The Los Altos City Council plans to appeal a state-initiated housing mandate that calls for accommodating nearly 2,000 new units in the city by 2031.

Although two council members expressed skepticism that the appeal would succeed, members voted unanimously to file an appeal with the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG), which assigned Los Altos draft Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA) numbers of 1,958 new units – 1,115 of them deemed affordable housing. The city must file its appeal by July 9.

ABAG assigns numbers based on new housing mandates from the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development. The RHNA numbers are part of a housing element cities are required to submit to the state that lays out strategies for housing creation. Los Altos must submit plans by January 2023 for its next housing element cycle, which runs through January 2031.

Vice Mayor Anita Enander, presenting the case for appeal, noted that city staff have collected information that could show Los Altos has received an unfair numbers allocation.

“It seems important to us to try to file an appeal in part because if any jurisdiction files an appeal and is successful, and that jurisdiction’s numbers are reduced, then those numbers are redistributed to other jurisdictions,” Enander said – the outcome potentially being even more units assigned to Los Altos. “We think there’s a real reason that we need to make at least an attempt at an appeal.”

Councilmembers Jonathan Weinberg and Sally Meadows said the appeal, given the poor track record of other municipalities that have attempted, has little chance of success and could be a waste of staff time.

Meadows said two possible reasons for the appeal – inaccurate data in a jurisdiction survey and COVID-19 setbacks – would have next to no resonance with ABAG officials.

“We missed the deadline on that (survey), so that cannot be the … basis of an appeal,” she said. “The pandemic affected every single jurisdiction. Which aspect of the pandemic is more or less compelling for Los Altos?”

“What residents would like – we’re doing something to ensure our city is protected and that we are doing our best to appeal the RHNA numbers allocated to us,” countered Councilmember Lynette Lee Eng.

Unified support

Former Councilmember Ron Packard suggested the city file an amicus brief with other municipalities to challenge the numbers.

“The cities and counties are the real parties of interest, yet they are not at the negotiating table,” he said. “This is fundamentally unfair.”

Anne Paulson, with the Los Altos Affordable Housing Alliance, noted: “You appeal to ABAG and it would be heard by the representatives of other cities that would get the numbers we (would try to) get rid of. … HCD has already issued guidance that the pandemic is not the basis for an appeal. I urge you to skip an appeal that is probably futile.”

Former Planning Commissioner Jon Baer disagreed.

“Whether the appeal succeeds or fails doesn’t mean if there’s a basis for an appeal not to file an appeal. … The question of RHNA numbers and making sure they represent something that is realistic and achievable and recognizes factors like the housing and job creation balance, the availability of suitable land (is) all very relevant and important because the RHNA numbers as presented would put Los Altos in a position of changing the fundamental character of our town,” he said. “We’re going to have a negative impact on the things that everybody says they love about Los Altos.”

Mayor Neysa Fligor supported filing an appeal.

“I think it’s worth trying,” she said. “I don’t view this appeal as indicative of someone being opposed to affordable housing or not wanting affordable homes built in Los Altos. I really view this as a very big number and, looking at our track record, we have not been able to reach numbers that have been much lower in the past.”

Weinberg and Meadows acknowledged it would be good to show a unified council front in backing the appeal, despite their reservations.

“At end of the day, I have not been convinced there is a cogent argument (for an appeal) that has a chance of being successful,” Weinberg said. “(But) we look stronger unified (in supporting the appeal), even it’s not a good use of staff resources.”