Five Common-Sense Steps to Fix Palo Alto's Housing Crisis

The cost of living in Palo Alto has skyrocketed. As a result, we are seeing long-time neighbors move as they can no longer afford the rent. It is not unusual for Palo Alto workers to commute in from areas as far as Stockton, Gilroy, and Tracy, putting severe strain on our roads and our climate. We are on the path to being a city composed only of long-time landowners and wealthy newcomers.

That’s why we need you to sign our petition asking the City Council to take immediate, common-sense steps to address the housing crisis.

Sign the petition!


The housing shortage has been caused by city policies that have discouraged new housing while encouraging office space. While the city has taken steps this year to slow the growth of office space, it is now time for the city to fix the policies that put up unnecessary barriers to new housing.

Let’s look at some of the commonsense reforms that could remove barriers to housing below.

Encourage Studio Apartments and Smaller Units



Palo Alto’s zoning code limits both the size of each building and the number of housing units allowed. As a result, homes in new residential buildings typically must average at least 800 square feet, the size of a two-bedroom apartment. In a housing market as tight as Palo Alto’s, these units become luxury condos and apartments too expensive for anyone but the very wealthy.

Many more people live alone today than they did in the 1970s, especially among young singles and older seniors. Palo Alto faces a dramatic shortage of the smaller units that are appropriate for singles even as demand has grown.

The solution is simple: the city should limit only the size of the building and allow as many housing units as will reasonably fit within that size. This would encourage smaller units to be built, rather than discouraging them.

Encourage Residential Units over Ground-Floor Retail

Residential_over_Retail_Europe_wide.jpegPalo Alto’s zoning code caps the amount of residential space any building in a commercial area can contain, maxing out between 50% and 60% depending on the zoning designation. In other words, it’s illegal to build three floors of residential space over ground-floor retail - the zoning code requires the developer of a four-story building to put in at least one floor of office space!

There is no reason to require every four-story building in our downtown areas to contain office space. Instead, the City Council should encourage buildings that combine ground-floor retail with purely residential space above.

Make It Easier for Homeowners to Build Second Units

Second_Units_wide.jpgSecond units are separate homes established on the same lot, usually created as a cottage in the back. They can be an excellent way to allow a property to accommodate an older parent, a returning college grad, a caregiver, or a tenant while preserving the physical character of the neighborhood.

Palo Alto has the most stringent requirements on homeowners of any neighboring city, allowing second units only on lots that are 35% larger than the average lot and requiring two additional parking spaces.

To encourage these naturally affordable smaller units, the City Council should reduce the minimum lot size and require only a single parking space for the occupant of the second unit.

Allow Car-Light and Car-Free Housing in Walkable Areas near Transit

Car-free-wide.jpgEven as many younger and older people are looking for alternatives to cars, the city requires every new building to provide parking spaces for each occupant of a housing unit, whether or not the resident wants to drive a car. These parking spaces form a significant component of the cost of a new unit. For example, a typical parking space in a downtown area costs $60,000 to construct.  A 400 sq ft studio apartment requires 300 sq ft of parking. 

The city should welcome residents who wish to go car-free and couples who wish to have just one car. Especially as Palo Alto’s senior population rises, a growing proportion of residents will find themselves unable to drive safely yet still wish to live independent lives.

The City Council should create a pilot program for new residential buildings aimed at these car-light and car-free households that combines reduced costs for residents with careful design and strong enforcement of the rules.

Facilitate New Senior Housing, Including Alternative Models

seniors-wide.jpgPalo Alto’s senior population is due to double by 2030, yet Palo Alto has not created plans to significantly increase housing stock for our seniors. Palo Alto needs to permit a variety of senior-focused housing offering different levels of assistance so that everyone from active seniors to seniors with mobility issues to seniors with memory impairment can continue to be part of our community and get the services they need to maintain their quality of life. Note that a crucial consideration for this type of housing is that it needs to in walkable areas or easily accessible by public transit so that losing the ability to drive does not mean losing the ability to be independent and mobile. 

Future senior housing options can also include a continuum of options, including home-sharing, which is popular in San Mateo County, and intentional communities, which have been started in Mountain View and East Palo Alto. This allows small groups of people who choose to live together to create co-housing options, where smaller independent units are combined with larger common spaces.

In Conclusion

Although truly fixing Palo Alto’s housing shortage will require long-term focus and deep commitment, these are five simple, common-sense reforms that could encourage new housing immediately. Palo Alto’s rents are the highest in the nation - it's urgent!

We are asking the City Council to plan for more housing so that Palo Alto can be the community of opportunity it has historically been: a family-friendly city that welcomed interesting thinkers and doers of all ages and incomes. Many of these reforms were implemented successfully in Palo Alto’s South of Forest Area (SOFA) plan. We know this can be done!

To ask City Council to exercise leadership and take these common-sense steps to fix the housing crisis,

Sign the petition!

Image Credits:

  1. Studio apartments:

  2. Residential over retail:

  3. Second units:

  4. Car-light housing:
  5. Senior housing:



  • Patty Mattos
    commented 2017-06-08 12:58:11 -0700
    he’s choosing to attack me and ignore all the people who serve Palo Alto every day who could never dream of owning that $1M
  • Kate Downing
    commented 2016-08-23 18:14:24 -0700
    Hi Aleks. Thanks for your comment. My response is that my letter isn’t about me. My letter is about the vast majority of people in the Bay Area who aren’t lucky enough to have two professional salaries coming in. When Pat Burt implies that young families like mine should look to condos and duplexes (of which there are nearly none on the market in PA) which still cost over $1M, he’s choosing to attack me and ignore all the people who serve Palo Alto every day who could never dream of owning that $1M condo either. When he and other council member suggest I move to a place like East Palo Alto, note that there’s not a trace of concern for where the displaced people of East Palo Alto will now go. It’s as if by insulting me, he hopes that all the other people far less well off than I am will somehow disappear and not be a problem anymore. Alas, if only that were so.

    I’m making choices and trade-offs for my family that I’m very privileged to be able to make. The fact that we can afford to buy anything at all and that we have jobs that allow us flexibility is a giant privilege most working class people don’t have. I’m going to be just fine. But for all the people out there who can’t come to work during non-commute hours, and all the people who can’t work remotely, all the people who spend so much on rent they can never hope to put down a down payment on any house around here at all…those people are going to continue spending increasing portions of their rent on housing and driving to work from further and further away because of the way the Palo Alto City Council and the mayor have turned a blind eye to their plight. This letter was for them.
  • Aleksandar Totic
    commented 2016-08-23 17:55:25 -0700
    Would love to see your response to this article:

    “Palo Alto’s greatest problem right now is the Bay Area’s massive job growth”


    " It’s just that Kate Downing wants a starter home in Palo Alto to be a four-bed, two-bath, single family home."
  • David Clark
    commented 2016-08-12 21:04:58 -0700
    You need to read some of Randal O’Toole’s work. And Wendell Cox.
    Both will tell you that all you will get is unaffordable tiny living units.
    The ONLY real solution is more land for housing – allow building outside of city limits on all those vacant hills stc that surround the built up area.
    Your 2 million average house would have to be split into TEN units AT NO COST to become affordable. Can’t happen. Further people WILL NOT ABANDON CARS. NY still has about 50% commuters by car.
    Spread out the housing and jobs will follow and the result is less cars on any one road.
  • Alexia Salgado
    commented 2016-04-04 13:25:19 -0700
    We need to fix the crisis with things that will really bring / make a difference. PDF do FL no Futurecom2008
  • Ken Alsman
    commented 2015-12-08 08:22:09 -0800
    City needs to rezone appropriate commercial and industrial land to housing as Mountain View is doing. Especially important in downtown where urban housing can work well. Building housing instead of job producing commercial makes sense.


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