Moss Beach Residents Resist New Affordable Housing

Moss Beach Residents Resist New Affordable Housing

An empty lot in a sleepy beach town of 800 may not seem like a place where debates over urban growth might ignite. But in Moss Beach, an unincorporated hamlet on the western edge of San Mateo County, neighbors are clashing with a nonprofit developer over density and traffic congestion on a site once known to skateboarders as “Moss Beach Ruins.”

Site of proposed new construction, 1 Sierra Street

Site of proposed new construction, 1 Sierra Street

Why here, and why now?

San Mateo County has long seen the writing on the wall: sandwiched between wealthy Silicon Valley enclaves in Santa Clara County to the south, and the booming real estate hotbed in San Francisco to the north, rents and home prices have skyrocketed. San Mateo is estimated to need an additional 75,000 units in the next ten years to keep up with job and population growth. At its current rate of housing construction, San Mateo would face a shortage of up to 49,000 homes.

Enter Mid-Peninsula Housing, a nonprofit organization working to provide affordable housing to medium- and low-income households in one of the most expensive regions in the world. In January, the Foster City-based developer announced it would be purchasing the land at 1 Sierra Street, a former naval barracks, which the California School Employees Association had just recently begun offering for $4.9 million.

The site had been approved for 148 housing units, but will instead see 80 units and nearly twice as many parking spaces. MidPen plans to reserve all units for households making between 30-60% of the Area Median Income.

Many current residents remain unenthused. Neighborhood backlash has coalesced under the official banner of Resist Density, an advocacy group opposed to increased density in Half Moon Bay and surrounding areas (Moss Beach lies 7 miles north of Half Moon Bay). They did not respond to requests for comment.

Resist Density has organized specifically to oppose this project on the grounds that its distance from transit and commercial centers will increase the area’s already-onerous traffic congestion. At the most recent community meeting on Jully 11th, this opposition to density took an interesting turn into irony. Some residents complained that 145 parking spaces planned for the 80-unit development was not enough, because some nearby houses already had 4 cars parked there due to homeowners renting out spare rooms.

Given that the surrounding neighborhoods are already adding density without new construction, some attendees found it odd that residents would oppose a development that matched the current density of the area.

San Francisco housing activist Brian Hanlon, who does not own a car, hitched a ride with a friend to attend the meeting, where he reported one woman demanding “something for our animals,” not subsidized housing for those lacking “pride of ownership.”

Residents meet with MidPen representatives on July 11th (courtesy: Brian Hanlon)

Residents meet with MidPen representatives on July 11th (courtesy: Brian Hanlon)

In a brief phone interview, MidPen Director Felix AuYeung spoke of a dedicated, complex process to build trust with the neighbors in Moss Beach. After first meeting with the California Coastal Commission in February, MidPen held its first open house on the site in March. AuYeung also noted that some residents had taken the time to drive to other sites MidPen has developed, which he hopes will help ameliorate the image of a “scary developer.” He added, “hopefully people will see that we are in fact a mission-driven nonprofit” that only builds permanently affordable housing.

Despite this progress, the area faces significant hurdles in overcoming traffic congestion, and increasing density may initially seem like more of a burden than a boon to a car-dependent community. AuYeung noted that residents are frustrated with the “daunting” traffic situation. “Ideally,” he said, “when we’re building in an urban environment, of course we would prefer something central and transit-oriented.”

However, the developer encountered other mitigating issues, namely zoning. There were very few areas in San Mateo County available to MidPen zoned for multi-family housing, and this parcel in Moss Beach is one of them. The parcel is also included in San Mateo County’s inventory of underutilized sites under the county’s Housing Element.

The original owner has held the property, essentially vacant, since 1969. “This is the first opportunity we’ve had to really develop this site for its intended purpose,” AuYeung said, “which is multifamily housing.” He estimated that if all goes well, construction could begin in 2019 and finish in 2020.

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