Let's Build More Housing in East Palo Alto!

Housing is the single biggest concern of East Palo Alto residents.  Our current housing stock is expensive, old, overcrowded. People simply cannot afford to live here anymore, and are moving out of the city at a rapid pace.  We need to build more housing in East Palo Alto, and need an abrupt change from past policies which have resulted in little or no housing built in the last 20 years. Housing is a regional issue, and other cities need to do their part to build housing for jobs that are based in their cities. EPA can be part of the solution to the housing crunch, and we can lead by example to take bold action to create true housing solutions for a region - Silicon Valley - that is the most vibrant regional economy in the world.  

Are we good at building new housing? Short answer: no. While EPA is renowned for strong tenant protections and rent control, EPA did not meet its RHNA (Regional Housing Needs Allocation)  numbers in the last cycle, and built less than half of the units the state required.  It has been over 20 years since a workforce friendly market rate apartment building has opened its doors in our city.  Light Tree is the first new affordable housing apartment in over 18 years. We actually  have less apartment housing in EPA now than 30 years ago, when redevelopment knocked down apartment buildings on the current sites of Ikea, the Four Seasons, Amazon, and Home Depot.

East Palo Alto RHNA Numbers through Dec 2020

Current residents face tremendous pressure from tech workers and other professionals wanting to live close to their jobs. East Palo Alto is in the heart of Silicon Valley and is a short bike ride from Google, Facebook, and Stanford University, and a short drive from Cisco, Oracle, Apple, Netflix, and many other tech employers.  East Palo Alto previously did not had to worry about tech workers moving in due to a reputation for high crime and the racism of people scared to live in a predominantly Black and Latino neighborhood. Times have changed, crime has plummeted, and tech workers are moving into EPA like never before.

Anyone who wants to reverse the toxic politics and economics of redlining (And do read “The Color of Law” if you have not already)  should welcome demographic changes in East Palo Alto that reverse inherently racist policies and zoning decisions implemented several generations ago. We should discourage the County of San Mateo from only locating extremely low income affordable housing projects in EPA - we already have a lot of extremely low income housing in East Palo Alto, and concentrating poverty in our city is a policy straight from 1955, not 2022. Affordable housing geared towards teachers, government workers,  and other middle earning professions should be encouraged over extremely low/no income projects which require mental health services, drug and alcohol treatment, policing,  and other support in addition to providing housing.

EPA has tried to take the approach of “if we do not build it they will not come.” This has not worked.  Instead of  tech workers and other professionals living in new apartments & condos, we have seen them move into “naturally affordable” housing in places like the Gardens, the Ville, and other neighborhoods. Matthew Yglesias said it succinctly on Twitter, "People associate new construction with gentrification and displacement but it's actually the absence of new construction particularly in richer areas where it's generally prohibited that drives escalating rents and housing scarcity as newcomers buy and renovate older homes."

There are many solutions to our housing crisis that East Palo Alto can implement to create abundant housing at all income levels.  Housing and infrastructure need to be considered together – our density needs to match existing and future infrastructure and we cannot build housing in EPA if it cannot be supported with roads, public transit, bike lanes, and parking.

Here are some ideas we should talk about in EPA, with the caveat that recent legislation at the State level make take land use decisions out of the hands of local elected officials. We may not choose to implement all of these solutions to housing, but there are many things we can do to alleviate our housing crunch.

  • Rezone East Palo Alto to allow for apartment buildings in areas that make sense.  We have many parcels in EPA that currently are zoned for SFHs but are large lots of 20k square feet or more. Apartments or condos on these sites make much more sense than building 6 single family homes per acre, and with our inclusive ordinance at least 25% of these units will be BMR (Below Market Rate) housing. Building more housing both takes the pressure off existing housing stock and provides new below market units for people who need it.  These apartments should be geared towards families and include two and three bedroom apartments in addition to studios and one bedroom apartments.
There are many options for housing in EPA 
  • Allow Church property to be rezoned to allow housing if the congregation chooses to do so. EPA has around 45 churches, and many have large lots that would be perfect for housing. Developing housing is the church’s decision, but there should not be a zoning change required to build housing.
  • Invest in bike lanes, sidewalks and other non-car mobility which enables people to walk, bike/e-bike to work and schools without using cars.  We cannot add more residents and expect all of them to use cars exclusively to get to their jobs or school.
  • Support Public Transportation including Dumbarton Rail, enabling our population to grow without overcrowding our streets. Dumbarton Rail has great promise to enable development in EPA without flooding our streets with commuter traffic - I strongly support it.
  • Raise zoning height limits. We are land-constrained in EPA, and the only option to build more apartments that go beyond one story. One option is to build 6 story apartments instead of single-family homes in places that it makes sense: University Avenue and large lots close to public transit.
  • Eliminate Single Family Home Zoning and make it possible to build a duplex/triplex/fourplex  on existing Single Family Home sites. There are lots of examples of fourplexes from around the country:
  • Examine parking requirements, and decouple parking spaces from apartments. We should encourage people to live in EPA and work nearby, and take a bike, e-bike or a bus to work instead of driving. Parking is expensive to build, takes up precious land, and we should prioritize homes for people over car storage.

  • Streamline permitting and review process for all housing. One developer has had 37 public meetings and 5 City Council sessions to review their housing project. City Council oversite is important, but this is merely an attempt to delay and stop a project using bureaucratic techniques.
  • Implement a parking permit program which enables us to build more housing without having our streets overrun with cars. We already have too many cars in EPA parking on sidewalks and in bike lanes. Streets are not designed for car storage, but should be focused on driving cars, bikes, and people walking.  We should support commercial parking lots like are found in every other city instead of allowing cars to park everywhere in EPA.
  • Encourage ADU (also known as Granny units) development by making permitting quick, easy, and cheap for residents to add additional housing on existing property
  • I strongly support the City of East Palo Alto’s effort to dissolve the East Palo Alto Sanitary District and raised all the concerns found in the recent LAFCO report in my 2020 run for the EPASD Board of Directors. EPASD has attempted to grossly overcharge all developments with unjustified charges and is currently blocking all development in East Palo Alto, including housing of all types. It needs to be dissolved.
  • I strongly oppose City Council’s effort to implement a “Opportunity to Purchase Act” or OPA. This is a direct attack on the personal finances of EPA homeowners, the majority of whom are Black and Latino. OPA will create strong barriers to new home construction and is atrocious policy if we want to address housing. Single Family Homes are not the solution to provide housing, it is the single most expensive type of housing and a bad use of funds.
  • Building SRO (Single Room Occupancy) housing in East Palo Alto will help to address a need for people who need a room to stay in that is safe and healthy. Personally, I lived in a YMCA during a year of college and this type of housing would meet the need for many people who are currently living in EPA in substandard housing conditions.

We may not implement all of these recommendations, but there is a clear path forward to creating new housing in East Palo Alto. EPA cannot be the only city to implement reforms that lead to new housing, but we can definitely be a leader and an example of the positive changes that are possible when we create "housing for everyone."

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