09262017Tue
Last updateWed, 20 Sep 2017 9am

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The home stretch

Despite the fervent wish of Mayor Mary Prochnow and a May 9 meeting that lasted more than five hours, the city of Los Altos has not adopted any new ordinances to support affordable housing.

Councilmembers offered feedback on reports identifying affordable housing opportunities and a development linkage fee to create an affordable housing fund, and will vote on a “granny unit” ordinance at their next meeting, scheduled Tuesday.

As Councilwoman Jan Pepper noted during the council’s discussion of granny units, Prochnow was hoping the city would make marked progress on one of its highest-priority goals for 2017.

“I think Mary would like to get something through tonight,” Pepper said. “You’re right,” Prochnow responded.

Creative solutions

Some Los Altos residents and developers suggested outside-the-box methods to increase affordable housing in the city. Mircea Voskerician, a developer hoping to build a multiunit structure on El Camino Real, suggested microunits as a way to diversify the housing stock.

“Your biggest opportunity is definitely on El Camino … where you can actually try and make up some of these units to meet your target goals,” Voskerician told the council. “Maybe increasing the density … will bring in developers to try and make that happen.”

Sue Russell of the League of Women Voters said the city could offer long-term leases on city-owned land to defray costs.

“The lease of city-owned property will make the project feasible,” she said.

Councilman Jean Mordo suggested that the city could help city employees and teachers with rent subsidies. Joshua Abrams, a consultant on affordable housing with Baird and Driskell Community Planning, was receptive to the idea.

“To buy down rents, there’s a strong logical nexus there,” Abrams said. “And other cities have used money for things like that.”

At the Colonnade, a project on El Camino Real that won Grand Boulevard Initiative awards, Stanford University subsidizes rent for university-affiliated families.

In addition, the Los Altos School District has been working with Landed, a start-up that enables investors to contribute to the down payment on a house for teachers in exchange for a portion of its sale value later on.

Granny units key

The primary concern of the council was how to expand construction of granny units, also known as alternative dwelling units, in Los Altos without sacrificing the city’s character.

California law requires that cities allow such units to be built by single-family homeowners, but the city has some control over what the backyard units may look like and on what kind of lots they may be built.

Currently, granny units may be up to 800 square feet in size and may only be built on lots larger than 15,000 square feet. Prochnow, Mordo, Pepper and Councilwoman Jeannie Bruins agreed to allow construction of granny units on lots as small as 10,000 square feet.

The city council is scheduled to vote Tuesday on whether to allow the construction of granny units larger than 800 square feet – the final policy issue to be resolved before the ordinance can be enacted.

The move would open up 7,373 lots, compared with only 1,501 lots larger than 15,000 square feet. But according to Ronit Bodner, member of the Planning and Transportation Commission, the city should not expect a flood of applications for granny units.

“It’s more like a trickle,” she said. “The people who have 800 square feet to spare and have the space on their lot to fit it so that it meets all the other regulations … is really small. This is really going to help the people who really want it the most.”

Skepticism

Councilwoman Lynette Lee Eng was skeptical of the program.

She expressed her disappointment that code enforcement officers were not stringently enforcing current granny-unit regulations, arguing that people were taking advantage of the city’s meager affordable housing program.

Alex Samek, member of the Planning and Transportation Commission, said a stretched-thin city government should focus on opening new units rather than means-testing people living in 800-square-foot units.

“Enforcement can be dealt with (at a) future time,” he said. “There’s desperate need for these units, and I don’t want to see it held up.”

City Attorney Chris Diaz said it was difficult to enforce laws against short-term rentals like those Airbnb has popularized.

“Airbnb issues are tough from an enforcement standpoint,” he said. “They take a lot of staff time.”

The city has several openings in its planning division, and city officials believe the cost of housing in the area prevents young planners from applying for jobs in Los Altos.

However, Anita Enander, Planning and Transportation Commission member, said granny units are “a gross overreach” that would put Los Altos in a “terrible bind.” She quoted a neighbor of hers as to why.

“He said, ‘I don’t care if they do only 10 of these in the city or 100 in the city, but if it’s the home right next to me, it affects me, and that’s the one that I care about,’” Enander said.

Jeremy Macaluso, a granny-unit-adjacent Los Altos resident, shrugged off such concerns.

“When I was younger, one of my neighbors used a detached building that was within 2 feet of my property as a living space,” he recalled. “She was using it for people who were aiding her toward the end of her life. For me, it was less noticeable than the precisely-to-code entrance.”

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