A Piece of My Mind: Housing issues hit home

I attended a discussion in January focused on the shortage of affordable housing in Los Altos. The presenters were excellent. Both had been active in development of affordable housing projects in Mountain View, Palo Alto and Redwood City. They were well informed, personable and had good visual materials to illustrate their ideas. I can’t imagine how it could have been done better. Unfortunately, I came away thinking that they had been talking all along about another city.

One of the ideas put forward in the presentations was “form-based zoning.” The gist of this idea is that zoning laws based on strict setbacks, height limitations and occupancy restrictions lead to the building of large, boxy structures that press up against every setback requirement and clash with existing residences. The occupancy restrictions prevent affordable options such as home-sharing between unrelated people, or the building of second dwellings on larger properties.

Instead, the presenters suggested that requirements for new development focus on making sure that the new structure blends into the neighborhood’s existing architecture, and includes shared amenities such as open space or community meeting rooms. They showed pictures of developments in Davis and Petaluma that conform to this new type of requirement, and that include park space, bicycle paths, retail space and other neighborhood-friendly features.

The exteriors of the multifamily complexes are cleverly disguised, looking like larger residences or at least buildings of the same vintage as the existing neighborhood.

But in Los Altos, that train has already left the station. On almost every block, one can see a hodgepodge of architectural styles and irregularities.

My neighborhood until a few years ago was uniformly composed of single-story ranch houses with generous setbacks on larger-than-required lots. The few two-story homes had been designed so that the second story was inconspicuous. More recently, though, some of the ranchers have been scrapped and replaced by a couple of French Provincial-style two-story chateaux with pointed gables and wrought-iron trim, several two-story Mission-style homes with adobe-colored walls and tile roofs, and some homes that look like Craftsman bungalows on steroids. The latest style is homes built with polished stainless-steel doors, translucent glass and walls of gray concrete accented with stained-wood paneling. Form-based architecture designed to blend in with the neighborhood worked in the 1950s, when those inconspicuous duplexes along Springer Road were built, but what would form-based zoning look like now?

Just a few days after the meeting, the purchaser of one of the largest lots on our street applied to subdivide the lot and build two homes where one had been before. I expect that these homes, like 218 of the 244 housing units built in Los Altos between 2014 and mid-2017 (per a handout at the above-mentioned meeting), will be priced well above the purchasing capability of a household earning the area median income of $93,000 per year. The neighbors are already circulating petitions in protest of adding a couple of small lots to the street with new homes that won’t blend in with our neighborhood. As far as adding to our stock of affordable housing – that’s a remote dream, when the land alone cost the purchaser well over $5 million. Who are we kidding? The train that left the station is long gone.

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