Members of San Francisco Organizing Project-Peninsula Interfaith Action hold a prayer vigil outside San Mateo City Hall on Sept. 21. (Brendan Bartholomew/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Members of San Francisco Organizing Project-Peninsula Interfaith Action hold a prayer vigil outside San Mateo City Hall on Sept. 21. (Brendan Bartholomew/Special to S.F. Examiner)

San Mateo committee to tackle housing crisis

The San Mateo City Council has asked City Manager Larry Patterson to organize an ad-hoc committee to address the area’s housing crisis.

Patterson has not yet announced any appointments, but the committee is likely to include representatives of Realtor and landlord groups that have opposed tenant protections, plus representatives of activist groups that support rent control and protest evictions.

Real estate developers and private nonprofit housing groups are also likely to be represented on the committee.

While the committee will have no legislative power, it will make recommendations to the City Council.

Earlier this month, Councilman David Lim tabled his motion to enact an emergency just-cause eviction ordinance when it became clear he wouldn’t have enough votes to get the measure passed. Councilman Jack Matthews and Mayor Maureen Freschet were among those who claimed placing Lim’s urgency ordinance on the Monday meeting agenda might have interfered with the larger discussion of housing issues Freschet had planned.

At the time, Daniel Saver, housing attorney for Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto, lamented the delay, noting families would continue to be evicted while the town’s elected officials and private sector leaders held meetings on the topic.

The City Council does, however, appear to have some sense of urgency about the matter. Patterson explained he was tasked Monday with choosing the members of the housing committee because having him make those appointments would be faster than waiting two weeks for the council to make appointments at its next regular meeting.

Like the Sept. 8 council meeting, Monday’s meeting was packed with people who spoke passionately for or against expanding tenant protection laws.

The turnout Monday was even larger than it had been previously, with overflow crowds filling three auxiliary meeting rooms, where they watched testimony, which lasted well past midnight, on closed-circuit TV.

Prior to the meeting, members of the tenant rights group San Francisco Organizing Project-Peninsula Interfaith Action staged a prayer vigil outside San Mateo City Hall.

Saver is among the likely housing committee appointees. Also likely to be appointed is San Mateo County Association of Realtors (SAMCAR) CEO Steve Blanton. A staunch foe of rent control who played a key role in squashing Lim’s just-cause eviction ordinance, Blanton might be seen as a natural opponent of housing activists like Saver.

Blanton, however, claims that protecting the property rights of housing investors can be compatible with the goal of providing affordable housing.

“I’d put us in the category of housing activists also,” Blanton said.

Removing red tape from laws governing homebuilding so more inventory can be built at lower costs would be one way of addressing the area’s supply-and-demand imbalance, Blanton noted, and another crucial step would be relaxing height and density limits.

Rick Bonilla was the only other council member who might have supported Lim’s just-cause ordinance if it had survived long enough to be voted on. His willingness to consider supporting the measure earned him some animosity from SAMCAR members.

But when it comes to freeing developers from the height and density restrictions currently limiting San Mateo’s housing inventory, Blanton might have an ally in Bonilla, who says taller, denser developments could help make housing more affordable in San Mateo.

One obstacle is Measure P, an ordinance enacted by voters in 2004 that limits building heights to 55 to 75 feet, depending on the neighborhood. The measure sunsets in 2020, and the council is prohibited from amending it without voter approval.

Asked whether it might be possible to ease height restrictions prior to 2020, Bonilla said, “That is something that is going to take some artful maneuvering, and we may not be able to do it.”

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