Local governments are kicking off their housing element planning processes, with most facing significant increases in the number of units they're required to designate for development. It's prompting pushback from some residents and town officials, who object to changes to the "rural character" of their towns and fear that building more homes could increase wildfire risk in a region that is already at a heightened risk for fires.
Atherton's 2023-31 Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA) numbers require a 274% increase in the number of units it must plan for from the 2014-22 cycle to meet housing demand. Woodside's RHNA numbers are jumping 429% from last cycle. Portola Valley's numbers are "significantly higher than last cycle," an increase of 295%, according to an April 28 report prepared by town staff. Towns do not need to build the housing themselves, but do need to put in place the necessary zoning rules so that private developers can.
San Mateo County is confronting a housing shortage. Since 2010, just 10,000 homes have been built, while 100,000 jobs have been created. Many residents are spending more than 30% of their income on housing, said Brandi Campbell Wood, a senior planner with Baird + Driskell Community Planning, during an April 14 talk on housing needs on the Peninsula. There are six low-wage jobs (making less than $20 per hour) for every affordable home ($1,500 a month for rent) in the county.
Both the Atherton and Woodside councils recently adopted resolutions stating they "feel strongly" that state housing legislation deprives towns of their abilities to meet the needs of their communities. (Woodside's declaration passed with a 4-3 vote on Tuesday, May 11. Mayor Brian Dombkowski, Mayor Pro Tem Dick Brown, John Carvell and Chris Shaw voted for it. Council members Ned Fluet, Jenn Wall and Sean Scott voted against it. Scott supported the resolution, but wanted to amend it slightly to talk about housing fitting into the town's broader strategy to maintain local control.)
These increased RHNA targets come as towns are hyperaware of new state legislation that could further affect development within their borders.
Two bills of concern to Atherton officials are Senate Bill 9 and Assembly Bill 1401. SB 9 would allow homeowners to put a duplex on single-family lots with ministerial approval, which means that a city must approve this type of proposal if it meets a set of fixed standards. AB 1401 would prohibit a local government from imposing a minimum car parking requirement on residential, commercial or other types of development if the development is located on a parcel that is within a half-mile of public transit.
"One of the frustrations, even if you do all this planning, is bills like this will affect the community whether you have a (housing) plan the state has certified or not," Dan Carigg, a consultant with the firm Renne Public Policy Group (RPPG), told the Atherton City Council and Planning Commission during a study session on April 28. "Why should some of these bills ... go in and micromanage your community?"
State policies have shifted in recent years because of the "narrative that single-family zoning is directly tied to redlining" — the discriminatory practice of banks refusing home loans to people because they lived in an area deemed to be a poor financial risk, instead making loans to segregated, "racially harmonious" communities, RPPG told the town.
RHNA increases on the Peninsula
Peninsula cities and towns are part of the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG), which has been assigned 441,000 housing units by the California Department of Housing and Community Development this cycle. They must adopt their updated housing elements by January 2023.
Atherton is required to plan for the development of 348 new housing units compared to just 93 during the 2014-22 cycle. Some 74 would need to be very low-income housing, 43 low income, 51 moderate income and 130 for above moderate income, according to a report prepared by town staff.
Portola Valley's estimated RHNA totals 253 units: 73 units for very low-income residents; 42 for low income; 39 for moderate income; and 99 for above moderate-income residents. This is compared to just 64 units last cycle.
In years past, cities could trade or transfer units to nearby cities, but that is no longer allowed, Portola Valley Mayor Maryann Derwin said during an April 28 Town Council meeting.
"Everyone is facing such enormous numbers," she said. "That's why this time we're not all working together."
Woodside's RHNA target is jumping from 62 to 328 units. Of those, 90 are designated for very low-income residents; 52 are for low-income residents; 52 are for moderate income; and 134 are for above moderate income.
Jackie Young, Woodside's planning director, said that it "appears to be a very large increase, but it is less than 1% of the total county allocation" of around 48,000 units.
Jordan Grimes of San Mateo, who started Peninsula for Everyone, a housing advocacy group, acknowledges that the latest RHNA numbers are large, but said in past cycles many cities on the Peninsula were spared from fulfilling their true housing needs.
"In the planning process it was de rigueur to allow those cities not to grow because they didn't want to," he said. "All of these cities have schools, which have teachers and janitors and staff, none of whom can afford to live in them."
Fears and pushback
Because of recent state legislation, cities now concurrently update their safety elements which are part of their general plans at the same time as the eight-year housing element cycle.
Rusty Day of Portola Valley said he wants to "preserve the values of Portola Valley," which he said include providing affordable housing for people who work in town and maintaining its "open, rural character."
"We have to come to grips with the reality we have to do that in the context of safety," he said. "What has the town done to inquire about the very high fire zone in Portola Valley? Where are you going to do that (designate housing) safely in your town?"
Portola Valley officials warned of the consequences of not updating their housing element with the number of units the state allocated to the town. The town would face lawsuits from the state, suspension of routine permitting authority, and loss of state funding and grants, said Planning and Building Director Laura Russell.
Fines for trying to sideline housing element allocations can range from $10,000 to $600,000 per month, consultants told Atherton officials.
Portola Valley resident David Cardinal said residents can "whine" all they want about the numbers, but that as one of the "richest and most innovative towns" in the world it should be able to figure out a way to plan for these units in a safe way. Former Mayor Jon Silver said the town would be "the laughingstock of the state" if it tries to fight the RHNA numbers.
Town Attorney Cara Silver said there has been some discussion statewide about whether RHNA numbers should be revised given potential changes in housing needs because with less traffic and fewer people commuting due to the pandemic there is less of a need to create housing for more people to live locally. She still cautioned that past attempts to "fight the state" through lawsuits have been fruitless.
Dombkowski of Woodside said his town faces a number of unique challenges, not the least of which is "preservation of our unique rural community, safeguarding our open spaces, extreme fire risk, limited infrastructure (two thirds of the town is on septic systems, according to Young) and an entire ecosystem established around single family homes."
"There are a number of bills that are now under consideration, including SB 9 and SB 10, that if they pass, would dramatically change the nature of the town, and increase the density of our population despite the extreme fire risks we face and our limited infrastructure to support it," he said in an email. "It would be a developer's dream and a citizen's nightmare in my opinion. There is no perfect advocacy group for Woodside because it is an incredibly unique community. But in my view, we can't let perfect be the enemy of good."
Despite the opposition from some residents to build more housing on the Peninsula, others are more enthusiastic about the potential growth.
Grimes of Peninsula For Everyone questions what residents mean when they say they want preserve their towns' characters.
"What is character? Is the character of your community more about buildings and physical surroundings, or is it about the people who inhabit your buildings?" he said. "The true definition is having a wide range of people from a wide range of racial and socioeconomic backgrounds."
Grimes said he's heard comments about maintaining the "rural charm" of Peninsula communities, but he doesn't believe these communities are actually rural.
"Portola Valley is (about) 30 miles from San Francisco. Atherton is in the heart of Silicon Valley and borders Menlo Park," he said. "When you're in a major metropolitan area what comes with it is population growth. They mostly started off as country estates to wealthy San Franciscans and there is still an air of that attitude." He believes residents want to keep their town's exclusivity and "de facto" gated communities.
Menlo Park resident Cynthia Harris said she's worried about the Bay Area's ever-expanding housing crisis that is leading to homelessness in the area. She attended recent county workshops on local RHNA targets.
"All our cities have room for improvement," she said. "Preserving the 'village character' feels a little coded to me. We do have a big history of segregation in our area; (in this country); it's something we all need to reckon with."
When pressed, she noted that it doesn't seem right for towns such as Atherton to feel exempt from needing to plan for new housing stock.
"Not only are many Atherton residents working next door (to cities with businesses), but many people living there (in Atherton) have been the job creators of successful companies that employ a lot of people in this area."
Emphasis on ADUs, rezoning and relaxing rules
In 2019, the California Legislature passed several new bills aimed at increasing the production of housing by relaxing the regulations for accessory dwelling units (ADUs), sometimes referred to as in-law units or granny flats. These bills require local agencies to permit up to one ADU and one junior ADU (a unit that is no more than 500 square feet) per lot.
All three towns are leaning into encouraging residents to build ADUs to help fill the required number of RHNA units.
In 2020, Woodside relaxed development standards in the Glens neighborhood to make it easier to build there. The council may also relax development standards in the Southern Western Hills area of Woodside "a very wooded area" close to Skyline Boulevard, which could be challenging to develop, said Young of Woodside. It includes 250 parcels on 7.5-acre minimum lots, with 50-foot setbacks all around, she said.
In Atherton, town staff is considering multiple routes for amplifying its housing stock. For example, the town could allow two ADUs on lots with 1 acre or greater area (presently homes can only have one junior ADU and a full-sized ADU), according to a staff report.
Town Planner Lisa Costa Sanders suggested the town consider allowing multifamily housing to be built on school campuses in town, at Bear Gulch Reservoir, Menlo Circus Club and Holbrook-Palmer Park. Atherton could also rezone an area near the town center to allow for denser housing such as duplexes and triplexes along El Camino Real, she said.
Vice Mayor Mike Lempres said he supports building denser housing on the edges of town that are already surrounded by high-density housing.
"That might be a nice way to add units without materially affecting the character of the town," he said.
Reducing the minimum lot size in town presently 1 acre may allow for a few more single-family homes, Costa Sanders noted.
Atherton Councilman Rick DeGolia said he objects to allowing schools to house anyone other than employees or students on their campuses, saying the concept would receive a "horrendous reaction" from the community and the schools themselves.
Costa Sanders explained that school officials, as the owners of their land, can decide what they want to build if the zoning is relaxed. They can rent homes to whoever they want to, she added.
Lempres said he fears it could pose a risk to young children who attend Sacred Heart Schools to have people from outside the school community living on the property.
Although Menlo College was set to break ground on a 288-bed residence hall on its campus on Thursday, May 13, this housing won't count toward Atherton's RHNA target since the units don't have kitchens, town staff said. Council members instructed staff to look into legal means to make such units count toward the town's housing goals.