An Introduction to the Menlo Park Housing Element

Menlo Park is currently having a community conversation about where to build new housing.  This conversation has been sparked by our state-mandated housing goals, which require that we plan for a little over 3,000 new units of housing over the next 8 years.

This is a perfect time to plug into the conversation, learn about Menlo Park’s housing past, and plan for our community’s vibrant future. The Housing Element planning process has just recently started, and is scheduled to continue over the next year.  Below and online is the Housing Element Timeline — the linked website also contains links to recordings of previous meetings and other meeting materials.

On Thursday, Sept. 23rd at 6:30pm, the City’s Housing Element team will be holding a community input meeting to hear feedback on where to plan for new housing.  More information on the meeting is available here.  Please attend to share your feedback!

Below, we at Menlo Together have pulled together some context to help you understand the why and how of Housing Elements.  If you prefer to watch/listen to learn about the City’s housing plan as well (or instead!), we also highly recommend:

Why is the City talking about housing?  What’s the “Housing Element” people keep mentioning?

In a nutshell: Each local jurisdiction in California, like the City of Menlo Park, is required by the state to have (and periodically update) a General Plan.  Each General Plan is required to include a section called the Housing Element, which ensures that the City is enabling a reasonable minimum number of homes to be built in and for the community.  

The Department of Housing and Community Development, commonly abbreviated as HCD, is the state agency tasked with all things related to Housing Elements.  In their own words

“California’s housing-element law acknowledges that, in order for the private market to adequately address the housing needs and demand of Californians, local governments must adopt plans and regulatory systems that provide opportunities for (and do not unduly constrain), housing development”

Cities, as an entity, do not build housing.  Instead, the Housing Element requires that the City zones and plans for an adequate amount of housing to be built in each 8-year planning cycle, to meet its RHNA goals.

What is RHNA?

The Regional Housing Needs Allocation is the process by which the state, in conjunction with regional and local governments, determines how much housing each locality must plan for given its recent job growth.  

For instance, during 2010-2015, San Mateo County built only 1 unit of housing for every 19 jobs created:

Source

This imbalance has increased competition for homes, and as a result, increased displacement and exclusion in our City:

How much is Menlo Park’s allocation, and why is the goal larger than in previous years?

For the 6th Cycle RHNA (which begins in 2023), Menlo Park’s overall target includes 2,946 units: 

Source

The statewide and regional need for more housing, the high rate of job growth in our region and City, and Menlo Park’s past lack of housing production all led to our next RHNA being higher than previous cycles.

RHNA targets also specify a minimum amount of housing to be built at each income level.  The income tiers for San Mateo County are defined below:

Source

Menlo Park’s allocation by income tier is as follows:

Source

It’s important for the City to think strategically about housing plans by affordability tier because the conditions required to produce housing differ by affordability tier. The challenges to producing affordable housing are many, so the City needs to consider several approaches at the same time, including redeveloping City-owned land (like downtown parking lots — as Mountain View is doing), continuing to require that developers set aside 15% of each new market-rate development for affordable units, providing significant density bonuses in exchange for greater affordability, encouraging ADU production, and other strategies.

Q: What sites are being considered for housing?

A: Menlo Park is now planning for new housing throughout the City, in all districts. 

Menlo Park — like many cities across the nation — has a history of law, policies, and practices that segregated its neighborhoods and schools.  (If you haven’t yet spent time with our Color of Law materials, please check them out to learn more about this history!)  

State housing law has finally kicked in to move cities closer to reversing harmful practices of segregation.  In the 6th RHNA cycle, cities are required to “Affirmatively Further Fair Housing” — for example, by planning for housing for all incomes and abilities throughout the City.  Data presented by the City of Menlo Park Housing Element Consultant finds that the City has stark racial differences between its “high” and “low” opportunity neighborhoods.  Watch this recording to see the data (example slide below) presented at the recent Housing Equity, Environmental Justice, and Safety community input meeting. 

In terms of the specific parcels themselves where housing could be located — we as a community need to get creative and consider a variety of parcel types to meet our goals.  Each parcel that is proposed for redevelopment must have a reasonable likelihood of redevelopment within the next 8 years.  For example, the state is likely to reject a Housing Element that plans for housing on sites such as an existing cemetery, any site where the owner has not expressed interest in developing, or in place of park land.  With this in mind, the City of Menlo Park has brainstormed a variety of potential parcel types to consider:

Source

Q: What if the City doesn’t submit a valid Housing, Environmental Justice, and Safety element?

A: This is important — in earlier RHNA cycles, some cities (including Menlo Park) did not submit a compliant Housing Element.  Prior to the 2010s, there were no significant consequences for this imposed by the state.  In 2017, seeing that local jurisdictions still weren’t building sufficient housing, state law changed to give HCD more enforcement powers.  It’s more important than ever to get the Housing Element right.  

The state has made clear that submission of a thoughtful, compliant Housing Element is the best path forward — doing so unlocks state resources and grants.  Beyond these state-supplied benefits, we at Menlo Together are also excited for this chance to create more opportunity and equity in all districts of Menlo Park.

Conversely, if the Housing Element is not in compliance — which can occur if the City:

  • Fails to plan for all the units required
  • Submits sites with no likely chance of development in the next 8 years
  • Locates new units in ways that do not affirmatively further fair housing

Then, state-imposed penalties can include:

  • The state gaining authority to approve housing developments in the City, without say from the City or residents (said differently, if we as a City don’t pick where and how to site housing, the state will pick for us!)
  • Costly legal battles, where the losing party pays court fees and penalties.  There is simply no room for this in the City budget.  
    • As a community, let’s spend our money on things that improve our City, not on legal fees for a losing battle.  HCD’s requirements are clear, so it would not be advisable to find ourselves on the wrong end of legal action.
  • Suspension of all local permitting powers — which means all projects requiring a permit, including residential remodels and builds, would grind to a halt.

If the planning is done correctly, our community and City are in control of where new housing will go.  There will be some tradeoffs to consider along the way.  For instance, in new developments such as the SRI redevelopment and potential redevelopment of the USGS site, the higher and denser the zoning, the more land can be preserved for parks and open space. Perhaps by sufficiently upzoning along El Camino, the City can even can free up land for a new elementary school.  We’re excited about this opportunity to reimagine housing in Menlo Park!

In conclusion:

The Housing Element is a state-mandated regulatory activity, with rewards and consequences to our City.  The challenge is great.  The need is real.  We at Menlo Together see this as an opportunity to plan for the City we envision.  One that is integrated and diverse, multigenerational, and environmentally sustainable.  We hope you will join us by engaging in the Housing Element, Environmental Justice, and Safety Element process and give voice to these values that are important to our community.

How can you get involved?

  • Sign up for our action alerts to be notified of upcoming housing-related meetings and actions
  • Engage with the City of Menlo Park’s Housing Element process — check this website for the latest updates.

Your input is essential to the Housing Element process.  Together we can build a fantastic future for our City!

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