Los Altos aims to build 2000 affordable housing units by 2031

STORY BY GIL RUBINSTEIN, PHOTO BY EMILY MCNALLY

Los Altos is aiming to build 2000 affordable housing units by 2031, in accordance with new state housing requirements and legislation.

In the state of California, each municipality is given a regional housing needs allocation (RHNA) number, which sets out affordable housing requirements. The housing element, which is sent to the state, indicates where and how land will be zoned for affordable housing.

RHNA requirements are given to most cities by the state every eight years, with this cycle finishing in 2023, at which point they will receive a new number. Some cities — including Los Altos — sometimes receive unfeasible housing numbers, so they appeal the numbers, hoping to receive a finalized set of more feasible ones from the state.

Municipalities are required to send the state a housing element at the end of each cycle, indicating how they plan to implement the RHNA numbers they receive. 

“What we are looking at now is the housing element that is due in January 2023,” said Los Altos Councilwoman Sally Meadows. “Los Altos is viewed as somewhat rural, but to deliver the numbers we need, we will build 2000 affordable units between 2023 through 2031.”

Those 2000 affordable units will likely take the form of accessory dwelling units (ADUs) — an additional unit on a lot that already has a main structure — and duplexes. Although ADUs can often cost upwards of $2,500 a month to rent, they qualify as “moderate” below market rate (BMR) housing. 

Furthermore, building a BMR unit can sometimes cost developers the same or more than a market rate unit, due to high construction and real estate costs, according to Meadows, making it even less likely for developers to construct affordable units.

One of the largest hurdles to affordable housing in Los Altos is the limited quantity of bare land, along with current municipal restrictions on the number of structures that can be put onto a single lot.

Senate Bill 9, which was introduced earlier this month, looks to address this issue by forcing  cities to accept proposed developments for two units on a single family lot, assuming other requirements are met — something which was previously left to the discretion of local municipalities.

Those requirements include, but are not limited to, not requiring demolition of an existing structure and the development not being classified as a historic landmark. 

While it is unclear how Los Altos will be able to facilitate the construction of those units — especially considering the high costs and limited quantity of bare land in the city — lot subdivision and ADU construction seem to be the most likely avenue for increased housing, which will be made easier by SB-9.

“There is an argument that SB-9 doesn’t specify that these units have to be BMR, and that’s true,” Meadows said. “What the state is looking for is not just to create affordable housing, but simply to create housing.”

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