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In North Fair Oaks, a battle is brewing over redevelopment

For nearly a year, residents have been hanging signs, collecting signatures and petitioning the county to intervene.

Just two of the many signs protesting TJ Homes developments in North Fair Oaks. Photo by Leah Worthington.

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.

828 14th Street, the site of the neighborhood's first TJ Homes development and removal of a protected modesto ash. Photo by Leah Worthington.

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.

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"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."

North Fair Oaks resident Susanne Beattie points at one of the new TJ Homes developments on her block. Photo by Leah Worthington.

"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.

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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.”

TJ Homes' Neighborhood Integrity Pledge, which is posted in front of each new development. Photo by Leah Worthington.

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.

Some houses got creative with their protest signs. Photo by Leah Worthington.

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."

Anti-TJ Homes signs can be seen posted throughout "the Avenues." Photo by Leah Worthington.

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

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Leah Worthington
 
Leah Worthington, a Menlo Park native, joined the Redwood City Pulse in 2021. She covers everything from education and climate to housing and city government. Previously she worked as the online editor for California magazine in Berkeley and co-hosts a podcast. Se habla español! Read more >>

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In North Fair Oaks, a battle is brewing over redevelopment

For nearly a year, residents have been hanging signs, collecting signatures and petitioning the county to intervene.

by / Redwood City Pulse

Uploaded: Sun, Dec 26, 2021, 9:51 am

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

Comments

Think.
Registered user
Menlo Park: Fair Oaks
on Dec 27, 2021 at 12:38 pm
Think., Menlo Park: Fair Oaks
Registered user
on Dec 27, 2021 at 12:38 pm

What Tattersol continues to deliberately ignore in his comments is that the houses he's building are priced in a completely different range from most existing homes in the North Fair Oaks neighborhood. North Fair Oaks is a great neighborhood, friendly and collaborative, and is one place where you'll find many people who can't afford to buy in the parts of the area. In my block, for example, there were at least six homes with teachers. There are _no teachers_ that can afford to buy the homes this developer is putting up. So the argument that there are people who need these homes is true, but ignores the steady displacement of firemen, teachers, etc, because of the steady destruction of 'affordable' housing. Tattersol is tearing down houses that did hold that possibility while simultaneously driving up the prices of the rest. In addition, he does not address how these houses, while often pretty, do not fit the esthetic of the neighborhood. They tower over the one story ranches, and crowd as close to the property borders as they're legally allowed. The yards here are charming, but small, and afford a sense of privacy that adds to the livability of a small home. So, he is destroying this as well. Lastly, and not addressed by him, are the important trees he is taking down.
Tattersol and company are certainly living the American dream: Making big money and feeling good about providing homes. Tattersol are simultaneously depriving others of that same dream, both in affordability and the joy of living in their long time home.
It's interesting to me that Menlo Park, despite repeated calls to provide housing that fire people, nurses, teachers, restaurant workers, etc etc etc, can afford seems continually to be headed in the exact opposite direction.


sjtaffee
Registered user
Menlo Park: The Willows
on Dec 27, 2021 at 2:17 pm
sjtaffee, Menlo Park: The Willows
Registered user
on Dec 27, 2021 at 2:17 pm

TJ Homes is doing what capitalist developers do: maximizing returns for investors. The County must create policies and procedures aimed at creating and maintaining affordability and diversity in our neighborhoods. Developers won't do this unless forced to, and then they will attempt to do the minimum or receive significant concessions in terms of infrastructure or tax breaks from the government.

Teachers are certainly one middle income group that benefit from the affordable housing in this neighborhood. I know several that live there.

FYI - the average firefighter salary in MPFPD with overtime is $213,209.45 according to Transparent California (Web Link


Celia
Registered user
another community
on Dec 27, 2021 at 3:51 pm
Celia, another community
Registered user
on Dec 27, 2021 at 3:51 pm

We know that there are buyers for these new, huge, expensive homes that enrich the TJ Homes company, but they are being built at the expense of the environment and quality of life for their neighbors. My son lives in an older one-story home in Redwood City. TJ Homes bought the property next door, and then built a 2-story home as close to the property line as possible, a number of feet closer to the street than his home, and farther back in the rear yard. There is virtually no sunlight and no privacy anymore, as the new property has windows right across from their windows and casts shadows across his older property next door. There isn't all that much privacy for the new owners, either. The Redwood City Council allowed this intrusion on the neighbors and the character of the neighborhood despite the objections of local homeowners. This kind of behavior has been repeated at a number of locations in Redwood City by TJ Homes. This activity is legal, but the morality of such decisions is questionable, even before one considers that these homes are out of the affordable price range for the service workers we all depend on.


Iris
Registered user
Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Jan 2, 2022 at 10:22 am
Iris, Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
Registered user
on Jan 2, 2022 at 10:22 am

The county and cities should pass zoning rules that protect privacy and avoid shadowing.

Speculative developers are laughing to the bank. They are able to highjack a neighborhood with their idea (maximizing profit) rather than preserve the best of a neighborhood (character, affordability). Is there a way the county and cities could discourage spec developers, such as to put a big surcharge on houses that flip quickly, say within 2 years of building completion?


Charlie
Registered user
Menlo Park: Fair Oaks
on Jan 3, 2022 at 10:07 pm
Charlie, Menlo Park: Fair Oaks
Registered user
on Jan 3, 2022 at 10:07 pm

TJ is doing a better job than most small builders in this area in terms of trees. At least they are planting new trees for the houses they build. For the ones who say their new houses sell much more expensive than the old one, of course it does because it is new and bigger. Saying you don't care there is a market to it is basically saying you don't welcome your new neighbor who wants to buy a nice, big enough house in this area, who can't afford to buy in nearby Palo Alto or incorporated Menlo Park, where comparable new houses sell twice the price. Also, there are families who are tearing down their own old houses and build new and bigger ones. And you are basically asking them to move. That is not very nice. Don't you think? The Menlo Park part of North Fair Oaks was never the cheapest of Peninsula. Its price has always been, and still is, very similar to neighborhoods such as Redwood Oaks, etc. Neighborhoods evolve. It is not realistic to always keep things as they are and get stuck in the past. TJ is picked because it is an easy target as they have a brand name. They are not doing worse than the majority of other smaller builders who are tearing down old and building new in this area, or anywhere else in the Bay area. To demand stricter zoning rules from County is fine, but one thing to note is what you own is your land. You don't own the surroundings. View, privacy etc. are nice, but those were never guarantees when you purchase the land. It is selfish to not allow others to build just because you want those things. Think of all the people who are living in condos or townhouses. And it would be weird for county to pass such restrictions considering all new communities are built with much larger density.


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