Palo Alto is one of the country’s wealthiest cities. Yet, a recent study by the Council on Aging Silicon Valley found that more than 20 percent of residents over 60 years old live near or below the poverty line. This reality makes competition stiff for the limited affordable housing options available.
Palo Alto Housing Corporation, a private affordable housing developer, is trying to fill part of this need with a new apartment complex specifically for low-income seniors. To make it work, the 43-year-old developer requested a zoning change for the land where the housing complex will go. The change would allow them to build more units than would normally be allowed on the property – so long as the public would benefit.
The city approved the zoning change back in June, which upset enough local residents to put the first referendum of a Palo Alto Housing Corporation project ever on the November 5 ballot.
Palo Alto resident Joe Hirsch tells me he plans to vote no on the measure. He points out one reason why: a morning traffic rush at the corner of Maybell and Clemo Avenues where the 60 proposed senior apartments will go in if the measure passes.
Schoolchildren on bikes ride by a line of cars stacked up behind a stop sign. Hirsch and another opponent, Cheryl Lilienstein, say they’re worried even more cars will join the line if the housing gets built.
“It's a pretty terrible place already for traffic and safety for kids,” says Lilienstein. “To put 60 senior units plus another 12 houses around it adds a whole lot more traffic to the situation that has just not been solved as it is.”
Lilienstein and Hirsch don’t think this is a good neighborhood for seniors. There’s no grocery store within walking distance. No medical services.
“So this is like putting people in Siberia,” says Lilienstein. “You know, there's nothing here unless you drive to it.”
To me, the neighborhood looks more like a suburb than Siberia. There are a lot of cars, but there’s also a bus that stops about five blocks down the road.
But beyond the driving impacts on what some consider to be a remote location, opponents to the project just don’t like the way it came about. That is, how the city gave Palo Alto Housing Corporation a loan to pay for the housing project before it approved the zoning change. And there’s also concern about the way the developer plans to fund the rest of the building. Palo Alto Housing Corporation will offset the cost by selling a chunk of the land to another developer to build market-rate homes.
Cheryl Lilienstein believes that “seems to lack integrity.”
The developer’s perspective
Palo Alto Housing Corporation, of course, thinks the project makes sense, given the high cost of land in the city.
“It’s a very rare opportunity to find vacant land in Palo Alto,” says Executive Director Candice Gonzalez. “Trying to build only one bedroom senior affordable housing would not have been feasible.”
The land was originally zoned for about 34 units. But under the city’s “planned community zoning,” the corporation will build 60. Twenty will go for about $500 per month to extremely low-income seniors.
“We need the other 40 units to balance out the income ranges so that the property can operate,” Gonzalez explains.
The project addresses a dire need for Palo Alto. According to a regional plan, the city needs to provide 1,988 affordable housing units. But it’s falling short, especially for low and extremely low income people.
Palo Alto Housing Corporation currently has over 500 senior citizens on a housing wait list. Maria Heredia and her husband Vicente Corona have been on that list for three years. They moved here from Spain seven years ago to be closer to family, and they pay almost $3,000 per month for a room near downtown.
“Family is very important for us,” Heredia tells me in Spanish. “If they don’t allow this project to happen, then we don’t know what to do because we don’t know how much longer they can keep living close to our relatives.”
Answers ... and some more questions
Palo Alto Housing Corporation Executive Director Candace Gonzalez has answers to her opponents’ concerns. Regarding the traffic problem. She says an independent study found the project would have “an insignificant impact.”
As for a lack of access to services, she says, “that’s ridiculous. No matter where you live in Palo Alto, you’re very close to some of the very best hospitals in the world.”
Finally, regarding the loan from the city, she says, “it comes from an affordable housing fund specifically for affordable housing only. And the loan documents had extensive safeguards requiring us to pay it back if we don’t get approvals.”
Palo Alto resident Joe Hirsch says his concerns are not just about this particular project. It’s about the precedent it could set for building up Palo Alto.
“Almost any new development that comes along now is under what they call ‘planned community zoning,’” says Hirsch, “and all the site regulations that have protected our community for decades, you wipe the slate clean and you start with what the city and the developer will negotiate.”
In fact, there are currently at least two commercial property developers vying for Planned Community status around an intersection not too far from Maybell and Clemo Avenues.
Ultimately, Cheryl Lilienstein thinks the city needs to stick to its long-established zoning plans.
“The problem in Palo Alto right now,” she says, “is that there is a feeding frenzy and developers are buying up every scrap of land because they know that the land here has been doing nothing but increase in value.”
The problem Lilienstein sees is not unique to Palo Alto. All over the Bay Area, cities are trying to figure out how to be comfortable and affordable places to live for the people who are there now – and those who will be there in the future.
Measure D will be on the ballot November 5 in Palo Alto. Find more information here.