How Land Use Policies and Housing Goals Shape the Future of Our City

Photo of Menlo Park’s Sequoia Belle Haven Senior Housing courtesy of MidPen Housing’s Housing Element Best Practices

The City of Menlo Park will host a virtual community meeting to talk about housing this Saturday, February 12 from 10am until noon. Details are available here (add a reminder to your calendar).

This community meeting will be an opportunity to hear updates about and provide feedback on the City’s progress on the Housing Element, a process by which cities plan for housing growth for the next decade. (For background on the Housing Element process, see our earlier blog post.)

As the City thinks about its goals and what its housing policies should accomplish, it’s powerful to share your own story and thoughts about why housing security is so important. Stable, reasonably-priced housing available equitably to all is crucial for maintaining a complete community. Whether you rent, own, or live in another setup in Menlo Park today or you participate in the community in another way, you’re part of the community, and your thoughts matter. 

Your advocacy is key this Saturday and in the future as the City plans for what Menlo Park looks like in the years ahead. Based on the City’s meeting description, the following topics could be discussed on February 12.  They may sound technical at first, but the principles behind them are simple, and they have the power to shape a lot that impacts our daily lives!  We’ll explain below:

City/Land Use Policies 

Land use policies include zoning that dictates what can be built (homes, retail, offices) and where, and limits on height or density.  Zoning can differ from property to property throughout the city  For example, some of the new development along the Bayfront is currently taller/more dense than what can be built downtown. The city shapes what can be built on various sites through zoning; here are a few land use policies they can use to dial development up or down:

1: Number of Units Allowed per Acre

…sometimes referred to as “du/ac” limits for “Dwelling Units per Acre”.

If zoning for a site is too restrictive, it may not be realistic for a developer of any kind to create housing – especially affordable housing – at the site.  

The City is currently zoning Housing Element sites for a baseline density of 30 units per acre.  Whether this is enough to spur the development of more homes in Menlo Park – especially affordable homes – is not clear.  However, 30 units per acre is considered “developable density” by the state, which is why it is being proposed as a baseline.  If development does occur at this low of a density, many more sites would need to be developed at this lower density for the City to meet its overall need for housing.

Opportunity: The City can design density bonus policies that allow more density in developments that produce the most-needed types of housing.  In general, increasing density can result in more homes on the limited land available, which is a good thing – especially when land is scarce and sites do not often turn over.  However, increasing baseline density for all forms of development can increase the cost of land without always resulting in new homes.  More on that in the next section!  

2: Incentives for Affordable Housing

Another important land use policy is a zoning bonus called an “Affordable Housing Overlay,” or AHO.  AHOs can allow developers to build more units (taller, denser, or both) on a site if doing so would create more affordable units.  An AHO aids in the creation of affordable housing by spreading land and construction costs across a larger number of units.  High land acquisition costs in Menlo Park can make it difficult for affordable housing developers to acquire sites for projects, especially from private owners, so strategic additional density can help a lot.

Menlo Park has an AHO today, and in the City’s Notice of Preparation for its Housing Element Environmental Impact Report, it’s stated that it may modify the existing AHO to allow up to 100 units per acre for affordable projects.

Opportunity: Increasing the number of units allowed per acre for 100% affordable sites would allow for more much-needed affordable homes to be created on these parcels.

By the way, if you’re wondering about the definition of affordable housing for the Housing Element, see below for a City slide on affordability tiers, based on median household incomes for San Mateo County.  A family of 4 making $146,350/year qualifies as low income in our County.


3: Parking Requirements

In its R-3 (Apartment) zoning district, Menlo Park currently requires that developers create 2 parking spaces for each unit with 2 or more bedrooms, and 1.5 spaces per smaller unit.  In practice, this means that developers often need to dig out costly basements to ensure that buildings can create mandated parking while staying under the neighborhood’s height limits, or sacrifice above-ground floors to cars.  In either case, these construction costs add to the total project cost that must be shared across units, and especially in the case of above-ground parking, takes up valuable, expensive-to-build space that could go to people and homes instead of vehicle storage.  (As an example: consider that in standalone homes, garage space is sometimes seen as so valuable that residents use or convert their garage space for things other than car storage!)

Many of the proposed Housing Element sites are close to transit and walkable/bikeable routes.  Removing City parking mandates would still give developers the option to create as much parking as they’d like, but would not burden them with a requirement to do so where it doesn’t make sense.  Especially for certain types of housing, such as low-income senior housing or housing for residents with intellectual or developmental disabilities, much less residential parking is needed.  Excess parking requirements increase costs significantly.

Opportunity: Reducing or eliminating minimum parking mandates helps to prioritize limited space for people and homes instead of cars.  

Reduced parking requirements free up more resources for more homes, allowing more of our workforce to live near their jobs.  And residents are more likely to bike or walk to work when they live in the same city where they work!  This reduces long car commutes, which improves air quality, and reduces congestion and our climate footprint. We have a great climate for walking and biking, which is healthy and fun! And, seeing neighbors on the street helps to build a sense of community.

Potential Housing Opportunity Sites: 

The City has released its list of sites that it can zone for new housing!  However, many of these properties are already in use for other purposes, such as venture capital offices on Sand Hill Road, the popular finance app Robinhood’s Headquarters, and the City’s Safeway stores/parking lots.

For the State to approve Menlo Park’s Housing Element, the City will likely need to demonstrate with “substantial evidence” that non-vacant sites will be redeveloped into housing.  To create this evidence, the City would research what changes or policies are needed to incentivize the creation of affordable housing on these sites.  Opportunity: Ask the city what it will take for these identified sites to be redeveloped into affordable housing.  Little affordable housing has been created in Menlo Park to date, especially in the western neighborhoods.  What changes to policies and zoning are being proposed?  For ideas on policies that have worked in the past, see this report by local affordable housing developer, MidPen Housing.

Anti-Displacement Measures

As rents continue to rise, our community members are being priced out.  To stop displacement, cities like Menlo Park can adopt protective policies and practices like the following:

1. Adopt an anti-displacement red tag ordinance that protects tenants from displacement during necessary repairs

2. Continue to provide emergency rental and mortgage assistance

3. Provide support to Legal Aid, Stanford Legal Clinic, and/or Community Legal Services of East Palo Alto so low-income tenants have access to legal support

4. Create a rental registry and track rent increases 

5. Pass fair standards for evictions and rent increases 

6. Update the City’s Below Market Rate (BMR) program so it serves Menlo Park low-wage earners

Many of these measures have been championed by our friends at the Housing Leadership Council – be sure to check out their site to learn more about their important work!

In conclusion: whether or not you’ve been following along with the Housing Element so far, this is a great time to participate and advocate for values you believe in!  We hope to see you on Saturday on Zoom, or in future meetings!

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