Concerns raised about zoning issues as San Mateo approves housing plan

Months after the State Housing Authority deemed the town of San Mateo's housing plans “substantially compliant,” the City Council voted unanimously this week to approve the newest round of revisions before sending them back to supervisors for final approval.

The city is planning 10,000 recent housing units, about 40% greater than its regional housing goal of seven,000 units, with a good portion planned along the busy El Camino Real thoroughfare.

Every eight years, local governments must submit a housing element, a document that outlines how cities will add a certain variety of homes at different prices. The city's housing plan is already greater than a 12 months overdue.

The lack of a licensed housing element means a city could face consequences comparable to the developer's treatment, which allows developers to disregard a city's zoning rules so long as 20% of units are put aside as inexpensive.

In recent years, state regulators have scrutinized cities' housing plans more closely than ever before because the state grapples with rising housing costs and a housing shortage.

“I think it's a very strong document. You never know what's going to happen in the future, but we have a very good plan for the 7,015 units and a 40% buffer,” San Mateo Mayor Lisa Diaz Nash said of the recent revision. “While we can't tell developers where and how to build, we just have to show that it's doable.”

Some residents and community organizations expressed concerns because there are reportedly no rezoning plans and city-owned land or land earmarked for housing is already occupied. On Tuesday, housing group Housing Action Coalition sued San Mateo, saying the town couldn't realistically expect to construct on land it had earmarked for brand new housing.

“The housing element overestimates how much housing is being produced,” said Ali Sapirman, South Bay and Peninsula organizer for the Housing Action Coalition. “This includes websites that are unavailable because they are already being used for something else.”

Sapirman's organization called on the City Council to vote against the town's latest housing plan.

But Diaz Nash explained that the inclusion of land in existing buildings is because the town is “fully built out.”

“It’s reality,” Diaz Nash said. “For us, there are very few places we can go that aren’t already built.”

She explained that the town's location portfolio is always evolving.

“It’s not like this is the end of the matter,” Diaz Nash said. “We will continually review and monitor it. When something becomes a possible location or someone raises their hand and says they want to develop here, we add it to the map. If someone turns it into a commercial building, we will take it off the map.”

Responding to criticism that the plan maintains a “status quo” on zoning, Diaz Nash said she disagrees with that evaluation.

“I don’t know what they were trying to say, but the zoning will be changed for all ten study areas along El Camino, Bridgepointe, Hillsdale and along the Caltrain lines,” Diaz Nash said.

Later within the 12 months, the City Council is considering putting an amendment to Measure Y on the November ballot that might allow taller and denser projects to be built along Camino in hopes of integrating planned residential projects with transportation, business and office developments .

The mayor maintains her long-held position that tall buildings mustn’t be inbuilt single-family neighborhoods.

“I mean, we don’t want to put up 12-story buildings (in single-family zones),” Diaz Nash said. “It just means everyone will get in their car and there will be a lot more cars on the road.”

The city plans to submit the latest housing element by the tip of June and hopes to receive certification sometime in July.

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