Menlo Park Agrees to Welcome 1,000 Units of Affordable Housing

In 2012, Public Advocates successfully negotiated with the Menlo Park City Council to meet the city’s share of the region’s affordable housing needs, extending the opportunities that come from living in a healthy neighborhood with good jobs and schools to the city’s disenfranchised lower-wage workforce. The agreement paves the way for over 1,000 new affordable homes in this Silicon Valley community.

The Challenge

Menlo Park has a long history of failing to comply with state housing laws. From 1999 to 2007, for instance, it did not grant building permits for a single new unit of lower-income housing, and it has not updated its state-mandated affordable housing plan since 1992.

This behavior is unlawful. The city, along with every other local government in California, is required to accommodate its share of the region’s need for new housing at each income level, as identified in the Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA). This requirement is formally known as the “Housing Element” of each local government’s General Plan.

Ignoring state housing laws has had dire repercussions for low-income families and people of color. These include:

  • Lost Opportunities. Due to the high cost of housing in Menlo Park, thousands of lower-income people are excluded from life-changing opportunities such as better jobs, better schools and access to public transit.
  • Long Commutes. Many lower-wage workers with jobs in Menlo Park must commute long distances because they can’t afford to live near their workplaces. According to the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG), Menlo Park has only enough affordable housing for 17 percent of the lower-wage workers employed in the city. More than 21,000 workers commute to jobs in this city of 32,000 residents.
  • Risk of Displacement. Many low-income people and people of color have been displaced from East Palo Alto, a neighboring city. As Menlo Park becomes both more desirable and less affordable, residents fear that they will be next.

Adding to the complexity of the challenges facing lower-wage workers,Facebook has relocated its corporate headquarters to Menlo Park. Residents and community leaders, although eager to bring new jobs to the community, are concerned that an influx of affluent Facebook employees could drive rents even higher, causing displacement. In addition, Facebook estimates that lower-income workers will comprise 28 percent of its projected workforce of 9,400 in just a few years. How will the city meet the housing needs of this workforce?

Our Role

While challenging, the situation in Menlo Park presented a huge opportunity. Public Advocates’ affordable housing victory in Pleasanton demonstrated the power of housing laws. In that case, after a five-year legal battle, Pleasanton was forced to change its ways when a state court prohibited it from approving any development until it met its affordable housing obligation.

Would Menlo Park wage the same losing battle? In light of the City Council’s desire to welcome Facebook to the community, we decided it was the perfect time to seek voluntary compliance.

We partnered closely with three clients: Youth United for Community Action, Peninsula Interfaith Action (PIA) and Urban Habitat (all three of these groups are members of a coalition known as Envision-Transform-Build East Palo Alto). We also collaborated with our co-counsel, the Public Interest Law Project. Together, we began by outlining our concerns in a January 2012 letter to the Menlo Park City Council.

City officials responded promptly — a good sign that Menlo Park was ready and willing to listen to the views of affordable housing advocates and low-income community residents. Over the next few months, we provided legal counsel to the community groups involved, participating in key negotiations with both the Menlo Park City Council and Facebook.

Outcomes

On May 22, 2012, just four months after launching our advocacy campaign, the Menlo Park City Council unanimously approved a settlement with Public Advocates and our partners to meet the city’s share of the region’s housing needs.

The settlement opens the door for the future development of 1,000 homes affordable to very low-, low- and moderate-income families. Highlights include:

  • Adoption of an affordable housing plan (or “Housing Element”) by March 2013
  • Rezoning sites in and around downtown to promote the development of affordable housing near jobs and transit
  • Providing local funding for nonprofit housing developers
  • Agreement by the plaintiffs not to sue over the Facebook projects
  • Court supervision to ensure compliance

We and our community partners also continue to discuss Facebook’s growing role and impact in Menlo Park. So far, our negotiations with Facebook have yielded a few commitments: among them, to work with local job training organizations, add a summer intern program for local youths and coordinate quarterly career trainings in East Palo Alto and Belle Haven; promote community volunteerism internally at Facebook; create a local community fund and contribute $500,000 to it; and assist with affordable housing initiatives in the region.

Monitoring and implementing the commitments made by the Menlo Park City Council and Facebook will take additional work and persistence. We and our partners are ready to do our part to create a more affordable, equitable and sustainable city.