, but significant conditions to create this housing: land, money and community will.  He also pointed out three important local successes:  Measure A, which was passed last Nov., mainly to address needs of homeless or near homeless; Stanford’s request in 2000 for additional square footage which had to be mitigated by building additional housing, (a new request is now being debated); and saving Buena Vista Mobile Home Park in Palo Alto, a collaboration over 2 1/2 years between the City of Palo Alto, the County, the Housing Authority, and Caritas, a nonprofit housing provider.

Joe’s response to those who ask “what’s in it for me?”, first, necessary for the economic vitality of the community, improvement of traffic due to shorter commutes for workers, and public safety argument as some city employees and other key workers would live in our area.

These opening comments were followed by a panel including Mary and Joe, and also Leslye Corsiglia, Ex. Dir. of [email protected], and Julie Mahowald, CFO of Housing Trust Silicon Valley, who answered questions from the audience.

Highlights of the question and answer period:  Mary would like to see land dedicated as an all affordable housing development; otherwise she sees the small number of below-market-rate units being created as just a drop in the bucket in terms of meeting the need in Los Altos.  She also suggested supporters of affordable housing jump in with something positive when they see some of the many negative comments on NextDoor.  Mary then expressed frustration regarding the long time it was taking the Council to adopt new rules regarding accessory dwelling units (ADUs, also calledgranny units, second units), stating she believes that these should be allowed on all lots as existing zoning and setback laws should be sufficient to protect neighbors.  She asked for people to come to Council meeting when this issue comes back to show their support.

Leslye agreed re ADUs, commenting that neighboring cities had relaxed their rules, requiring no minimum lot size.  She also asked that we support junior ADUs.

Joe stated that the County is starting to explore homesharing, which has been quite successful in San Mateo County. With regard to building higher, Joe suggested we focus on the quality of the projects and not support all developments that are higher, but support good projects, as these don’t affect the quality of life. Joe also suggested that we try to impact the demand side by creating jobs further away, perhaps in the Central Valley, with a “virtual bridge” to the employment centers here.

All the speakers are upbeat about increased collaboration on a regional level; Leslye referred us to CASA on the [email protected] website.  Mary commented that Los Altos tends to be pretty insular, not collaborative.  Joe indicated that there was a possibility that in the future perhaps cities with money but no land (Los Altos Hills?) could be given RHNA credit if they gave their money to nearby cities with land.

There will be a follow-up meeting on solutions at Hillview Community Center, Rm. 2, Dec. 11th at 7 p.m.  Also, Robin Abrams is organizing a video shoot the third week of January, which will show video vignettes on how the lack of housing is impacting our friends and neighbors.  Everyone is invited to suggest folks who might be highlighted in this video, about two minutes per person, to be filmed at the Neutra House/LACF. ([email protected]).

As a footnote, our LWV housing group has sent letters endorsing no minimum lot size for ADUs; Mtn. View has adopted such an ordinance.  We have also supported the idea of the City contributing City-owned land for an all-affordable housing development, in particular, a City-owned parking lot. As Joe stated, to build affordable housing, you need land, money and community will.  Because Los Altos has no money to contribute, the main opportunity for an all-affordable development would be a long-term lease of City property, either at the Civic Center or on a downtown parking lot.  But is there community will?