When Scott Spielman, a 30-year Los Altos resident, came to the Bay Area and graduated from business school at Stanford University, he could afford to buy a house.
“That’s a hope and dream of everyone, to have a house,” recalled Spielman, now the vice chairman of the city’s Parks and Recreation Commission and a candidate for city council. “Now, that’s pretty much out of the question. And so what can we do?”
The issue of affordable housing is not exclusive to Los Altos. It is a regional, statewide and national issue. Yet, in a city where 96% of its 11,000 units are occupied – according to a 2015 city housing report – and 98% of those units are in single-family residentially zoned areas, a recent UC Berkeley study found, the issue is exacerbated and solutions are sparse.
“As housing prices have climbed over the past 20 years, a decreasing percentage of households countywide can afford homeownership in Los Altos,” the city’s report stated. “Based on current housing prices, it is unlikely that extremely low-, very low-, low-, or moderate-income households can afford to purchase a home in the city without financial assistance.”
In the five years since, home prices in Los Altos have increased by approximately one-third, according to Zillow. The average cost of a home now exceeds $3.2 million, making it nearly impossible for many of the city’s essential workers – first responders, grocery store workers and teachers – to live here.
In response to the affordable housing crisis, California has adopted legislation and presented individual jurisdictions with Regional Housing Need Allocation figures (RHNA), giving cities like Los Altos a benchmark of affordable housing units to reach in eight-year cycles.
Not only is Los Altos well behind on the 477 units required by RHNA by 2023, but, barring a substantial change, is also likely to fall impossibly behind on the next RHNA cycle, which could require the city to have as many as 2,000 affordable housing units by 2031. According to the latest figures provided by the city, Los Altos had fulfilled 170 of the 477 units at the end of last year.
RHNA figures are split into four income categories: very low, low, moderate and above moderate. Los Altos has only met RHNA requirements for one of those categories: above moderate. It has 472 above-moderate units to date, far more than the required 97 by RHNA. By contrast, the city only has 73 combined very low, low and moderate units – 307 below the required number. Los Altos has to procure 148 more very-low units, 68 more low units and 91 moderate units by 2023 to meet the requirements.
In dealing with housing, the city council has struggled to define a set of objective standards that has led to ongoing litigation with developers, tried to update its accessory dwelling unit (ADU) ordinance to incentivize homeowners to build them and opposed pending state legislation that would strip away local control of neighborhood zoning.
But none of these efforts seem to offer a conclusive solution to a problem that dominates council meetings, leads to spirited debates on Nextdoor and pits residents against one another. With three open seats on the council in the Nov. 3 election, and differing views from the seven candidates on how to approach the affordable housing issue, how the city addresses the crisis could be determined by the candidates residents choose to represent a majority of the council for the next four years.
Over the past month, the Town Crier asked all seven candidates their views on affordable housing in Los Altos, with the lingering question: What can we do?
State versus city
Councilwoman Lynette Lee Eng, the lone incumbent seeking re-election, is running on a platform to fight for local control and defend the city’s single-family neighborhoods. In council meetings, she has inquired as to whether ADUs could be approved as below-market-rate (BMR) units and argued for current BMR units to remain BMR units in perpetuity.
But state housing mandates restrict how much the council can do, Lee Eng said – opening up the potential for liability and litigation – and certain state laws may create more housing but do not force developers to designate enough units as affordable housing.
“We can encourage (affordable housing units) and incentivize developers,” Lee Eng said. “But we are so limited. Developers want to maximize their earnings, so it’s out of my hands.”
Candidates supported local control while voicing frustration with state requirements and pending legislation like Senate Bill 1120 – which would allow for single-family lots to be subdivided into duplexes – but some challengers stressed that Los Altos has an obligation to obey the laws.
“If (SB 1120) becomes law, then it is law,” said candidate Sally Meadows, who serves on the Los Altos Planning Commission. “So you can fight the law, but you really can’t fight the project if the law is in effect and they’re consistent with the law.”
The city has fought at least one major project and lost after litigation – a five-story development at 40 Main St. that has led to damages owed and legal fees. The project, which city officials said did not conform to its objective standards, was eligible for additional units due to the state’s density bonus law, leading to a building height that exceeded the downtown limit.
“With local control comes accountability to deliver what you’re supposed to deliver,” Meadows said. “We’re so far behind on our RHNA numbers that we wouldn’t even be as close as we are – which isn’t even close – without these laws, which require extra density to achieve some level of below-market-rate housing.”
Candidate Jonathan Weinberg, an attorney and member of the Parks and Recreation Commission, has been vocal about the city not meeting its legal obligations to provide additional affordable housing and applying different standards to different project applications, leading to costly litigation and possible loss of local control itself. He understands that some residents may not like change, and many moved here for particular reasons.
But, Weinberg added: “I don’t like leaders who say, ‘We should be able to control the scope of development in our own city,’ without explaining what the constraints are to doing that. If you’re going to say, ‘No change, no developments, no higher density housing in Los Altos,’ you’ve got to give the other side of that, which is, ‘By the way, we have legal requirements and if we don’t have some higher-density development, we’re going to lose control over bigger issues.’”
Another candidate, Financial Commission chairman Kuljeet Kalkat, emphasized the moral need to provide affordable housing for those who have to commute to Los Altos for work. Kalkat believes that Los Altos is too small to have the financial backbone to solve the affordable housing crisis alone, and should collaborate with neighboring jurisdictions.
But Kalkat also had a message for residents who might be against the idea of increasing density.
“I don’t know where and how we got to the stage where people are afraid of poorer people next door,” he said. “They’re not criminals. They’re just poorer than you. Somehow, we associate the fact that if there’s somebody that lives in a smaller house next door to me, the value of my property or my safety is at stake.”
Kalkat questioned why it would be a bad thing for his barber to be able to afford a residence in Los Altos instead of having to drive 20 miles to work every day.
“I’m not exactly sure what the logic is,” Kalkat said. “Is it to say we want to put gates around Los Altos, and you have to have a certain income to live here? Then you should go live in a private estate somewhere. Go for it.”
Every candidate said that increasing affordable housing in Los Altos was either necessary or inevitable, but some were less rosy than others on how it might change the city.
“We need to move toward the future, because we are growing,” said candidate Alex Rubashevsky, a local realtor. “But we still want to retain that charm – knowing some of your neighbors and interacting as a community.”
Maintaining that “charm” of Los Altos was a priority to candidates like Terri Couture, another realtor campaigning on advocating for the privacy rights of residents who value the quality of life in Los Altos. Couture, who said the city would have to construct 22-story-high buildings to keep up with state requirements, is a firm believer that residents move to Los Altos for its charm – the trees, the lot sizes, the location.
“As long as we don’t turn into Oakland and New York and the ghettos of Chicago, I think (affordable housing) is a good thing,” Couture said. “Nobody in Los Altos wants to see blight at all.”
Spielman said that if SB 1120 passes and single-family lots could be split into space for multiple units, the “quality of life” in Los Altos would be significantly altered.
“I think we have to look for other answers,” he said. “That would tremendously disrupt our single-family residency areas. I don’t believe the vast majority of our residents want that to happen.”
Spielman, like the other candidates, doesn’t have a one-size-fits-all solution to the affordable housing crisis yet. But the reality is that the RHNA mandates still exist and are likely to increase – and whoever is on the council come November will be responsible for coming up with a plan.
“We need more affordable housing and more development,” Spielman said. “That’s obvious. It’s sort of begging the question. But it’s complex. Silicon Valley is both a blessing and a curse. Unfortunately, its success has led to some significant problems, and one of those is housing.”