Peninsula cities meet in rare joint study session to discuss California's housing crisis

PALO ALTO, Calif. (KGO) -- Part of building a better Bay Area involves having tough conversations about contentious issues. On Monday, three Peninsula cities met in a rare joint study session to focus on California's housing crisis.

City leaders and residents from Palo Alto, East Palo Alto and Menlo Park gathered at Palo Alto City Hall to discuss Senate Bill 50.

State Senator Scott Wiener's legislation is focused on transit and housing. The bill seeks to put more multi-unit, high rise housing near transportation hubs.

"The last thing that we want to do is build 3.5-million homes at a sprawl," State Senator Wiener said. "Further and further out in a wildfire zones, covering up farmland, causing people to commute two or three hours to work."

However, many along the Peninsula aren't convinced. Palo Alto and Menlo Park have spoken out against the transit-housing bill. East Palo Alto city leaders say they are in favor.

Those critical of the bill say among other issues, SB50 would reduce local control of development, and put housing in the hands of the state.

"It's okay to publish mandates, but let local governments figure out how to solve it based on their individual culture," Palo Alto resident, Martin Bernstein said.

Bernstein is referring to the cultures of cities impacted by California's housing crisis.

SB50 would allow building heights of 55-feet within a quarter-mile radius of Caltrain, and a height of 45-feet within a quarter-mile radius of SamTrans.

The bill would also exempt developments from density limits.

"If the visual quality of the neighborhoods are adversely affected, then that's not a good thing for our community," Bernstein continued.

Beyond looks, Monday's study session explored quality of life along the Peninsula.

EPA leaders feel they've carried the burden of the housing crisis.

"I'm proud that our city has 40-percent of our housing is affordable to working-class people, low-income people, moderate-income people," EPA Councilman Ruben Abrica told ABC7 News. "And many cities cannot say that."

He continued, "SB50 I think is a good vehicle at the state level to prompt more cities to produce more housing for low and moderate-income communities."

Abrica said there are bigger reasons why other cities oppose the bill.

"There is segregation in housing. When we talk segregation we usually talk education, but one of the roots is educational segregation is housing segregation," he said.

State Senator Wiener told ABC7 News, "Avoiding evictions and displacement is incredibly important, and SB50 has the strongest tenant protections in existence under state law."

He continued, "The bill also provides that areas that are low income, where there's a significant risk of displacement, that there will be a five year delay of implementation so that the community can work out anti-displacement measures."

Palo Alto's Mayor Eric Filseth told ABC7 News, he doesn't agree with this bill in its entirety.

"We oppose it unless amended to be consistent with the principles adopted by the city association of Santa Clara by in large we oppose a once size fits all mandate and we oppose Sacramento over local control," he said.

Wiener's response, "Our system of pure local control over housing in California, it hasn't worked. The proof is in the pudding. Housing is so expensive."

He continued, "We're not looking to eliminate all local control. We just need to have a better balance of the State setting the ground rules and then the cities exercising local control within those grounds."

One of the big concerns is what high-density housing will do to existing property values. The median home price is just over $3-million in Palo Alto, according to Zillow. It's about two and a third in Menlo Park. Almost one million in East Palo Alto.

"We have spent $28-million in the last four years on affordable housing initiatives. We got $3-million set aside for county teacher's housing project," Filseth said.

Wiener added, "It's not enough just to be upset. The question is, are we committed to do what we need to do to make housing more affordable in California?"

Monday's meeting was a joint study session, which allowed roughly 40 minutes of public comment. No decision was made on SB50.

SB50 will have its next Senate committee hearing next Monday.

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