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Los Altos council vows to send ‘strong message’ against state housing mandates

Phrases such as “unrealistic, “fundamentally insane” and “setting us up to fail” rang out from council members at Los Altos’ council meeting Tuesday (Nov. 10), as the council pushed back against proposed housing allocation figures the state is asking jurisdictions to plan for in the next Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA) cycle.

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Screenshot from Association of Bay Area Governments presentation.
Under a proposed housing allocation methodology from ABAG, Los Altos would have to grow its jurisdiction 20% by 2031 (click to enlarge).

The Department of Housing & Community Development determined earlier this year that the Bay Area’s nine counties would be responsible for planning 441,176 total units across four income categories. Given that figure, the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) developed a proposed methodology to distribute those units to each city. Preliminary figures indicate Los Altos’ RHNA responsibilities could more than quadruple – from its current total of 477 to 2,267 when the next cycle begins in 2023.

At ABAG’s Regional Planning Committee meeting Thursday (Nov. 12), Vice Mayor Neysa Fligor, serving as the representative for the cities in Santa Clara County, supported the proposed methodology but asked for the RHNA process to be delayed. She objected to any option that would allocate a larger share to the county, given that the county would already be responsible for 143,550 units. That figure is substantially more than any other Bay Area county, and the 33% share of the region’s RHNA figures is higher than the county’s share of Bay Area households (24%) as of 2019 and jobs (27%) as of 2017.

“Similar to other counties in the region and statewide, our residents and elected officials are also questioning where and how they will be able to build these large shares of allocated units, especially when we have already struggled the last eight years to meet much lower numbers,” Fligor said at the meeting.

Steep hill to climb

Los Altos appears to be on track to fall well short of the 477 benchmark in the next two years, barring several major affordable housing developments popping up in the city. As Mayor Jan Pepper pointed out in her “From the Mayor’s Desk” column in last week’s issue of the Town Crier, Los Altos has built just 19% of the affordable units required and overextended on developing “above moderate” income units.

Under ABAG’s proposed methodology, the highest weight for the distribution of “very low” and “low” income units would be “access to high opportunity areas” — a result of the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing bill (Assembly Bill 646) passed in 2018, intended to help close the state’s housing inequality. The highest weight for distributing “moderate” and “above moderate” income units would be job proximity via autos, a response to the Vehicle Miles Traveled bill (Senate Bill 743) passed in 2013 that took effect this year.

The proposed 2,267 units means Los Altos would have to plan for 20% growth by 2031, according to ABAG’s data. It would have to find room for 580 “very low” income and 333 “low income” units. At the end of 2019, the city had just 21 “very low” and 31 “low” income units.

Los Altos zoning ordinance, which limits structures to two stories or 27 feet in height, makes it difficult to increase housing units in the city with taller buildings. The prospect of adding on density has rankled some residents and was a major topic during this year’s city council election campaign. Two developers’ attempts to build a five-story building at 40 Main St. was met with fierce resistance from council, leading to a lawsuit the city lost because of a recently-passed state law, Senate Bill 35, which streamlines affordable housing developments in cities that haven’t met their RHNA requirements. (Disclosure: the Town Crier’s co-publisher, Dennis Young, is an investor in the development.)

Mathew Reed, a policy manager at the pro-Silicon Valley affordable housing organization SV@Home, said in an interview that part of the reason state legislation is taking some of the local authority out of land-use decisions is because there’s such a resistance to larger developments locally.

“If people don’t want taller buildings, where can we put taller buildings?” Reed said. “There has been legislation at the state level that has been a very blunt instrument, where they’ve said, ‘If you don’t want to make the decision, we will make it for you.’ The way you avoid having that happen is for local governments and communities to lean in and respond to the challenge we have.”

While several representatives from local cities spoke up at ABAG’s meeting to push against the RHNA numbers assigned to their jurisdictions, other committee members were less sympathetic.

Sonja Trauss, the representative from San Francisco and a pro-housing advocate, said that RHNA allocation is a regional conversation, and while some jurisdictions may have ideas about what “high density” means in their town, that number might be well below regional expectations.

“This idea that towns don’t have capacity to accommodate higher-density development – if that’s the case, then the town’s job is to get that capacity,” Trauss said at the meeting, encouraging those cities to zone for jobs and transit.

At Tuesday’s council meeting, Fligor said the impact of COVID-19 might not have been adequately factored in – with an increase in telecommuting, fewer people might desire to live in the city where they work. She also raised concerns about the underlying data used to determine the housing figures.

The council decided to draft a letter and submit it to ABAG prior to the end of the committee’s public comment period for the proposed methodology Nov. 27.

“Maybe the message should be that they should revert back to the old RHNA numbers, which we could never meet to begin with,” said Councilwoman Lynette Lee Eng. “If we couldn’t meet that, quadrupling it is not going to work either. I think we need to send a strong message.”

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