State law trips up affordable-housing efforts

A state law designed to encourage below-market-rate housing is being used to add density to projects and neighborhoods in San Mateo while bypassing the city’s own affordable-housing law.

In the most recent case, California’s Density Bonus Law allowed developer Tim O’Riordan to turn the Tilton Apartments — a 38-unit condominium complex on three-fourths of an acre under city zoning codes — into a 51-unit project by providing four homes targeted at very-low-income residents. According to the Housing Leadership Council of San Mateo County, very-low-income residents can afford at most a $245,000 home.

The four units, however, are less than what is required under San Mateo’s own housing ordinance, which states that 10 percent of a project — five units in this case — must be below the market rate.

O’Riordan said he expects the market-rate homes — including the 13 extra he earned — to sell for at least $500,000 each.

The discrepancy occurs because the city ordinance is trumped by the state’s law, which allows up to 33 percent more units than would be allowed under local zoning as a “reward” for building very-low-income housing.

“When someone comes up with the density bonus, the developer gets all the benefits and the city gets squat,” Planning Commission member Robert Gooyer said at Tuesday’s commission study session on the project.

Mayor Jack Matthews, who owns the architectural firm designing the project, said the state law — which may benefit cities without housing ordinances like San Mateo’s — actually hurts the city by undercutting its efforts to increase affordable housing.

“Basically what the state is doing is overriding local government and saying that they want more affordable housingand the way to get it is to pass a statewide law,” Matthews said. “On the whole, I object to the state dictating to local government how they should zone property.”

O’Riordan, a San Mateo resident who said he is very concerned about the city’s low supply of affordable housing, said this project will help the city by providing housing for residents below the moderate-income level that the state requires.

And while no new affordable homes will be provided in the 13 additional units granted by the state, Housing Leadership Council Executive Director Chris Mohr said the addition of single-family homes to San Mateo will help the city’s overall need for housing of all types.

“Developers need to make every effort to do as much as they can to provide affordable homes, but adding to the supply of homes to the market is part of what we need,” he said.

jgoldman@examiner.com

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