U.S. Rep Jackie Speier is urging Caltrain officials to adopt a land use policy that prioritizes affordable and workforce housing on the railroad’s underused property. 

“Generally speaking, I believe that public lands should be used to create as much affordable housing as possible given all constraints on the agency,” Speier, D-San Mateo, wrote in a letter to the Caltrain board of directors last week. “I am writing to ask that the board consider ways in which Caltrain’s financial goals can be met while also significantly including housing for low-income residents.” 

In the letter, she specifically called for a “public agency/nonprofit-first policy in which a collaboration is sought across many jurisdictions, and potentially with nonprofits, to determine if a joint development is possible.” 

And Speier wants that development to include workforce housing for first responders and teachers as well as deeply affordable housing.

“For example, a concentration of police officers located in one or two communities along the rail line could serve every agency from San Francisco through to San Jose,” she wrote. “Such development might also, via cross-subsidy and housing vouchers, include a large component of very-low-income households that would create a vibrant community for everyone concerned.”

Caltrain’s San Mateo County board members were more than receptive to the request and will be discussing and potentially adopting a land use policy, also known as the rail corridor use policy, during the board’s regular January meeting. 

For more than a year, Caltrain staff have been taking stock of the railroad’s land and have identified two “high potential opportunity sites,” including 1.7 acres around the Redwood City station and 3.1 acres around the Mountain View one for a total of 4.8 acres. Staff also found seven additional sites roughly 1.5 acres in size that “could potentially be candidates for development,” but have challenges, including being irregularly shaped. 

Most of Caltrain’s property must be used for operations and future capital projects as the railroad has significant expansion plans over the next 20 years, starting with electrification slated to be complete in 2022, according to staff. 

Board Member Charles Stone, also a Belmont councilman, said he shares Speier’s vision, but reiterated staff’s findings that very little agency land is feasible for residential development and much of it is needed for the railroad’s expansion.  

“I’m pleased to see Congresswoman Speier prioritizes the type of affordable housing that we want and need in the county,” Stone said. “At the end of the day, I don’t think there’s going to be as much Caltrain land available for development as many would hope, but to the extent public entities are going to build housing they really need to focus on truly affordable housing.” 

Stone was intrigued by Speier’s public agency/nonprofit first policy proposal and said he’d support a Caltrain land use policy that requires more than 20% of units in residential projects on agency land to be affordable.

Board Member Ron Collins, also San Carlos mayor, echoed Stone’s perspective and said a 15% affordable housing requirement should be the “minimum” while he’d be more comfortable with a 20% requirement.

“I’d be more comfortable with at least 20%, but it’s all dependent on economics,” he said, adding that deeply affordable rental units are what’s needed most. “Can we get nonprofit developers to help us? Will nonprofit and for-profit developers work together to build what we need? It’s not an easy task, but it’s a goal worth working toward.” 

Both also felt workforce housing would be an appropriate use of Caltrain land.

“All public entities should be looking at ways to make it easier for first responders to live closer to where they work,” Stone said. “The last thing we want is for a majority of fire and police personnel to live across bridges when there’s a true catastrophe.”

Board Member Dave Pine, also a San Mateo County supervisor, said mixed-use development that includes affordable housing could be an appropriate use of Caltrain land, but only if the agency is sure that land isn’t needed for expansion of the railroad. 

“To my mind the first priority is to provide frequent and reliable service and execute the Business Plan vision to triple ridership,” he said. “So the first priority is to understand what properties we need to expand service. With that being completed, we’re in a better position to look at opportunities for affordable housing.”

Pine also said at minimum the policy should include a 15% to 20% affordable housing requirement and said he’d like to see housing for SamTrans bus operators on surplus Caltrain land.

“We have this terrible shortage of bus operators so to the extent we can provide workforce housing and have a competitive advantage for bus operators that’d be a win-win.”

Collins said most of the Caltrain board shares Speier’s vision for agency land, but board members offered somewhat differing perspectives when they broached the topic last year. Some board members called for mixed-use development on Caltrain land, others stressed the need for all types of housing and not just affordable units, while one board member suggested Caltrain land might not be an appropriate location for affordable housing because low-income residents can’t afford to ride the train. Some board members also suggested that only so many affordable units can be built on Caltrain land without compromising the financial sustainability of the agency.  

Caltrain is currently wrapping up construction of a high-density housing development around the San Carlos station and another development at the Hayward Park station is in the beginning stages. The San Carlos Transit Village development includes 10% affordable units while the Hayward Park development includes 16 very-low-income units for those making less than 50% of the area median income and 12 moderate income apartments for those making less than 120% of the area median income.

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