Affordable housing doesn’t have to look bulky, ugly or out of place. Multifamily units can even fit in alongside single-family homes.
That seemed to be the takeaway advocates wanted to impress on attendees at the Jan. 31 forum “Affordable Housing: Ideas for Los Altos,” held at the Los Altos main library. Sponsored by several sympathetic local nonprofit organizations, the event pushed the theme that even an entrenched bedroom community like Los Altos has options – if the will is there.
Advocates argued that the need is local, immediate and growing every day. The forum included the screening of the video “Los Altos: A Place to Call Home?” that portrays frustration among Los Altos employees, from schoolteachers to coffeehouse workers, over the lack of nearby affordable housing that demands they commute long distances.
Guest speakers Randy Tsuda, president and CEO of Palo Alto Housing, and Mitali Ganguly, project manager at Opticos Design, offered regional and national examples of how affordable housing projects come together and blend into their communities.
Tsuda, Mountain View’s former community development director, showed how Mountain View, Palo Alto and other cities have made projects work through creative financing and unique design. His nonprofit firm has created 24 projects that provided homes for 2,500 residents in northern Santa Clara and southern San Mateo counties.
Ganguly, whose firm works in cities across the country, explained how “missing middle” housing (between single-family and high-rise apartment units) – nearly forgotten options such as duplexes – are making a comeback, blending in more comfortably alongside single-family housing and creating “walkable” communities.
She noted a “paradigm shift” occurring across the country in which people are moving to more populated areas and relying less on the automobile. Ganguly described a trend toward “neighborhood living – being able to walk to a corner grocery store or meet a friend for coffee, and all this without having to drive.”
According to Ganguly, “missing middle” dwellings could be the solution for millions of Americans spending 50 percent of their income on rent or a mortgage, and aging residents unable to downsize due to lack of affordability. She offered statistics that reveal up to 85 percent of U.S. households will be childless by 2025, also indicating the need for smaller units.
Questions explored how Los Altos can make a difference, given the “rigidity” of its zoning, as one audience member put it.
“Zoning reform is the only way forward,” Ganguly said. “If there is single-family zoning, low-density zoning, usually there’s a lot of neighborhood opposition. … Zoning reform has to come from the ground up – unless the state makes you do it.”
Tsuda said there have been trends toward a more “formed-based” zoning, with characteristics like fewer setback requirements. He cited Petaluma as an example.
Jeannie Bruins, among all five Los Altos City Council members in attendance, cited a San Mateo Community College District teacher housing program that allows for flexibility and provides an alternative to the practice of designating specific “affordable” units.
Longtime local developer Abigail Ahrens lamented Los Altos’ lack of a “buffer zone,” most notably behind business fronts along El Camino Real, that “force single-family housing on busy streets. Can we fix the lack of buffer zoning?”
Tsuda said communities need to be proactive and “opportunistic” in the wake of today’s housing crisis.
“Housing is not a ‘me’ or ‘you’ problem, it’s an ‘us’ problem,” he said. “It’s all about our communities, it’s about people who work in our communities, who teach our kids, who put out the fires.”
Co-sponsors of the forum included the Los Altos Library, the Los Altos Affordable Housing Work Group, local branches of the American Association of University Women and League of Women Voters, the Los Altos Women’s Caucus and Los Altos Community Voices.
For more information on Palo Alto Housing, visit pah.community.
For more information on Opticos Design, visit opticosdesign.com.