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.
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.