Melanie Hanssen
Planning Commissioner Melanie Hanssen combed through various Housing Elements and came up with a document local officials found quite helpful in charting a path forward. (Drew Penner / Los Gatan)
music in the park san jose

Los Gatos continues to plod along in the revision of its Housing Element, holding hours of community meetings to workshop the critical housing document that has failed State scrutiny five times.

Unlike the Scotts Valley Draft Housing Element which was rubber-stamped by its Planning Commission (after no residents spoke during public comment) and sent off to Council over on the other side of the Santa Cruz Mountains a few weeks back, Los Gatos residents continue to pack the Town’s Council Chambers as emotions run high.

That’s because Scotts Valley is part of the Association of Monterey Bay Area Governments, and so it only recently fell out of compliance with State law and hadn’t yet received any Builder’s Remedy applications of the sort Los Gatos has fielded over the past 12 months.

Meanwhile, the Town (which is part of the Association of Bay Area Governments), has now counted nine SB 330 housing development applications (including pre-applications), some of which are claiming rights to erect larger projects than they would otherwise be allowed to build (under the Builder’s Remedy) because Los Gatos doesn’t yet have a residential growth plan that measures up.

‘taking something from someone and giving it to someone else’

—Vice Mayor Matthew Hudes on zoning changes.

While some Council members had expressed frustration with the absence of consultant Veronica Tam from discussions toward the end of 2023, Town officials are relying on her services, considering she’d played a large role in helping municipalities around the San Francisco Bay win HCD over.

In fact, she said, the agency, which has recently been facing chronic staffing shortages as it wades through mountains of Housing Element submissions pouring in from around California, recently included several new hires on one of her calls so they could learn the ropes.

Politically-engaged citizens
Los Gatos continues to pack housing meetings with engaged citizens. (Drew Penner / Los Gatan)

On Jan. 16, Councilmember Maria Ristow reminded residents that the whole point of the plan was to allow more homes to get built.

“I’m not pro-development, I’m pro meet-the-challenge,” she said. “I think I’m finally seeing the political will by all five Council members to do the work we have to do.”

Many of the conversations used a document prepared by Planning Commissioner Melanie Hanssen as a foundation.

In it, she combed through Housing Elements efforts from across the region—from Atherton to Hillsborough to San Carlos to Menlo Park—and even a couple from Southern California to get a sense of what Los Gatos has left on its plate.

She noted because Los Altos got the thumbs-up from Sacramento less than 120 days from the adoption of its Housing Element, it has three years to rezone where necessary, instead of the one-year timeline Los Gatos was forced into by its own lack of successful action.

She laid out a series of new programs Los Altos agreed to implement in order to achieve certification—everything from by-right approval for specific sites, to increasing density bonuses beyond State law requirements, to encouraging the production of granny flats, SB9 units and duplexes or triplexes.

Susan Burnett, a Planning Commissioner who was speaking as an individual, expressed frustration with the mounting development proposals.

“If the staff is short in Sacramento…why aren’t we given a break on the Builder’s Remedy?” she asked. “Why should we suffer with the Builder’s Remedy’s coming in? It’s just not fair.”

Council quibbled over the wording of where some proposed updates would apply—for example, whether to allow more housing types in “a variety of” or “all” low density neighborhoods.

Matthew Hudes
Vice Mayor Matthew Hudes said changes to zoning are anything but trivial. (Drew Penner / Los Gatan)

But for Vice Mayor Matthew Hudes, the changes under discussion at the meeting are anything but trivial.

“This is a very weighty decision,” he said, describing it as looking at whether the Town wants to begin “taking something from someone and giving it to someone else.”

HCD has said it won’t pass the Town’s Housing Element until it lays out a credible plan for making housing stock available to more people through quantifiable initiatives.

But many locals fear this could tank the resale value of their properties.

“The people who have property have an expectation when they bought that property,” Hudes said, suggesting that if Sacramento wants Los Gatos to allow more housing in lower-density neighborhoods it should pass a new law specifically forcing the Town’s hand.

Tam clarified that HCD is not asking the Town to go beyond State law, as the current law is written in such a way that communities are required to do more than just the bare minimum.

On Thursday the Housing Element Advisory Board also dug into the document.

At that meeting, new feedback from HCD was discussed. It revealed the Town is, in fact, closing the Housing Element deficiency gap, yet still has a ways to go before it can turn the page on this political process.

A revised Housing Element draft is expected to come before Council in early February.

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Drew Penner is an award-winning Canadian journalist whose reporting has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Good Times Santa Cruz, Los Angeles Times, Scotts Valley Press Banner, San Diego Union-Tribune, KCRW and the Vancouver Sun. Please send your Los Gatos and Santa Cruz County news tips to [email protected].

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