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Exclusive interview: Palo Alto mayor Patrick Burt fires back at housing critics

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"Palo Alto’s greatest problem right now is the Bay Area’s massive job growth."

Last week, Curbed SF spoke to former Palo Alto planning commissioner Kate Vershov Downing, who made waves by resigning and penning an open letter condemning Palo Alto's housing policy.

In response, mayor of Palo Alto Patrick Burt agreed to speak with us about the same issues. Burt has been mayor since January of this year, and also once before in 2010. (In Palo Alto, the mayor is elected annually from amongst sitting members of the City Council.) He’s also the CEO of medical tech company TheraDep.


Curbed SF: Everybody agrees that too many people can’t afford Palo Alto. So why is it like this?
It may be out of reach for someone like you, but not for young professionals. They can and are making those purchases.
Mayor Patrick Burt: There are a number of factors. First, we’re in a region that’s had extremely high job growth at a rate that is just not sustainable if we’re going to keep [Palo Alto] similar to what it’s been historically. Of course we know that the community is going to evolve. But we don’t want it to be a radical departure. We don’t want to turn into Manhattan.

Curbed: But there’s a pretty big margin between Palo Alto and Manhattan. What are you comfortable changing?

Burt: We're looking to increase the rate of housing growth, but decrease the rate of job growth.

Curbed: You want fewer jobs?

Burt: I know, it’s a strange idea to contend with. But this doesn’t mean we want no job growth. And it doesn’t mean we want reckless job growth. We want metered job growth and metered housing growth, in places where it will have the least impact on things like our transit infrastructure. We look at the rates and we balance things. That’s why we’re looking at increasing our developer fees and investing more in affordable housing. We have 2,500 units of BMR housing over the last decades, and a lot of hard work went into that.

Curbed: You do have to accommodate the jobs you already have, though. Kate Downing made the point that Palo Alto made an active decision to create a place for those jobs; all that growth wasn’t an accident.

Burt: It all goes back to the founding of Silicon Valley, when we were surrounded by predominantly residential communities, with Palo Alto as a jobs center. That was fine for the time. But now places like Mountain View and Menlo Park are huge jobs centers too, and that change has come really just in the last decades. Ten years ago, San Francisco wasn’t even considered part of Silicon Valley, and now it is. Nobody could anticipate 60 years ago how this could all change.

Curbed: So, you say your big problem is job growth in other cities putting pressure on your housing stock?

Burt: Palo Alto’s greatest problem right now is the Bay Area’s massive job growth. Cities are still embracing huge commercial development with millions of square feet of office space they can’t support. They’re chasing their tails. We started reining in office growth and put a cap on it. And then we began expanding housing in our downtown areas, which we’re in the process of.

Curbed: Just the other day it was announced that South San Francisco is adding over two million square feet of office space—

Burt: *pained grunt*

Curbed: Sorry to have to break it to you. But a city like South San Francisco argues that it needs those jobs and that growth on its waterfront. They might not want to trade that to relieve your housing problem. How do you resolve it when communities butt heads in a regional economy?

Burt: There aren’t any easy answers. But we do need to significantly restrain that rate of growth. I’ve been a tech executive, I know what that’s like, but we have to do away with this notion that Silicon Valley must capture every job available to it. And know that we are building housing here. It’s just that Kate Downing wants a starter home in Palo Alto to be a four-bed, two-bath, single family home.

Curbed: She does?

Burt: That was the example she gave in her resignation letter, the home she was renting, which she said would cost $2.7 million. We don’t want to turn into Manhattan.

Curbed:
I asked her about that, and she said that house was just a reference point so that people understand what the home market is like here.

Burt: My point is, she can’t afford a home like that, but she could afford a starter home, or a condo. That would not be cheap either, but when my wife and I came to Palo Alto we rented half a duplex, just a little more than 500 feet. Then we overpaid for our first house, a two bed, one bath place that was quite dilapidated. And after ten years we were able to buy a slightly larger home.

Curbed: But look at what those duplexes and fixers cost today. I couldn’t afford a place like that.

Burt: It may be out of reach for someone like you, but not for young professionals. They can and are making those purchases.


Curbed: But if homes cost back then what they cost now, could you and your wife have afforded it?

Burt: You mean with inflation factored in?

Curbed: Sure.

Burt: I’m not sure. Probably, I think we could have, yes. It would have been a challenge, but it was a challenge then too. I would point out, this isn’t a new problem. My parents were both teachers in the '50s and '60s, and they couldn’t quite afford Palo Alto either. Palo Alto has always been a highly desirable place to live. And people make values decisions about how to make it here.

Curbed: Wouldn’t we prefer it if Palo Alto was a place where families didn’t have to scrape by? Is that possible?

Burt: We can reduce the problem and try to mitigate it, but we can’t reverse long-term trends. The community would be more willing to embrace new development, even commercial development, if we could solve the transit problem. Our community will not accept deterioration in our mobility. That problem is going to get worse before it gets better, but just in the last year, for the first time ever, I’ve become really confident that things will get better.

Curbed: Why?

Burt: The innovation we’re seeing. The single biggest thing is probably electrifying Caltrain. And you know, here in Santa Clara County we have a sales tax increase to bring BART to San Jose. But the biggest thing of all is things like our rideshare app, Scoop. That saved us 400 trips a day just in the three months since it’s been introduced. Our TMA is moving towards reducing the number of trips 30 percent. We can [soon] have shared, autonomous vehicles powered by carbon-free electricity.


Curbed:
What about people who say that’s great, but in the meantime why not build as much as you can? A lot of folks are probably willing to accept more transit hassles if it means they might afford to keep living here.

The sad thing about [Downing's] letter is that it’s just creating more division, and we really are doing a lot of things that she says we’re not. Burt: We think that’s a false choice. We don’t have to choose between one or the other. We’re approaching both simultaneously. It’s not easy, but for every problem there’s an easy solution that’s always wrong.

Curbed:
What about these allegations that a few wealthy homeowners control city government, and you’re just towing the line for them?

Burt: Palo Alto is known for its history of grassroots democracy. To claim that one group has control is just not true.

Curbed: Grassroots democracy doesn’t preclude a few people monopolizing influence. That could just mean their grassroots are particularly good.

Burt: We have huge voter participation in Palo Alto. We have very active discussion. The sad thing about that letter is that it’s just creating more division, and we really are doing a lot of things that she says we’re not. Like second units: We actually have, as a city council, unanimously passed an initiative to expand our second unit zoning.

Curbed: Is it true that 97 percent of the city is zoned R1? [Update: Via email, Kate Downing points out that she said that Palo Alto is only three percent multi-family zoning, rather than 97 percent single-family. We misquoted her in conversation.]

Burt: That is a misrepresentation. More than half of our acreage is natural lands, bay lands, where we’re not going to build even if we were permitted. And a good part of the hills is parkland and low density development, and then a good percentage is commercial land. But 45 percent of our population live in multi-unit housing. We are going to expand our zoning, but fundamentally changing the zoning is not going to happen. Here or in other cities.

[Update: Via email, the mayor's spokesperson says that he wants to clarify/emphasize that his comment about "expanded zoning" is meant to communicate a pro-housing policy.]