Editor's Notebook: The building pressure to provide affordable housing

Don’t look now, but Los Altos is feeling the heat from the state as the desperate call for more affordable housing – and more housing, period – grows louder and louder.

The city has long been established as an affluent, primarily single-family home mecca with generous 10,000-square-foot lots. It also has long since been built out.

So what to do when a city like Los Altos is confronted with 15 bills approved over the past year or so that push for more affordable units through higher-density housing and urgent timelines in which to process such housing?

As you can well imagine, Los Altos falls significantly short of its housing element mandate to provide affordable housing. The mandate requires 477 units by 2023, and the city is nowhere near that target. Very few are targeted for low-income or very-low-income residents.

The new laws are imposing. A few, most notably Senate Bill 35, streamline the process for approving multifamily housing projects so that these homes can be built more quickly. If cities like Los Altos get in the way of such development, or don’t move quickly enough, the state could invalidate the city’s general plan and take over its functions to ensure that such housing is built.

Naturally, this is great news for housing developers and unwelcome news for NIMBYs. It ultimately means compromises in areas such as setbacks and parking limits.

Take a look at the El Camino Real corridor in Los Altos, where developers and city leaders alike are eyeing future multifamily (read: high density) housing. Neighbors behind such projects are not going to be happy. Developers will have the upper hand.

One pointed out at a recent Los Altos City Council/Planning Commission study session that developers may not choose to build here if they are saddled with too many restrictions/requirements. And if they don’t build, the state will ask Los Altos, “Why not?”

Some figure that there are simply too many cities for the state to try to impose its will on, so effective enforcement is still an unknown.

Meanwhile, Los Altos has options. It can charge developers in-lieu fees to go toward affordable housing projects. It can have developers to dedicate land absent building affordable housing. The city also is in the process of developing an accessory dwelling unit ordinance that would presumably encourage small living units in backyards – units that could eat into the numbers required under the affordable housing mandate. And the city could raise its inclusionary affordable housing requirements on developers from 10 percent of a project to 15 percent without having to redo its housing element.

Surely, there’s a lot to deal with on this issue in the months and years ahead. I certainly don’t envy our leaders confronting the task before them.

Bruce Barton is editor-in-chief of the Town Crier.

Submit a Letter to the Editor

The Town Crier welcomes letters to the editor on current events pertinent to Los Altos, Los Altos Hills and Mountain View. Write to us at 138 Main St., Los Altos 94022, Attn: Editor, or email editor Bruce Barton at bruceb@latc.com. Because editorial space is limited, please confine letters to no more than 200 words. Include a phone number for verification purposes. Anonymous letters will not be printed.

You can also have your say right here at losaltosonline.com – scroll to the bottom of any story to add a comment. 

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