City Councilmembers settled a lawsuit Tuesday night that could have prevented Facebook from settling into Menlo Park.
Council unanimoulsly agreed to the terms of the settlement that will create a new committee tasked with analyzing regional housing needs, as well as bring the city back into compliance with state law.
“We’re about 10 years behind,” said Alex McIntyre, . “We should have taken care of the Housing Element update before now, but fell behind due to priority ,” McIntyre said.
California law requires Menlo Park to create plans for affordable housing within its borders to accommodate workforce growth associated with new businesses. This guideline-creation process is supposed to take place about once a decade. However, since 1992, leaving the city with a deficiency of about 1,975 affordable housing units, according to staff reports prepared for Tuesday's meeting. Affordable housing is defined as a home that costs 30 percent of a person’s annual income, according to the state’s health and safety code.
Housing of this deficiency during the Facebook project’s public comment period and filed a lawsuit against the city. The suit claimed that the city “failed to rezone sufficient properties to accommodate the city’s allocation of the housing demand.” This act threatened to halt non-residential building development within city borders, including the Facebook project, which has not received final approval on all project elements.
Councilmember Rich Cline said that these advocates used Facebook as political leverage to advance their cause. During his two years as mayor, no one approached him with solutions to this lack of housing, he said. More than a dozen representatives from Peninsula Interfaith Action, Urban Habitat Program, and Youth United for Community Action showed up to Council Chambers on Tuesday to testify about the lack of affordable housing in Menlo Park for working-class families.
"We can kvetch all night wasting time," Cline said. "This wasn't the neighborly way to do this," he said.
Had the Council not agreed to the settlement, attorneys would have been hired to litigate for the city. A similar lawsuit cost the city of Pleasanton about $2,000,000, says Barbra Kautz, who specializes in housing elements and is a partner at Goldfarb & Lipman LLP. Kautz works for the city. The city would also have had to create and adopt a new housing element within 120 days, according to city staff reports.
Instead, Council chose to pay housing advocates' lawyer fee of $114,000 and budget $1,150,000 to bring the city back into compliance with state law. The settlement agreement also includes the creation of a work plan that will inventory the city’s housing and update the general plan in less than a year, a fact that is motivating city staff.
“We’re going through an extensive process on a very short timeline,” said Justin Murphy, development services manager for the city of Menlo Park.
“The first step is to look at existing zoning where multiple family dwellings are built and see what development allowed is for that land,” Murphy said.
Areas that will be scrutinized include Willow Road, Pierce Road, Hamilton Avenue, as well as those within walking distance of the Caltrain. Murphy said the city might need to take land designated for commercial and industrial uses and rezone it for residential developments; he described that approach as undesirable.
Normally the task of analyzing the land's permitted uses would go to the city’s Housing Department. However, that department will be dissolved by the end of June. The Housing Commission will remain intact. The group of volunteer Menlo Park residents will continue to act as an advisory board to City Council.
They will soon work with the new Housing Element Steering Committee (HESC). It will be composed of two housing commissioners, two planning commissioners, and two city councilmembers. The City Council placed Peter Ohtaki and Andy Cohen on the committee. The housing commission is expected to nominate it's members this week.
The HESC will convene in June and July to assess policy issues relevant to increasing residential density within Menlo Park's borders. The city does not have to actually build new housing.