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Menlo Park: Housing Commission revamped to tackle displacement problem

Housing experts gave advice on what might help

"The devil's in the details," seemed to be the most-repeated refrain of the Menlo Park City Council's study session on residential displacement, held Jan. 10 with the Housing Commission and four local housing experts.

The devilish details of 15 possible policies or programs to reduce residential displacement, the council agreed, would be left to be ironed out, at least initially, by the city's Housing Commission.

The commission, which until now has met only quarterly, was instructed to rank the policies by priority and then come up with policy recommendations for each. Tasked with a suddenly enormous workload, members of the Housing Commission, who have expressed a desire to play the same kind of policy advising role as the city's other commissions, appear to have gotten their wish.

They will begin meeting monthly and could expand their members from five to seven. Belle Haven residents Pam Jones and Cecilia Taylor suggested the commission have more detailed meeting minutes that include information about public comments.

Job growth

Jessica Mullin of San Mateo County's Sustainability Office cited stark numbers behind the housing crisis. From 2010 to 2015, she said, 65,000 jobs were added in the county and only 2,800 housing units a ratio of 23 to one.

There isn't much land to build on, either, she said. Seventy-five percent of the land in the county is preserved for open space and agriculture, and on the developed land, more than two-thirds of the housing stock is made up of single-family homes. That means "creative solutions" are required for getting more housing built, she said.

Ms. Mullin said a new county [ website has 15 policy suggestions and resources for the county's cities to deal with housing problems.

Some of the suggestions were also approved for further study by the Menlo Park council: reducing parking requirements for affordable housing (the council would look into it for only senior housing or housing within a quarter-mile of the Caltrain station); re-evaluating policies about secondary housing units; buying lower-cost housing to add to the city's below-market-rate housing program; and promoting the work of HIP Housing, a nonprofit that connects people looking for somewhere to live with homeowners who have empty bedrooms.

Evelyn Stivers of the nonprofit Housing Leadership Council offered one creative suggestion: leverage publicly owned land to get more housing, perhaps by building housing above the library or as part of a parking structure.

Go to homeforallsmc.org for more information.

No to rent control

Two policies suggested for discussion that the council voted not to pursue, at least for now, are rent control, which limits the amount and frequency of rent increases, and an ordinance that requires a landlord to cite a "just cause" for evicting a tenant.

Councilman Rich Cline was absent from the meeting and Councilman Ray Mueller was phoning in, but lost connection once. At the meeting's end, he said he was not asked for his opinion on rent control or a "just cause" eviction policy. He later told the Almanac he would have liked to talk to the experts in the room about rent control and ask whether ordinances from other cities had been studied.

However, the three council members present said they weren't currently interested in pursuing rent control. "I don't think that is useful at this time," Mayor Kirsten Keith said.

Keith Ogden, a housing attorney from Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto, said rent control in East Palo Alto reduces tenant displacement. He also said he supported a "just cause" eviction policy.

Joshua Howard, senior vice president at the Tri-County division of the California Apartment Association, said rent control can be difficult to implement and change, expensive to administer, and can only apply to structures built before 1995.

The California Apartment Association has filed lawsuits challenging voter-approved rent-control ordinances passed in Mountain View and Richmond in the Nov. 8 elections, according to its website.

Mr. Howard suggested an optional program for landlords that gives them some validation or certificate for observing "best practices," such as giving people 90 days' notice before eviction or a rent increase, offering fixed-term leases, and limiting annual rent increases.

He also suggested that the city subsidize safety-related renovations by landlords, such as adding fire safety sprinklers or, as Councilman Peter Ohtaki added, making homes safer for earthquakes. The idea would be to keep those renovation costs from being pushed onto the renters and increasing housing costs. Both ideas were referred to the Housing Commission for further study.

Other policies the Housing Commission will explore:

● An anti-retaliation ordinance to prevent landlords from punishing renters who complain by increasing rent or evicting them.

● Allowing people who have already had to move out of the community to get back on the city's "below market rate" housing wait list. The wait list currently has about 450 people on it, said Jennifer Duffy, director of business development at Hello Housing, the nonprofit that administers Menlo Park's "below market rate" housing program. The staff of Hello Housing could go back through their records since 2008 and see if anyone wants to be put back on the list.

● Allowing homeowners in the below-market-rate program to sublet rooms at below-market-rate rent.

● A mandatory, non-binding mediation program. Different cities do this differently, but the idea is to create a safe venue for a renter and a landlord to negotiate or meet with a third-party mediator to try to come to a compromise about a conflict. Councilman Ohtaki said that if Menlo Park were to pursue this policy, he'd want it to be limited to disputes about rent increases. Mr. Howard said that Mountain View's program has led to 76 percent of cases being resolved. A resolved case doesn't necessarily mean a win for the renter, though, Ms. Stivers pointed out. According to her, another city's mediation program results in rent decreases or extended tenancies in only about 2 percent of cases.

● A rental relocation fund and policy to help renters who are displaced by the permanent removal of housing from the market and are looking for a new home.

In basically saying yes to considering nearly all of the suggested policies and adding many of their own suggestions, the council should not expect anything too soon, City Manager Alex McIntyre said.

"This is going to take a very long time to do," he said. "This is a lot of work – work we will pursue and are happy to." He noted, "I have two staff members who do this."

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