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!

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:


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: 


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:


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


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:


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!