Like many other neighborhoods along the Peninsula, North Fair Oaks has recently become a hotbed for new developments. Texts and phone calls from developers wanting to buy the residents' homes, often in cash, are the norm. But many feel that the past year has ushered in a new era, due in large part to Thomas James Homes, a Los Angeles-based real estate agency that has become a ubiquitous (and, by many, hated) name in parts of the Peninsula and South Bay.
Founded in 2006, the company has since expanded into Northern and Southern California, Seattle, Denver and Phoenix, building more than 800 "luxury residences" in what its website calls "the nation's most in-demand zip codes." Since establishing a Bay Area office in 2018, it's built somewhere around 70 homes, and another 110 are in various stages of construction.
Since coming last December into North Fair Oaks – San Mateo County's largest unincorporated area, located between Redwood City and Menlo Park – TJ Homes has purchased half a dozen properties, tearing down the existing houses and building larger, more expensive ones in their place.
In many ways, TJ Homes is like any other developer looking to turn a profit in an up-and-coming market. The eastern side of North Fair Oaks makes an obvious target, with its dense tree canopy, access to good public schools and proximity to downtown shopping centers.
But, according to the neighbors, when the first TJ Homes sign went up in December 2020, something felt different.
"It's actually pretty alarming," said Virginia Miller-Bowen, who's lived in the neighborhood for 12 years. "The amount of development that's happening so quickly in a concentrated area."
It wasn't just the suddenness with which TJ Homes began buying up properties that put the residents on high alert, but the fact that $1.5 million ranch-style houses were becoming two-story mansions that tower over the adjacent homes and sell for double the cost.
"My patio, my bedroom, my living room, my other bedroom, my bathroom, they all look out west," said 36-year resident Susanne Beattie, who lives adjacent to one of TJ Homes' new developments. "And now here they are, 5 feet away, putting up a just-a-couple-inches-under-27-foot house. And the second story has nine windows looking onto me."
"Then we started seeing more and more homes getting bought by TJ Homes," said resident Niket Sirsi.
Alarmed both about the new housing and about trees being felled as part of the redevelopment, residents built a website, collected signatures for a petition to protect the canopy and planted accusatory signs on their lawns. "Say No to TJ Homes" became their rallying cry. They created spreadsheets to track the new developments and tree removal permits. They began to scrutinize TJ Homes' every move, documenting alleged violations like instances of construction happening outside of working hours and damage caused to heritage trees.
According to TJ Homes, the firm hopes to mitigate local housing needs by replacing deteriorating homes and diversifying the options for potential homeowners.
"When you look at what the community needs, it needs all housing types," said Jon Tattersall, president of TJ Homes' Northern California office. "We're typically improving the existing condition. We're adding square footage for multi-generational homes. We have people that are raising their families that need more space.
“Not everybody is looking for a two-bedroom, two-bath house that was built in 1945,” he added. “If there was no demand for the housing that we were providing, what you would see is a lot of vacant houses, right? But what you do see is that there are no vacant houses and that we are severely under-supplied.”
But Laura Caplan, resident and current president of Fair Oaks Beautification Association, a volunteer urban forestry group, said that these new developments represent a threat to potential homeowners in North Fair Oaks, which she called "the last 'affordable' (area) in the Peninsula."
According to the county's 2014-2022 Housing Element, North Fair Oaks, which has 4,228 housing units according to the 2020 census, has a relatively high concentration of low and moderate-income households. Though 30% of housing in the area was built 60 or more years ago, the price of homes has recently skyrocketed. In the last five years alone, the median housing price in San Mateo County has nearly doubled, from $1,350,000 in October 2016 to $2,110,000 in October 2021, according to historical housing data from the California Association of Realtors. Redfin reported a 100.2% increase in home prices in November, compared to last year, with houses selling for a median of $2 million.
At the same time, a recent community needs survey conducted in collaboration with the Stanford Graduate School of Education, found that housing is one of the main issues for residents of Redwood City and North Fair Oaks. The survey also reported that housing insecurity, which affects a third of renters, has increased dramatically since pre-pandemic.
"TJ Homes is probably going to be part of that rapid gentrification effect," said North Fair Oaks council member Ever Rodriguez. "Because it's in their mind to purchase very affordable properties and then turn around those to make a profit."
Rodriguez, who said he "wholeheartedly support(s) the residents of North Fair Oaks in trying to voice their concerns," is concerned that TJ Homes will expand west into the Redwood City side, which is majority Latino. "This is a problem for the whole community," he added.
District 4 Supervisor Warren Slocum, who's been in talks with the neighbors, said he empathized with their concerns.
"What it represents is large-scale change for a community being transformed from what it was in a bygone era to more of an Atherton-like feel," he said.
For Tattersall's part, he understands that the residents are protective of their neighborhood and said that "development is a responsibility" TJ Homes takes seriously, including having entire departments dedicated to neighborhood relations and community development. He thinks the problem isn't so much the new houses themselves.
"The mistake that we made, candidly, is having two to three active projects going on all at once," he said. "And not really understanding what the impacts would be to the overall neighborhood."
In recent months, TJ Homes – which this past September filed paperwork for its IPO and is currently valued on the NASDAQ at over $588 million – has made an effort to repair trust with the North Fair Oaks neighbors. It slowed down development, increased communication and showed up for community events, such as a recent North Fair Oaks Community Council meeting last month.
On Nov. 18, the company's director of community development, Deanne Green, and executive vice president of asset management, Adam Kates, addressed the community with a half-hour presentation on their goals as a housing developer and how they hope to improve neighborhood relations.
Kates explained that, from their perspective, the houses they're removing "have reached the end of their useful lives" and are being replaced with "well-designed, energy-efficient, sustainable houses that meet the needs and wants of today's families and households."
Tattersall said he's been doing everything he can to facilitate communication with the community, including sharing his personal contact information and sending out a weekly email bulletin informing the neighbors of their progress. But he said the neighbors seem unwilling to acknowledge TJ Homes' efforts to improve relations and felt that they were being "overly scrutinized."
"I think we're being made out to be something worse than we really are," he said. "There's a little bit of nimbyism when it comes to new development. And I think people are trying to frame us as being bad people."
This article is the first in a series by The Almanac's sister publication, Redwood City Pulse, covering redevelopment in North Fair Oaks