Affordable Living

In last week’s blog post (Mighty Morphing Power Project) I presented in some detail the many design changes that were made to the 901 El Camino Real project to accommodate a potential (but very likely) set of land swaps in the project’s immediate vicinity. The City Council reviewed that new design during Monday’s meeting, and agreed to “re-initiate” the project, meaning that the city will determine how the General Plan should be updated in order to accommodate it. Once that has been done, the project’s developer will then be able to formally submit the project to the city for consideration, and it will go through the normal approval process.

Because the project isn’t being formally considered at this time, only the highest-level details — such as what the main components of the project are, where they would be located, and how big they would be — were shown to the public prior to Monday’s meeting. What we got was little more than a set of presentation slides showing various aspects of the project. It was from those that I was able to write last week’s post. But the distinct lack of detail meant that some small errors crept in. After watching Monday’s City Council meeting I made note of where I may have gotten things wrong, and notated last week’s blog post accordingly. Fortunately, the errors were relatively small. Plus, the project’s actual design isn’t fully finalized, and may differ from what we saw on Monday, so continue to take this design with a grain of salt. For now, though, I thought I should list the areas I got wrong:

  • Although I had correctly noted that the new design of the office building is six stories, rather than the previous seven, it turns out that the height of the building may not have changed. Apparently it will remain close to the DTPP maximum for this area, which is 92 feet.
  • Based on one of the renderings provided, I had assumed that the teen center, which as I noted is no longer a separate building but is now integrated into the office building, was still two stories tall. Based on the discussion with the City Council, however, the teen center may only be a single story now.
  • The new design has 3,000 square feet of retail (the earlier design had none) and, as I pointed out, the new design has a retail space where California Street meets Winklebeck Street. What I missed, however, is that the office building contains a second retail space, with the 3,000 square feet being divided between the two. This second space would be just down from the first, and would sit midway between Winklebeck Street and James Avenue.

These changes are, as I said, somewhat minor and are subject to change. But I want my “official” record to be as accurate as possible: from time-to-time I refer back to my blog posts, and want to make sure that they reflect the true state of things at the time they were written.

Moving on, a bit, this week I spent some time exploring 920 Shasta St., which is where the affordable housing component of the 901 El Camino Real project will likely be sited. While there I took some walks to truly determine just how walkable this new site is. The previous site, of course, was ideal: it was right up against the city’s Transit Center, and just one block from the Sequoia Station shopping center. While the new one isn’t nearly as convenient — what other site could be? — it is still a fairly easy walk from the site to Target (I measured 0.37 miles), and a longer, but still somewhat easy, walk to Costco (just over one-half mile). The Transit Center is farther than most will want to walk (on a regular basis, at least) but is a very easy bus ride away — and the bus stop out on El Camino Real is very easy to get to. Thus, I have to agree that this site deserves its walk score of 87 (“most errands can be accomplished on foot”).

The project’s site, shown above, is probably not the first place most would think of putting an affordable housing project, but except for a couple of small homeless encampments in the area, and their attendant accumulations of trash, the area is actually in good shape. The real count against it is the fact that it mostly consists of small light industrial buildings (there are some houses, too). But those buildings are for the most part neat and clean. Plus, changing out the mini storage that is on the site today for a five-story (four stories of housing above a ground-level garage “podium”) housing project is likely to have follow-on effects: other developers are likely to look at the area and propose more projects. Thus, if this project is built, I expect the whole area may ultimately benefit.

One hundred new affordable housing units (which is what this building would contain) is a big deal, and will be a nice addition to Redwood City’s housing stock. As the councilmembers discussed the project, I was fascinated to hear Diana Reddy (I believe it was her) suggest that the developer reduce the number of, or even completely eliminate, the four-bedroom units. In past meetings, when housing projects have come up for review, the council has at times suggested that the developer increase some of the unit sizes, giving the city more units that can comfortably accommodate families. Thus, when I hear someone wanting to reduce the number of really large units, I sit up and take notice. But Councilmember Reddy knows the need better than most (certainly, better than I) and pointed out that four-bedroom units, even subsidized as they would be, would still be quite expensive, and would require a relatively high level of earnings to qualify for.

For the curious among you, the 2021 income and rent limits for San Mateo County can be found here. Near the bottom is a note about the assumed family size for each unit; it states that a four-bedroom unit is presumed to hold six people. Although I don’t know what income levels would be assigned to which units, for example purposes assume that the four-bedroom units are tied to the Low income level. To qualify, the household, in total, cannot make more than the number listed in the column for six people, and the row with figures for Low income: $169,800. They can’t make more, but can make less. How much less? I believe that the household would need to make more than the next lower income category, or else they would qualify for that category instead, and have to choose from units that are designated for those in that income bracket. If that is correct, and that the HOME level is the one that would set the lower limit for our example, that means that our hypothetical household cannot make more than $169,800 but must make at least $127,201. Which is still a lot of money. In most parts of the country, if a family took in more than $127,201 each year, they would be considered very well off. Here, they are eligible for subsidized housing.

That’s what it would take to qualify. Then what would they pay? The rent on our hypothetical four-bedroom unit would be set no higher than 30% of the household’s total earnings. Suppose they take in $127,201, the lowest amount they could earn and still qualify. Their rent would be a little over $38,000 per year, or just about $3,180 per month. Which, if they really are earning $127,201 per year, is probably a reasonable (within the standards of the Bay Area, anyway) amount to pay for a four-bedroom apartment, but it is still a lot. And that is the crux of the argument against providing these units: practically no one would qualify for one, or could afford to rent it. Thus, why not eliminate the four-bedroom units, and instead have more three- and two-bedroom ones? Yes, they’re smaller, but they are easier to qualify for, easier to afford, and thus much more in demand.

The argument for eliminating some or all of the four-bedroom units seemed to resonate with the rest of the council, and it appeared to resonate to some degree with the developer as well. Thus, I expect that the configuration of the units in this particular building may change between now and when the project is formally submitted to the city, which is when we’ll likely get some idea of how the 100 (or more?) units will be sized and at what levels of affordability each will be aimed.

While the 901 El Camino Real project and its affordable housing component took up a big chunk of the City Council’s time at Monday’s meeting, it wasn’t the only affordable housing-related issue they dealt with that night. At that same meeting the Redwood City Council approved, via consent calendar, the separate affordable housing building that is to be part of the South Main Mixed-Use project. While the other office and housing components of this huge project still await the green light, the fact that this part of the project was approved signals that those are soon to come. Plus, I take this approval as a sign that this one building, at least, which is slated for 1304 El Camino Real (at the corner of Jackson Avenue; it used to be the site of Precision Tune Auto Care+), is soon to get underway.

The building will have 39 affordable apartments, nine of which will be one-bedroom units and 30 of which will be studios. The ground floor will contain a small parking garage with dedicated resident parking; stackers will be employed to squeeze in a small number of cars (only a lucky few will get parking; most residents will have to do without). The developer anticipates completion of this building by 2023.

As for affordability, one of the one-bedroom units will be set aside for the building’s manager. The remaining eight will be designated for those who qualify as Low income earners. Half of the studios will be for those at the Very Low income level, while the other half will be for those at the Extremely Low level (refer back to the chart I linked to earlier if you want to know what those equate to). All of these designations will be locked in for 55 years, so even as renters come and go, the affordability levels will remain.

During last Monday’s meeting, the city also agreed to purchase one of the condos at 1231 Warren Street. Some or all of the units in this rather attractive condominium complex, which sits kitty-corner from Mezes Park, are affordable, and the owner of one of those units is looking to sell.

Thanks to the conditions under which the owner purchased their unit, the city had first right of refusal, at a very attractive price (one that still should enable the unit owner to realize some profit). For this two-bedroom condo, which is deed-restricted until the year 2036 at the Moderate income level, the city is paying $374,780 plus around $14,400 in transaction and closing costs. The city will then turn around and sell the unit to a qualified buyer. Why all the machinations? This allows the buyer to sell quickly, while giving the yet-to-be selected buyer sufficient time to secure a first mortgage. It also gives the city time to market the unit and conduct a lottery to determine exactly who will be given the chance to buy this unit at what should be a very attractive price.

Those interested in this unit are advised to keep an eye on it — but be aware that the buyer must earn at the Moderate income level (which varies depending upon household size, as I noted earlier; see the income tables here).

Redwood City’s Council talks a lot about affordable housing, and I’m pleased to say that they are doing a lot more than just talk. We still have a huge problem in this city with a lack of housing at all income levels, and these efforts will only make a small dent in that problem. But a dent is not nothing. Plus, there are a number of other affordable housing units in projects that have either been approved or are in the pipeline, so these are just the beginning of what may well be a wave of new housing, both affordable and market-rate.

5 thoughts on “Affordable Living

  1. I don’t think I could ever say often enough how excellent Walking Redwood City is. I have learned so much about our ‘burg! Thank you!

    Sent from my iPhone

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  2. The townhomes on Harrison at Cleveland are priced from $1.65 million to $1.975 million, hardly affordable for most of us. I don’t know what was originally intended.

    I went through the four models. They are attractive. However, I don’t see how they are worth a million plus each. The bedroom floor has carpeting, not hardwood floors. The closets’ sizes are unimpressive, even for the master bedroom. The space for washer/dryer can only accommodate stacked appliances. Oh, by the way, the HOA fee is $415/month.

    On the plus side, they have a lot of light on all three floors. The balconies are large enough to actually be used.

  3. Speaking of affordable living, at one time, the housing planned for Harrison near Cleveland were supposed to be affordable. But it looks like they became market-rate instead. Did the plan change along the way, or did I misunderstand the plan?

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