By Rene Ciria-Cruz
Facebook’s decision last year to relocate its corporate headquarters from Palo Alto to Menlo Park gave social justice activists a welcome opportunity to challenge the affluent city’s long-standing neglect of affordable housing.
City officials were eager to accommodate the social networking behemoth because it promised jobs, prestige, and millions of dollars in capital projects and taxes to the city of 32,000. But affordable housing advocates said, “Not so fast!” Menlo Park many not proceed with new development initiatives until it had rectified years of violations around state housing laws. And city officials stopped and listened. What compelled them was the 2010 Superior Court decision in Urban Habitat et al., v. the City of Pleasanton et al. “We essentially shut down Pleasanton’s planning powers until they met their legally required obligation to plan for affordable housing,” explained Richard Marcantonio, managing attorney for Public Advocates who represented the affordable housing coalition that took Pleasanton to court. Now Marcantonio was poised to take on Menlo Park on behalf of a Silicon Valley-based coalition. Refusal to Permit Affordable Housing Challenged Like Pleasanton, Menlo Park at the eastern edge of San Mateo County has long been noncompliant with state housing laws.
All local governments have to zone for their share of regional housing needs at each income level. The requirement, known as the Housing Element in the local General Plan for development, is called for by the state’s Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA).
Menlo Park had not updated its affordable housing plan since 1992 and not granted building permits for a single new unit of lower-income housing from 1999 to 2007. Consequently, only 17 percent of low-wage workers with household incomes below $88,000 can afford to live in the city, according to the Association of Bay Area Governments. About 21,000 others must commute long distances to their jobs, which further strains the budgets of low-income families and adds to traffic congestion and exhaust pollution in the Silicon Valley corridor. The city’s neglect came home to roost when Facebook sought approval to raise the cap on the number of employees at the facility it acquired from Sun Microsystems and to build a new campus to accommodate 9,400 additional workers, an estimated 28 percent of whom will be low-wage earners. Where would these thousands of new workers live? With the post-Facebook demand for local housing boosting prices, what was to become of current low-income residents in nearby communities? “We were worried that upper income Menlo Park would reap all the benefits from Facebook, while just across the way, low-income East Palo Alto would be disproportionately burdened by the housing crisis and increased traffic,” explained Jennifer Martinez, executive director of the Peninsula Interfaith Action, which has advocated for health care access and affordable housing since 1997.
East Palo Alto has a per capita income of only $18,000 according to the recent Census, compared with Menlo Park’s $67,000. Quick Settlement Avoids Long Legal Battle On January 30, a coalition of affordable housing advocates with a long working relationship—Penin-sula Interfaith Action, Urban Habitat, and Youth United for Community Action—initiated moves that called to mind the Urban Habitat v. Pleasanton battle.
“We knew for certain Menlo Park was in the wrong,” said Vu-Bang Nguyen, a land use coordinator with Urban Habitat. “But they also knew that the problem with their Housing Element was glaring.” The coalition sent the city a lengthy response to its Draft Environmental Impact Report on the Facebook project, criticizing the “shortcomings in the analysis of population and housing” and cited the city’s “long-time failure to meet its affordable housing obligations under the Housing Element Law.” According to city planners, Menlo Park needs to zone for 1,975 market price and affordable housing units to add to its current stock of 12,500 units to fix its Housing Element.
On May 16, Public Advocates filed a lawsuit on behalf of the coalition to stop any new commercial development until the city updated its Housing Element and plan for affordable housing. “We’re about 10 years behind,” Menlo Park City Manager Alex McEntyre admitted to The Almanac, a local periodical. “We should have taken care of the Housing Element before now.” With Facebook threatening to walk away if they didn’t get the approvals by June, city officials scram-filed, in fact—paving the way for Menlo Park to accommodate Facebook, meet its housing obligations, and avoid extended and costly litigation reminiscent of Pleasanton.
Menlo Park Settles
Prior to the city council’s unanimous vote to approve settlement on May 22, Mayor Kirsten Keith declared, “It’s not a defensible case; I do feel we need to approve this or else we’ll probably suffer some severe repercussions.” In exchange for not pressing the lawsuit so the city could proceed with the Facebook projects, Menlo Park agreed to: n Facilitate the future development of nearly 2,000 homes accessible to the very low-, low-, and moderate- income households. (In San Mateo County, $56,000 a year for a family of four is considered a very-low income.) n Adopt a Housing Element plan by March 2013 and rezone sites in or near the downtown for affordable housing close to job sites and transit facilities. n Provide funding for nonprofit housing developers, including a $1.85 million interest-free loan to the nonprofit HIP Housing to turn an apartment complex on Willow Road into affordable housing. Jurisdiction over the settlement’s implementation lies with the court. Facebook, eager to proceed with its expansion, also entered into some agreements with the coalition with promises to: n Launch a youth summer internship program in East Palo Alto and the Belle Haven section of Menlo Park. n Cooperate with job training programs. n Seed a local community fund, and n Help affordable housing efforts in Silicon Valley.“Afforable housing is one tier in our approach,” said Annie Loya, executive director of Youth United for Community Action in East Palo Alto, a group seasoned in campaigns against toxic plants and environmental health hazards. “The other is how to make new business developments help bring tech training to underfunded schools, develop contracts with local vendors, and so on.”
In the past, some big businesses that came didn’t do much for East Palo Alto, she noted. “That has to change, especially with the many new tech companies that we expect to come in. We need to get them into a partnership to benefit our community. Facebook is a good start.”
Urban Habitat v. Pleasanton Precedent is Key For affordable housing advocates, the Menlo Park settlement proved that their victory in Urban Habitat v. Pleasanton could be a potent weapon in getting local governments to heed what Marcantonio calls “the power of state housing laws.”
In Pleasanton, a middle class city of 70,000 in Alameda County, various ordinances and zoning decisions had contributed to the shortage of affordable housing. Then in 1966, voters approved—and later reaffirmed—a cap on housing, which barred the city from allowing more than 29,000 units. The imbalance between commercial development and affordable housing forced nearly 90 percent of the 47,000 people who worked in Pleasanton to live elsewhere and commute to their jobs, thus exacerbating road traffic and greenhouse gas emissions. Ironically, Housing Cap proponents had touted it as a slow-growth environmental measure. Critics also characterized Pleasanton’s refusal to zone for highdensity housing as a tool to avoid racial diversification among a population that was 67 percent white in 2010.
In 1980, at the urging of housing activists, California passed the Regional Housing Needs Assessments (RHNA) law requiring cities to conduct periodic assessments (every eight years) of its housing needs to more evenly distribute housing availability among all income levels.
Pleasanton’s 1999-2007 RHNA required it to have a Housing Element of 5,059 units—729 of them affordable for very low-income and 455 for low-income families. But the city had not even rezoned for such housing by 2006, despite persistent requests from housing advocates, particularly Citizens for a Caring Community. It eventually became clear that the city’s Housing Cap was obstructing its ability to meet its RHNA obligations, so the housing advocates went to court.
Public Advocates sent a demand letter to the City Manager, while a regional coalition formed to press for policy change. In October 2006, Public Advocates sued the City of Pleasanton for violating a law requiring localities to adequately share regional housing responsibilities. Urban Habitat et al., v. City of Pleasanton et al., also accused the city of discriminating against low-income families of color who were disproportionately burdened by the lack of affordable housing.
The Alameda County Superior Court dismissed the suit the following year, but it was reinstated on appeal. Significantly, the California Attorney General’s office joined the lawsuit in 2009, citing the lack of transit-oriented affordable housing as an impediment to meeting the region’s state law mandated greenhouse gas reduction goals. It sent a strong signal that the Attorney General intended to enforce the state’s affordable housing statute.
Finally, in March 2010, the Superior Court ruling for the plaintiffs overturned Pleasanton’s Housing Cap. The city settled, agreeing to add new housing to its general plan and rezone sites near the city’s BART station for affordable housing. Since then, the city has approved 500 units of new housing, with 70 units for very low-income households. It also passed an ordinance banning housing discrimination against families with children.
Palo Alto Takes Hint—Updates Housing Element
Pleasanton came to terms with its housing responsibility only after five years of litigation, which cost its taxpayers $2 million in legal fees. It’s a cautionary tale that Menlo Park took to heart. It’s also a timely tale. In the Bay Area, more than a dozen localities have yet to adopt a Housing Element that complies with state law, according to the California Department of Housing and Community Development. The cities of Benicia, Brentwood, Colma, Daly City, Hercules, Millbrae, Orinda, Pacifica, Richmond, San Anselmo, Sausalito, Sonoma, and all of Marin County can expect to be next in the cross hairs of the affordable housing movement. In all of California, some 138 localities still do not have legally compliant Housing Elements. “These laws are not optional, they are mandatory,” stresses Marcantonio. “Those that fail to follow Menlo Park’s lead and continue to drag their feet should be aware of the consequences they face for being out of compliance.”
Menlo Park’s neighbor Palo Alto has taken the hint and rushed to update its Housing Element. “While asking approval to submit their draft Housing Element to the State Department of Housing and Community Development for review, officials attached a copy of the Menlo Park settlement to their request,” reports Nguyen.
Rene Ciria-Cruz is a Bay Area freelance journalist and a regular contributor to New America Media. Moving Silicon Valley Forward, by Urban Habitat and the Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California can be found at urbanhabitat. org/research/movingforward.