Letter to the Editor | More housing for everyone, everywhere

Not your typical single-family home in Wildwood Gardens.

The City of Piedmont recently released its draft Housing Element –- a state-required plan for how to enable 587 units of housing in the next eight years, the City’s “fair share” of housing growth in the San Francisco Bay Area. I applaud the City’s efforts. Besides being a way for the City to fulfill its legal and moral obligation to help address the regional housing crisis, planning for more housing — and especially more affordable housing — can help Piedmont become a more diverse, equitable, culturally rich, and inclusive community. 

The City’s draft has many important proposals, and, depending on one’s opinion, there may be room for improvement. To avoid confusion, it is good to start by emphasizing some basic facts about the Housing Element: First, it is not unique to Piedmont. State law requires every city in California to produce a Housing Element, and the state gives each city a target number to plan for (in this case, 587 units). Second, the plan does not authorize the construction of any new housing: it is just a high-level planning document for how to change current zoning and create programs to incentivize more housing construction. Third, it is not a finished product: per state law, this is an iterative process with several rounds of public and state review and comment, including the preparation of an Environmental Impact Report under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Community input is essential. We urge the City to create ample opportunities for robust community dialogue about the plan before its adoption.

The City’s draft plan incorporates several excellent ideas for incentivizing housing production. For example, it encourages homeowners to build backyard cottages or ADUs; it proposes increasing the allowable density on commercial sites along Grand Avenue and in the center of town to enable housing production on those sites; and it explores the viability of building affordable housing on several publicly owned parcels. As a Piedmont resident and a member of the Piedmont Racial Equity Campaign (PREC) Housing Committee, I strongly support all of these ideas, and I generally think the City has produced a solid draft plan.

However, the City’s Housing Element could be further improved in several ways that would enable the more equitable and expeditious production of more housing, for everyone, everywhere.

Suggestions to accommodate more homes

First, the City should create policies to enable affordable housing throughout Piedmont, in all the zones, rather than planning for it in just one or two areas. The draft Housing Element designates just a few sites — either under public or religious institution ownership, and mostly on the edges of the City — as suitable for affordable housing.  And, it only proposes detailed planning, in the form of a specific plan, for one area — the Corporation Yard.  Given that the opportunities for affordable housing are so limited and the financing is complex, the City should make a greater effort to integrate affordable housing into the residential, mixed use / commercial zones, too.

Second, to achieve the goal of distributing more housing everywhere, the City should amend the zoning for Zones A and E (the Single Family and Estate zones) to allow duplexes, triplexes, and small multifamily buildings on larger lots. While the state has recently adopted laws that facilitate construction of ADUs, duplexes and lot splits, Piedmont would be well served by adopting amendments that augment and tailor these laws to be more effective in our local context.  These types of housing already exist in the middle of Piedmont’s single-family zones and fit in well (see photo). The City should allow more of them to be built. 

Lastly, the City should move forward more intentionally with building affordable housing on publicly owned land by expanding the number of Zone B (Public Facilities) sites under consideration and doing feasibility studies of all these sites. Building on public land is the City’s most realistic path to creating real affordable housing and we should make sure the Housing Element will enable thoughtful and sustainable change in our community.

To be clear: I and the other members of PREC Housing believe that the above strategies must be part of an “all of the above strategy” — not “either/or.”  Very little of the new housing in the single-family or commercial zones is likely to yield genuinely affordable housing, given the high cost of land and construction in Piedmont. That’s why we must simultaneously actively pursue all opportunities for building on publicly owned land.

Incorporating the above principles and strategies into the Housing Element plan will result in a more equitable and proactive policy document, helping make sure that we create a viable and prudent plan that will bring us one step closer to the inclusive, diverse, and equitable community that many of us envision.

I invite anyone who is interested in learning more about these ideas to contact the PREC Housing Committee at piedmontracialequity@gmail.com or go to www.piedmontracialequity.com

To review the City’s Housing Element and other related documents, visit https://www.piedmontishome.org

Lastly, please consider supporting more housing, for everyone, everywhere, by participating in the Planning Commission hearing this Thursday, May 12 at 5:30 p.m.

3 thoughts on “Letter to the Editor | More housing for everyone, everywhere

  1. These are important questions, Dai Maeger. In terms of whether we are obliged to do this: yes, Piedmont, like all other cities and counties throughout the state, has an obligation to comply with state laws related to housing. One of those laws is the Housing Element law, which was enacted in 1969 and mandates that the Housing Element of the General Plan be periodically updated to accommodate a jurisdiction’s “fair share” of regional housing needs. What constitutes a “fair share” is subject to state law and determined through a public process, and in this case, it means that the City has to plan to accommodate 587 units, of which about 250 need to be accessible to low income residents.

    The “fair share” concept means that all jurisdictions need to do their part to solve the big, statewide problem of housing availability and affordability. It is certainly a complex problem, with many causes, but if every jurisdiction said “it is not my problem” then no one would do anything and the problem would never be addressed. In essence, it is a recognition that we are all in this together.

    The state mandates the number of units of our fair share and sets out a process; the City has an obligation to comply with that mandated process. It does not have an obligation to build any of the housing, just allow for it to happen – remove the constraints created by zoning or other regulations.

    In terms of the impacts that would result from building the housing, I’d like to point out first that the impacts would not occur all at the same time, but gradually, through time, and with the benefit of environmental review and mitigations. I don’t expect that the construction of the new housing to be materially larger or different from other construction projects the City and school district recently have embraced, with great community support – such as the STEAM building, the new theater, or the new pool. Construction is manageable, and so are other potential impacts. As to whether the new residents would lead to closing some schools or opening of others – our schools have ample capacity, and I would expect these children would fit within the existing facilities.

    In terms of imagining what this would feel and look like – that is a useful exercise. I imagine a City as vibrant and lovely as ours is now, but with a more diverse population, more inclusive and affordable to seniors, singles, and middle income people. A city that teachers, nurses, construction workers… everyone can call home.

  2. “Envision children from those homes going to Havens.” – I personally would happily imagine that. Imagine Piedmont schools not suffering from under-enrollment due to our extraordinarily high housing costs. Imagine a Piedmont that welcomes neighbors from different backgrounds and walks of life. Imagine a Piedmont with a healthy housing market where purchasing a home here doesn’t cost 2+ million dollars. Sounds wonderful!

  3. I believe that the leaders and Citizens of Piedmont need to question and scrutinize the whole concept of ” the City’s fair share” of housing growth in the San Francisco Bay Area.

    1) What are Piedmont residents obligated to resolve a state-wide and regional housing dilemma?

    2) If we have obligations, what are the constraints of those obligations? Where do such obligations end, if ever?

    3) If we have obligations, who decides the extent of such obligations.

    Read the Piedmont’s founding document…the City Charter for the City of Piedmont. https://p1cdn4static.civiclive.com/UserFiles/Servers/Server_13659739/File/Government/City%20Charter%20&%20Code/charter.pdf?v=tCdgRJuO7

    From my reading, I don’t see language that supports the City of Piedmont responsibility resolve a regional and state housing issue.

    Selected Citations:
    “The powers of the City under this Charter shall be construed liberally in favor of the City…” “The City of Piedmont is primarily a residential city, and the City Council shall have power to establish a zoning system within the City as may in its judgement be most beneficial….” “No zone shall be reduced or enlarged and no zones reclassified unless a majority of the voters voting upon the same shall vote in favor thereof…”

    The proposed 587 units that is described as Piedmont’s share of the housing burden is a capriciously determined number.

    Andrea Ruiz-Esquide writes above: “That’s why we must simultaneously actively pursue all opportunities for building on publicly owned land.” And she writes: “…consider supporting more housing, for everyone, everywhere…” With that perspective, why stop at replacing the Veterans Hall with a high-density housing. Why not put housing in Piedmont Park and Dracena Park. The center of Highland Ave could fit tiny homes as well. Why have three elementary schools when one would do, and the other schools could be converted to affordable housing?

    Does anyone believe the proposed 587 new housing units materially improve the housing dilemma in our region? I think not. The factors contributing to the housing issues are the result of much larger forces controlled by state, regional, and county decisions.

    Take ten minutes today for some imagination. Envision the construction process for this proposed plan (while you do that, recall the issues and cost overruns with the utilities under-grounding project.) Envision the traffic ramifications after 100 new homes are built on Moraga Ave. Envision children from those homes going to Havens. Envision the impact on Havens and on parking with 72 additional homes in Piedmont’s civic center. Envision the consequences on our Elementary schools? Can Havens accommodate the enrollment increase? If not, would children needed t0 be transported to one of the other schools? Would one of the schools need to be closed to afford growth at Havens Elementary?

    Think of the ripple effects of this plan, and ask yourself, what does this plan solve, if anything. If this plan isn’t a significant solution to affordable housing in the region, then why would we adopt it?

    I invite anyone interested in learning more about the negative consequences of portions of the proposed housing element to email Piedmonters4ResponsibleHousing@gmail.com

    This Thursday’s meeting is at 5:30pm
    Here’s a link to participate via zoom: https://piedmont-ca-gov.zoom.us/j/89162983844#success
    Here’s how to participate by audio only: Dial (669) 900-9128 and enter webinar/meeting number 891-6298-3844

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