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Cities brace for proposed housing legislation

Los Altos and Los Altos Hills leaders are publicly expressing fears over the way the CASA Housing Compact, a proposal presented at the Dec. 3 Metropolitan Transportation Commission meeting, could negatively impact city government decisions.

Convened by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Association of Bay Area Governments, the CASA committee’s Housing Compact aims to urge leaders from diverse communities to reach consensus and provide solutions to the jobs-housing imbalance.

Proposed solutions in the nearly 50-page document range from providing emergency rental assistance to removing regulatory barriers to build more dwelling units, unlocking public land for affordable housing and raising $1.5 billion from “a range of sources” to fund implementation.

The cities of Los Altos, Cupertino and Sunnyvale have all sent letters to MTC Chairman Jake Mackenzie, protesting the CASA Housing Compact for various reasons. Los Altos Mayor Lynette Lee Eng specifically listed as primary objections the lack of feasibility in funding the compact, the lack of traffic planning to address the higher density and the lack of proof that housing alongside transit will draw people to use it.

Enrollment in Los Altos School District
Graphic Courtesy of CASA Committee
Rents have skyrocketed in the Bay Area in the past decade, as the CASA committee’s above graphic illustrates. The CASA Housing Compact draft, presented to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission Dec. 3, reveals just how inflated each city’s prices have become, underlining why people are becoming displaced or voluntarily leaving the area.

According to Santa Clara County’s MTC representative and Los Altos Councilwoman Jeannie Bruins, the proposal the CASA committee presented Dec. 3 contained little, if any, community input. The MTC held a Nov. 28 workshop on the compact.

Even MTC members are divided on whether they support the proposal, Bruins said.

Bruins contended that it’s safe to count on her and the five other members who represent city groups voting against drafting a letter supporting the CASA compact, which the CASA committee is asking of Mackenzie so that it can be sent to state legislators. However, that’s just six of 21 total commissioners, who also include big-city mayors like San Jose’s Sam Liccardo.

Reading between the lines

Bruins said the mention of potential CASA funding sources hints at another tax measure and specifically called out housing impact funds and property taxes. “Siphoning off” property taxes, especially, which account for 65 percent of Los Altos’ revenue, would strike a huge blow, she indicated.

Another concern is how the emergency policy package could “tie the hands” of elected officials in some housing-related decisions, Bruins said. More worrisome to Los Altos officials was the way the CASA proposal was presented – not as an option, but as language that would inevitably become legislation.

“In our community, we want meetings to be open, open, open,” Bruins said. “And this is a proposal that has been shared with legislators already, but there hasn’t been an outreach process to local jurisdictions on any scale, as far as I can tell.”

South Bay sentiments

Roger Spreen, Los Altos Hills’ newly elected mayor, said his council would not discuss the compact until members receive a report on addressing the state-mandated Regional Housing Needs Allocation. Affordable housing has been a high-priority topic for the town since before CASA’s emergence, according to Spreen, and the council intends to focus on promoting the creation of accessory dwelling units, “rather than being overly distracted by the CASA specifics.”

“As a semi-rural, low-density, residential-only town, Los Altos Hills clearly has a very different housing situation than, say, Mountain View or Los Altos, which are dealing with things like mixed-use, multi-tenant buildings and commercial zones,” Spreen said.

However, the CASA compact’s proposed removal of regulatory barriers to accessory dwelling units could impact Los Altos Hills, Spreen noted.

“(The element) suggests making state laws that mandate ADUs across all jurisdictions, rather than leaving it to us to determine what makes the most sense in context of our town,” he said.

Outgoing Mountain View Mayor Lenny Siegel said his council has not yet had the opportunity on its agendas to address the compact, but he has his own personal problem with the proposal’s “all or nothing” approach.

“It has several good things, some of which we are already doing,” Siegel said. “But I am concerned about the proposed erosion of local control and the heavy reliance on the regressive sales tax. Also, the $1.5 billion for affordable (subsidized) housing is a good idea, but it won’t go very far. By itself, it will build no more than 3,000 apartments. The best way to create large quantities of affordable housing is to build market-rate apartments and insist that 15 percent or more be set aside as affordable.”

The CASA committee issued a statement Dec. 12 stating that its steering group approved the proposal in addition to “robust public comment with broad support.”

At the Dec. 11 Los Altos City Council meeting, resident Gary Hedden pleaded with the council to collaborate with other small cities in the county to make the compact work for them.

“CASA is a regional approach to solving the affordable housing crisis,” said Hedden, an affordable-housing proponent. “Some parts of it need a lot of work, but the overall goal is worthwhile. … As (Bruins) says, it does seem to be heading down the tracks, so let’s work with it. It would probably be futile to fight.”

Los Altos council members agreed unanimously to authorize Lee Eng and City Manager Chris Jordan to draft a letter to the MTC, CASA, the Association of Bay Area Governments and all related associations underlining the city’s overall disinterest.

The letter, sent Dec. 17 via email, was also forwarded to the CASA committee, the Cities Association of Santa Clara County’s Andi Jordan, State Sen. Jerry Hill, Assemblyman Marc Berman, Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian and California League of Cities affairs manager Seth Miller.

In the words of new Councilwoman Neysa Fligor, the letter is a gesture that shows the Los Altos council is not interested in “signing on blindly.”

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