Residents in cities and towns across the Peninsula have been — depending on who you ask — either using outrageous exclusionary tactics to stop 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 set a Jan. 31 deadline for each community in California to submit plans showing how they will add a specific number of mandated housing units between now and 2031.
Redwood City was the only one on the Peninsula to have met that deadline.
While the state issues new mandates (called "RHNA," short for "Regional Housing Needs Allocation") every eight years, there has been more pressure this time around for cities to be compliant amid the growing need to address the widespread housing shortage.
The process requires cities to review their codes to determine how to change zoning to accommodate the latest cycle of housing goals 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 played out for much of the past year, and Peninsula communities have been some of the most creative when it comes to looking for loopholes to avoid making changes.
But now that the January deadline for having plans approved by the state has passed, any non-compliant cities are 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, a project 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, who had not submitted their housing elements by deadline, reportedly have already seen development applications come through under the Builder's Remedy law, San Francisco Business Times reported, and Palo Alto saw its first application come through at the end of March.
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.
No. 1 — 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 venture capitalist Marc Andreessen and Golden State Warriors guard Steph Curry and his wife, Ayesha, have written to the city council in recent months expressing their reservations about new housing near their homes.
A cohort of Atherton residents showed up at a January 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."
On Feb. 1, the town council 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.
No. 2 — San Mateo: Vote-trading allegations
In San Mateo, the county's most populous city, tensions over housing drama were heightened when two new City Council members refused to appoint Councilwoman Amourence Lee, a vocal affordable housing advocate, 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.
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 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," District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe said.
While Nash defended 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 said, 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," Jordan Grimes, political director of Peninsula Young Democrats, said.
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."
No. 3 — Palo Alto: A 'historic' warehouse
In Palo Alto, there's ongoing debate over whether Sobrato, a developer proposing to redevelop part of the former Fry's Electronics retail site, 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.
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.
No. 4 — Hillsborough: The developmentally disabled community loophole
Prior to the state's Jan. 31 deadline, a resident of the wealthy enclave of Hillsborough was 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, he said, "so you don't have a whole bunch of extra cars and God knows what."
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.
No. 5 — 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.
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."