http://almanacnews.com/print/story/print/2014/03/26/editorial-menlo-park-on-the-right-track-with-housing


Almanac

Viewpoint - March 26, 2014

Editorial: Menlo Park on the right track with housing

After a whirlwind effort over the last two years the city of Menlo Park brought its housing element up to date, providing state-mandated zoning for 900 units and ensuring that enough space is left to build 655 more, including units accounted for in the downtown/El Camino Real specific plan and the more than 500 housing units planned near the Facebook campus, located off the Bayshore Expressway. These units are more than enough for the city to comply with state's allocation of housing for 2015 through 2023.

As part of the latest update, the Planning Commission focused on where to allow construction of a 16-bed homeless shelter, and how to encourage residents to build secondary units, otherwise known as "granny" units.

The commission recommended zoning an area at the Veterans Affairs campus on Willow Road for a shelter, but also included a sliver of land in the neighborhood, which the city hopes will help the site pass muster with state regulators. Neighbors were not satisfied, saying they feared the possibility of having a shelter so near three schools and a park, but the commissioners said they had no intention of locating a shelter anywhere other than the VA site. City staff will study the issue to determine if the state will permit the city to zone land it does not own for a shelter.

More important, in our opinion, was the commission's effort to ease restrictions on building affordable housing in the city, where low-income tenants often have a hard time finding low-priced rentals. Granny units, which could help meet the needs of low-income residents, have been in short supply due to numerous restrictions passed when the city really had no interest in providing such housing. But now, with rents skyrocketing and housing prices moving upward every month, it is time for the city to make it easier to build a granny unit.

At earlier meetings, the commission had decided to reduce the minimum residential lot size required for a secondary unit to 5,750 square feet, and allowing granny units of up to 700 square feet to help improve access for disabled tenants. Then at its March 10 meeting, commissioners unanimously agreed to drop the minimum lot size even more, to 5,000 square feet, which will open the possibility of more properties in the city being able to build a legal granny unit in their backyard.

One issue that could impact whether property owners will be building granny units is whether they would be required to live on the lot. The concern is that landlords who are not present might not take care of deteriorating properties.

A sensible compromise was struck that would add three changes to the ordinance:

• As long as both units are not occupied, the owner would not have to live on the property;

• A registration process would also be established to allow both units to be rented out temporarily for up to four years;

• If owners want to keep renting out both a main house and granny unit for more than four years, the commission suggested that they then be required to apply for a use permit, which would cost about $4,000.

The City Council will have the final say on the much-needed changes to the granny unit ordinance when it considers the housing element update at its April 1 meeting. These are long-overdue changes that will not have huge impacts on neighborhoods, but will give homeowners a way to share their property with students or those who need temporary housing or cannot afford other options.

Another factor that would encourage the construction of granny units would be lowering permit fees, which right now are estimated at around $20,000. In the spring, as part of its annual review of service fees, the City Council is set to look at ways to reduce or subsidize those fees.

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