After eight years on Menlo Park City Council, at least six of which have been focused on housing matters, I feel fortunate to have learned a lot and to have been able to help some individuals better navigate their projects through the planning process.
Just in the last calendar year, Menlo Park has been compelled to address its housing needs as the result of Facebook’s arrival and plans to expand. Menlo Park’s neighbor, East Palo Alto, has rent control whereas we do not, yet Belle Haven, our residential neighborhood east of highway 101, is economically similar to East Palo in several key respects. Although Menlo Park and East Palo Alto are quite different cities, residential housing in both feel many of the same pressures, yet Belle Haven without rent control, can be quite different from East Palo Alto in how it responds to economic change.
One obstacle to changing our housing element is finding large parcels where 30 units per acre can be built. We have seen how controversial this can be with the
As problematic is secondary dwellings because they impact neighbors, there are many already inexistence but not on the record, and not only does state law encourage them, but they can increase housing stock with less traffic impact. Secondary dwellings are also cheaper because the owner already owns the land.
The greatest difficulty with secondary dwellings as an effective means of increasing housing stock in Menlo Park is lack of knowledge how many currently exist, and a second difficulty is that getting a housing element certified requires Housing and Community Development, a state agency, to review and approve it. HCD looks at past years’ records creating secondary dwellings.
The advantages of secondary dwellings over high density housing are obvious, at least to me. By allowing or encouraging individual lot owners to build smaller dwellings, we help anolder population remain in the community by bringing family or live-in help closer, allowing supplemental income to property owners, and reducing the number of neighborhoods and every neighborhood’s alteration while simultaneously encouraging infill housing stock growth.
The objections to secondary dwellings are not overwhelming, and many of them are based on speculation rather than hard facts, partly because we don’t know how many already exist, even if they are illegal. There is an assumption not only that illegal dwellings are unsafe and unattractive, but that they degrade neighborhood. This may be partially true, but it is by no means factually substantiated.
A valid objection to amnesty for illegal dwellings is fire safety, and this arises not only regarding second dwellings, but garage conversions as well. Because accessory structure can be closer to property boundaries than dwellings, it is normally illegal to live in a garage or other accessory structure unless it was built with greater setbacks than required. This is unlikely to have occurred.
All of these obstacles to permitting a secondary dwelling as a preferred alternative to largehousing projects might be eliminated except that the process is complex and political, not only tocreate a housing element, but to gain approval of a legal dwelling, or the rules as written.
Nevertheless, the potential gain to the community of allowing second dwellings is great, especially in hard economic times.
This is my reason for emphasizing secondary dwellings and amnesty in my role as a member of the housing element steering committee.
I would include accessory structures intended as new secondary dwellings to take advantage ofexisting accessory structures.
Any new housing is expensive. Secondary dwellings are less so because the land is already paid for, and a secondary dwelling increases property value. Fire safety is critical, but additional incremental pre cautions can be provided where setbacks are smaller.
If we are to create a new housing element in Menlo Park that can serve as a model for other jurisdictions we must be innovative. My suggestion is such an innovation.