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Apartments near Facebook HQ to feed deep need

Parts of the Silicon Valley may feel like a company town, but Facebook's backing of an apartment complex near its headquarters will barely make a dent in the region's deep need for affordable housing, or in this case, remotely reasonable rentals.

"There's a major jobs-housing imbalance in that area," Ardie Zahedani, a vice president for the developer St. Anton Partners, told the city of Menlo Park Planning Commission on Oct. 7.

"You're lucky to find a garage close by," he said.

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And while the 393-unit complex, called Anton Menlo, has space for a pet spa, coffee shop, gym, pool and concierge center, it's far from a glamorous location and only has permission to build there because it fulfills a part of Menlo Park's state-mandated requirement to add affordable housing.

In this case, it means allowing high-density housing next to a former dump in a heavily industrial area prone to flooding. Menlo Park's housing stock is so skewed that the 53 rent-restricted units in this project will be available to low-income households, which in San Mateo County means a household of four persons earning less than $82,400 per year.

Normally the lot would not be suited for housing, for reasons made clear by Steven Bitler, who told the commission he works at Landec next door to the site. "Every year, the streets in that area flood," he said. "We send people home early on the days we know it's going to flood so they are able to drive their car out."

And there's another problem. "It's odor that comes from the landfill at the end of Marsh Road," he said.

Those issues are unlikely to derail the project, which awaits only a final approval from the community development director, which is likely to happen soon and allow the project to accept residents within two years.

The street flooding has been a long-term problem and will be worked out with the adjacent city and county jurisdictions, said Deanna Chow, a senior planner for the city assigned to the project. She said the project itself will be built higher to avoid flooding.

And as for the smell, she told CNBC, it may actually be coming from the nearby salt marshes, since the landfill is now covered over and has been converted into Bedwell Bayfront Park.

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The new apartment complex will cover 9.69 acres and include 35 studios, 208 one-bedrooms, 139 two-bedrooms and 12 three-bedroom residences. The developer, St. Anton, is based in Northern California and builds and operates more than 6,500 apartments in the state.

When Facebook obtained permission to build its headquarters in Menlo Park, it was with a stipulation that it help build 15 affordable housing units or pay the city a $4.5 million fee that could be used toward other affordable housing efforts.

By coming to an agreement with St. Anton for those 15 units, the company now has a large complex located less than two miles from the headquarters via a bike path.

Facebook has about 5,200 employees, with about half working at the headquarters, a company spokesperson told CNBC. Many drive to work, but there are also free company shuttles that fan out over the Bay Area as well as Caltrain passes for some workers.

While the nearby Anton Menlo project will help, it will be open to anyone who can afford to live there, not just Facebook employees.

Asked by the Menlo Park Planning Commission how much the units will rent for, Zahedani said it was extremely difficult to find any units nearby to determine the market rate. "There aren't any apartments around that have been built in the last 20 years in Menlo Park," he said.

In an email to CNBC, Zahedani talked pricing: "We're creating a new highly amenitized community in an area without housing, so it's difficult to gauge future rents since there are no comparables. Older projects in nearby cities are getting in the high $2.75-per-foot range."

If that range holds, the market-rate Anton Menlo apartments near the Facebook headquarters would rent for $1,548 for a studio; $1,812 to $2,414 for a one bedroom; $2,571 to $3,418 for a two bedroom; and $4,259 for a three bedroom.

For comparison, the median sale price for a single-family home in the county was $960,000 as of June, according to the county of San Mateo Department of Housing & Community Development.

Facebook's action was applauded by Richard Marcantonio, the managing attorney at Public Advocates, which took part in a suit to compel Menlo Park to comply with state affordable housing laws.

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However, much more needs to be done, he said.

"It's a problem at multiple levels. It's a problem for the economy because businesses can't hire the workers they need when those workers can't afford housing," Marcantonio told CNBC. "Unfortunately we're in an economy where job growth is mostly at the bottom of the income distribution level. It's more important today than it even might have been in the past."

For Menlo Park, its Housing Element now requires space to build 1,975 affordable units by 2014 and 655 more by 2023, Chow told CNBC. And although a lawsuit hastened Menlo Park's compliance with the state law, dozens of other cities are still scrambling across California.

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"As housing supply shrinks in high employment areas, the funding gap for low-income units increases, thus becoming difficult to fill," Zahedani said in an email. "Creative partnerships, like St. Anton's with Facebook, are part of the solution. Facebook's financial contribution to Anton Menlo creates 15 new low-income units that'll have restricted rents for 55 years. California's affordable housing programs are largely unfunded now, so it takes creativity to have an affordable component in market rate communities."

Image credit: KTGY Group, Architecture Planning.

—By CNBC's Amy Langfield. Follow her on Twitter: @AmyLangfield.