City of Menlo Park Settles Housing Lawsuit

Agreement Will Allow Facebook Project to Proceed, Affordable Housing to be Built

MENLO PARK, CA—The Menlo Park City Council last night unanimously approved a settlement with a coalition of community groups and affordable housing advocates to meet the City’s share of the region’s housing needs. The settlement opens the door for future development of roughly 1,000 homes affordable to very-low, low and moderate income families. (In San Mateo County, a very-low income family of four is one with household income up to $55,500.)
 
“This is a great victory,” said Diana Reddy, a leader with Peninsula Interfaith Action (PIA). “Rents in San Mateo County rose 17 percent in the past year alone. This settlement means that teachers, city workers and others who work in Menlo Park will soon be able to spend less time driving and more time with their families.”
 
The lawsuit was filed in San Mateo County Superior Court by civil rights law firms Public Advocates Inc. and the Public Interest Law Project, on behalf of Youth United for Community Action (YUCA), PIA, and Urban Habitat. The three groups are members of a coalition known as Envision-Transform-Build East Palo Alto.
 
Key terms of the settlement 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 non-profit housing developers
  • Agreement by the plaintiffs not to sue over the Facebook projects 

Before voting to approve the settlement last night, Menlo Park Mayor Kirsten Keith commented, "From what I'm hearing, it is not a defensible case, I do feel that we need to approve this or else we'll probably suffer some severe repercussions." 
 
Under California law, a local government’s General Plan must include an affordable housing action plan. Known formally as the Housing Element of the General Plan, it requires cities and counties to make appropriate sites available to meet their share of the region’s need for new housing at each income level as identified in the Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA).
 
While Menlo Park is a particularly egregious example with its long history of failing to comply with this set of laws, it is not alone. Neighboring Palo Alto also has not yet submitted a draft housing element for the current planning period along with four other cities in the nine-county Bay Area region: Albany, Fairfax, Mill Valley and Novato.
 
Another 17 Bay Area jurisdictions have not yet adopted a housing element that complies with state law, according to the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD): Benicia, Brentwood, Colma, Daly City, Hercules, Marin County, Millbrae, Orinda, Pacifica, Richmond, San Anselmo, Sausalito and Sonoma. In all, 138 of the 537 California jurisdictions do not yet have an HCD-approved housing element.
 
“These laws are not optional, they are mandatory,” said Richard Marcantonio, managing attorney at Public Advocates. “Jurisdictions that fail to follow Menlo Park’s lead and continue to drag their feet should be aware of the consequences they face for being out of compliance.”
 
The consequences of non-compliance can be severe. In Pleasanton, for example, a state court prohibited the city from approving any development until it met its obligation. The city ultimately paid nearly $2 million in legal fees as a result of a protracted fight. Since then, Pleasanton has embraced its responsibilities and has approved 500 units of new housing including 70 for very-low income families.
 
“We’re pleased Menlo Park had the sense to do this the easy way, and will now reap the benefits of great mixed use revitalization near transit and jobs,” said Vu-Bang Nguyen, land use program coordinator at Urban Habitat.
 
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