Palo Alto Officials and Candidates for Higher Office Respond to Kate Downing

This article is part of a series on housing politics and policy, particularly in the context of the Bay Area. Other articles on housing can be found here.

On August 10, following a series of years in which the average home price in Palo Alto doubled to $2.5 million, attorney Kate Vershov Downing resigned from the Palo Alto Planning and Transportation Commission in protest. Downing’s resignation, coupled with the announcement that she and her husband, a programmer, were moving away to Santa Cruz to find a home that they could afford, set off a national firestorm over the record-setting cost of living in the Bay Area.

The Stanford Political Journal interviewed Downing and contacted the entire Palo Alto City Council and all candidates who are running in November’s elections to represent Palo Alto in the California and federal legislatures for comment on the issue and Downing’s policy recommendations. All council members and candidates, if they did not respond initially, were contacted at least once more, and all have had two weeks or more to respond.

Downing’s six specific policy points in the letter were: “Small steps like allowing 2 floors of housing instead of 1 in mixed use developments, enforcing minimum density requirements so that developers build apartments instead of penthouses, legalizing duplexes, easing restrictions on granny units, leveraging the residential parking permit program to experiment with housing for people who don’t want or need two cars, and allowing single-use areas like the Stanford shopping center to add housing on top of shops (or offices).”

As mentioned in our interview with Palo Alto Mayor Patrick Burt, Palo Alto Municipal Code 18.16.060b does not mention a ban on multiple stories of residential in mixed-use development. That interview can be found here.


1. Palo Alto City Council member Cory Wolbach responded:

Speaking as an individual member of the Council, and not for the Council as a whole, I do share Downing’s concerns, and I agree with several of her specific recommendations. Recent polling conducted by the City indicates Palo Alto residents are deeply concerned about the cost of housing, which must be addressed in concert with transportation, water supply, and other services and infrastructure needed to support managed, balanced growth in the face of a regional crisis.
On 5/2/16, Agenda Item 11, we received a presentation summarizing polling results we commissioned as we considered a potential tax measure. Attached is a photo of slide 4 of the presentation, along with the entire presentation. Slide 4 is extremely informative about the community’s concerns. Of particular note:
•76% of Palo Altans rate “The cost of housing” as a very or extremely serious problem in Palo Alto; and
•53% rate “Traffic and congestion on local streets and roads” as a very or extremely serious problem; but
•Only 30% rate “Too much growth and development” as a very or extremely serious problem.
On 5/16/16, Item 12, we provided direction to staff on how much maximum housing growth to study as part of the Draft EIR for our new Comprehensive Plan, which is intended to be our city’s plan until the year 2030. I proposed at least studying housing growth of 8,800 units. My proposal was rejected by the rest of [the] Council. We ended up agreeing to study only 6,000 new housing units. Neighboring city Mountain View, by contrast, is planning to actually add substantially more housing than even my proposal for study in Palo Alto (I think 2–3 times as much, but you’ll want to check with them to be sure of the numbers).
See page 5 of the action minutes here.

2. Palo Alto City Council member and candidate for the California State Assembly, District 24, Marc Berman responded:

Kate is a friend and supporter of mine, and I was one of the council members who voted to appoint her to the Planning & Transportation Committee in 2014. I’m very sad to see her leave Palo Alto, and I’m grateful for the leadership she’s shown in the community on housing and transportation over the last few years.
I agree with five of Kate’s six policy points. I need to get a better understanding of what she means by “leveraging the RPP program to experiment with housing for people who don’t want or need two cars” before I can weigh in on that. I plan to reach out to Kate to learn more.

3. Candidate for the California State Assembly, District 24, Vicki Veenker responded:

We have a housing crisis in our community. I am committed to working with all stakeholders in finding long-term solutions so that we can maintain both our community and the workforce that serves it.

No other members of the Palo Alto City Council, including the four members of the Council that Palo Alto Weekly identifies as having the “the heaviest slow-growth residentialist leanings,” responded.

The candidates for California State Senate District 13, Rick Ciardella and Gerald Hill; US House California District 18, Anna Eshoo and Richard Fox; and the US Senate, Kamala Harris and Loretta Sanchez; did not reply with a statement.

The Stanford Political Journal thanks all of the officeholders and candidates who responded for their thoughts on this important issue.