Wealthy towns have a rich playbook for preserving the status quo around housing. But it’s starting to backfire.

Pam Silvaroli comments on plans for multifamily zoning along El Camino Real at an Atherton City Council meeting Jan. 31. (Photo by Magali Gauthier)

Residents in cities and towns across the Peninsula have been, depending on who you ask, either embarrassing themselves with exclusionary tactics against the threat of new neighbors, or fighting the good fight against state overreach. 

One big reason why discussions about the region’s housing shortage have been so fierce of late is because the state has assigned each community across California a certain number of homes to plan for between now and 2031, and each Bay Area community was required to have those plans approved by the end of January – but so far, Redwood City is the only one on the Peninsula to have met that deadline. While the state’s mandates and enforcement related to these eight-year cycles of home-planning assignments (called “RHNA,” short for “Regional Housing Needs Allocation”) have been more lax in previous rounds, the state is warning cities to be compliant amid increasing pressure to address the widespread housing shortage. 

Based on those assignments, cities have had to review their codes to see where they should change zoning to accommodate the new homes and submit those proposals to the state for approval. Those new zoning changes don’t necessarily mean that the new homes each city is planning for will get built, just that it is possible for developers to build them. That process has been playing out for much of the past year, and Peninsula communities – home to some of the most wealthy zip codes in the U.S. – have been some of the most creative when it comes to looking for loopholes to avoid making changes. Otherwise quiet enclaves have been going on the defensive and drawing record crowds to public meetings.

But now that the January deadline for having plans approved by the state has passed, noncompliant cities are now subject to what’s called the “Builder’s Remedy” – a penalty that essentially permits developers to build affordable housing that doesn’t meet a city’s zoning codes and general plan so long as it meets some very basic requirements. For instance, it must provide housing to low, very-low or moderate-income households, comply with the California Environmental Quality Act, and be in an area with enough water and sewage facilities to accommodate it, among other conditions.

Mountain View and Los Altos Hills are already talking about receiving development applications under these new rules, San Francisco Business Times reports, and more are likely on the way. 

Here are five of the most unique approaches that residents and politicians in Peninsula communities have taken to push back against adding new homes within city limits.

Atherton residents and public officials look at a map of the town of Atherton at a community meeting to discuss the state’s housing requirements in Jennings Pavilion at Holbrook-Palmer Park in Atherton on April 26, 2022. (Photo by Magali Gauthier)

Atherton: Multimillionaires’ ‘poverty pockets’ 

In Atherton, which remains the most expensive zip code in the U.S. with a median home price of $9 million, many residents have not been thrilled by the prospect of having to plan for hundreds of new homes in their town. Several high-profile residents, including Marc Andreessen and Steph and Ayesha Curry, have written to the city council in recent months expressing their reservations about new housing near their homes. 

Last month, a cohort of Atherton residents showed up at a council meeting wearing matching red T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan #Not Going Anywhere and voiced their concerns that too much of the planned zoning increases in Atherton would be happening along El Camino Real, where residents feel like they’re already looked down upon as the town’s “poverty pocket.” (Their homes are only worth an average of $3.5 million.) One resident went so far as to accuse the town of trying to create a “Redwood City extension.” 

As of Feb. 1, the town council appears to have backtracked on most of its plans for multifamily housing within the town’s boundaries, voting to cut higher-density zones on El Camino Real and Valparaiso Avenue and pushing to have the bulk of the new assigned units be built as backyard granny units. These ADUs (accessory dwelling units) are notoriously difficult to verify as sources of affordable housing because they’re tucked behind private properties and can easily be used instead for home offices or vacation rentals.

San Mateo Mayor Amourence Lee pulls a name out of an envelope bearing the name of an applicant for the council’s open fifth seat at the San Mateo City Council’s Dec. 12, 2022 meeting. She alleges that people asked her to vote for that person in exchange for being able to become mayor. (Photo via YouTube)

San Mateo: Vote-trading allegations

In San Mateo, the county’s most populous city, tensions over housing drama were recently heightened when two new City Council members refused to appoint Councilwoman Amourence Lee as mayor before selecting a fifth City Council member (there was an open seat due to the departure of Diane Papan for the state Assembly.) Over the course of three public meetings spanning close to 15 hours, newcomers Lisa Diaz Nash and Rob Newsom (Gov. Gavin Newsom’s second cousin) refused to appoint Lee as mayor — subverting the agenda and 128 years of procedural precedent — in part because Lee would then have had tie-breaking power to select the fifth council member. 

Instead, the meetings remained at a deadlock until a majority of the council members eventually appointed Rich Hedges to the fifth seat and then Lee to the mayor’s seat. Lee revealed that she had been approached earlier that week asking her to trade her vote for a different candidate in exchange for being appointed mayor. The matter is currently under investigation by the San Mateo County District Attorney’s Office.  

“I have not seen anything like this in San Mateo County over the last 46 years,” says District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe. 

While Nash defends her decision to push for the selection of the fifth council member first, saying she felt it was important “so that each would have an equal say in selecting the mayor,” she says, housing advocates see the incident differently. 

“This was a power play – a pretty nakedly transparent one by the conservative bloc on the council – and it failed,” says Jordan Grimes, political director of Peninsula Young Democrats. “They saw a chance for themselves to prevent a more progressive council and they took it, regardless of precedent.” 

There are significant political stakes to what’s happening over the next year in San Mateo – the city is updating its zoning plans, including for housing, and the council’s political differences are mainly tied to their opinions about housing policy, he says. In their campaign materials, Diaz Nash and Newsom don’t say they’re against housing, but use traditional talking points from “slow growth” political camps, saying they support the expansion of workforce housing “while protecting our unique community character” (Diaz Nash) and “while protecting the character of the city” (Newsom). In contrast, Lee’s position on housing, according to her website, is that “San Mateans need better and more affordable housing options of all types for our seniors, families, workforce and for our young people.”

“This is largely about housing,” Grimes says. “There’s some other issues – building electrification…transportation-related stuff…but for the most part it really does come down to housing.” 

A shopper at Fry’s Electronics heads into the electronics store at 340 Portage Ave. in the building which was once used for canning and is now considered a historic building in Palo Alto. (Photo by Veronica Weber)

Palo Alto: A ‘historic’ warehouse 

In Palo Alto, there’s an ongoing debate over whether Sobrato, a developer proposing to redevelop part of the former Fry’s Electronics warehouse, which was once a fruit cannery, should be allowed to build the 74 townhomes proposed there given the historic legacy of the cannery. 

The developer plans to honor the history of the cannery, but also proposes to demolish 40% of the less historic part to make room for the townhomes, according to the Palo Alto Weekly

The cannery was constructed under Thomas Foon Chew, an immigrant from China, who built it as the Bayside Canning Company in 1918. It grew into the third-largest fruit and vegetable cannery in the world by 1920, and Chew had become the richest Chinese American in California by the time he died in 1931.

While the city is debating the best way to honor the former cannery with plaques, public art and preservation of the building’s key features, local housing advocates see the effort as a wasted opportunity. Palo Alto‘s current housing plans envision more than 200 housing units at the former Fry’s site. By choosing to preserve the building over replacing it with housing, those plans are now effectively canned.

Hillsborough: The developmentally disabled community loophole

A resident of the wealthy enclave of Hillsborough is encouraging the town to build an affordable housing community for developmentally disabled adults, according to SFGATE. In a public meeting comment, he suggested building low-income housing for this population was a better alternative than building housing for neurotypical lower-income residents because developmentally disabled people “don’t commit crimes, they don’t bring drugs, they don’t bring trouble. They don’t bring all the lunatic stuff that goes along with it.” They also can’t drive, the commenter said, “so you don’t have a whole bunch of extra cars and God knows what.”  

The next day, Woodside Councilman Dick Brown proposed something similar in Woodside, arguing that such a facility “will not have much impact on the surrounding community because they are very quiet, crime-free, they generate almost no traffic because almost none of them drive, and they are closely supervised 24/7,” according to SFGATE. 

Michelle Uzeta, senior counsel at Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund, called the comments such as those made in Hillsborough and Woodside “disturbing, infantilizing, and illustrative of the NIMBY attitudes that are pervasive throughout the state” in an email to SFGATE.

In San Mateo County, the income limit for qualifying for affordable housing as a “low-income” household was about $149,000 for a family of four in 2022. 

In early 2022, Woodside put an indefinite hold on all housing projects under California’s new split-lot law, citing a clause that exempts building in a mountain lion habitat. (Embarcadero Media file photo)

Woodside: Backing away from the mountain lion defense 

The town of Woodside last year made national headlines when it declared itself a mountain lion habitat that was therefore unable to permit duplexes. As one of the most brazen (and short-lived) attempts to skirt new housing laws, the matter received the “Avocado of the Year” award on CalMatters’ housing podcast “Gimme Shelter” for being the most outlandish housing news story of the year.

Earlier this month, the town council decided to send its housing plans to the state without approving them, proposing to add the majority of the mandated new homes as housing at Cañada College and as backyard granny units. “If there’s a town or a city with a target on its back, it’s us,” council member Ned Fluet said. At that meeting, resident Rob Hollister asked the council to include all town-owned sites in the plan in an about-face from some of the community’s anti-growth tactics. The town council instead opted to curb the amount of potential housing it would permit on two town-owned sites. 

“Let’s be clear,” Hollister said, “Building these for very low- and low-income homes of this sort in Woodside will be for families making $80,000 to $150,000 a year,” he said. “They’re not drug dealers. They’re not gang members. This isn’t rental housing. They’re teachers, they’re retail workers, they’re nurses. Let’s let some buy homes in our town.”

Kate Bradshaw

Kate Bradshaw

Kate Bradshaw reports food news and feature stories all over the Peninsula, from south of San Francisco to north of San José. Since she began working with Embarcadero Media in 2015, she's reported on everything from Menlo Park's City Hall politics to Mountain View's education system. She has won awards from the California News Publishers Association for her coverage of local government, elections and land use reporting.

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