Council members said during a Sept. 6 study session that they didn't want to undercut the town's preliminary plan — to devote around 80% of its state-mandated housing goals to homeowners building backyard secondary units, known as accessory dwelling units (ADUs) — by assigning a group to come up with alternative plans.
The City Council, which expects to receive state feedback on the plan in early October, did direct town staff to host a community meeting in late September or early October to gather more feedback from residents on how to plan for development of 348 extra homes over eight years.
"I believe we've put together a very sound plan," Council member Elizabeth Lewis said of the draft element.
The town's 2023-31 Regional Housing Needs Allocation has grown significantly since the last eight-year cycle when it was assigned just 93 units.
The state's so-called duplex law, Senate Bill 9, requires local agencies to grant ministerial approval to certain lot splits and allow up to two primary units on each resulting lot with minimal side and rear setbacks. The town has seen 11 owners interested in such lot splits since the law took effect in January, said Vice Mayor Bill Widmer.
The town decided in late July to rely on ADUs and SB 9 lot splits to fulfill its state-mandated housing requirements following a council decision to remove zoning overlays for multifamily housing from the plan. It submitted its draft housing element to the state in early August.
Mayor Rick DeGolia had suggested that a resident committee could also help the town evaluate construction activity in town and assist with the development of possible mitigation measures to address noise, timing, parking and other issues.
"This is a town project and town commitment and we need the community to participate in it," Widmer said.
The town hosted a community meeting on the housing element in April.
Coming up with a Plan B
Council members were vocal about not looking at alternative housing options before getting feedback from the state, despite some input from a housing advocate and one council member that the town should be prepared to come up with other plans.
Lewis noted that if the town talks about a Plan B with multifamily overlays, it would undercut its current housing element.
Widmer said residents could weigh in about alternatives at a community meeting, but that he didn't feel comfortable coming up with other plans before then.
Council member Diana Hawkins-Manuelian disagreed.
"If it were me, I would be thinking of Plan A, B and C," she said. "But we want to support what we have. When do we do Plan B if we get bad feedback?"
Council member Bob Polito said he doesn't think the town's plan is necessarily as feasible or community-friendly as other council members think it is.
"As I have said at previous meetings, I believe a handful of well planned, high quality, multifamily projects would be vastly better for the town of Atherton than the plan we are currently supporting," he said in a Wednesday, Sept. 7, email. "Trying to achieve the state's requirement of 348 new housing units via SB 9 lot splits and hundreds (literally) of new ADUs with as little as a 4 feet setback to a neighboring property will generate negative consequences throughout the town that are way beyond what anyone realizes. ... That being said, I will support my fellow council members in the path we are currently on up until the state rejects our submission."
The state's Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) increased its staffing considerably since Gov. Gavin Newsom expanded the department's budget to nearly $9 million in the 2021-22 fiscal year, creating a 25-member housing accountability unit. This fiscal year, 40 new staff members were added. HCD has a total of 1,328 staffers.
Atherton City Manager George Rodericks said that the town's planning contractors heard these new HCD staff members addressing housing element issues have come from pro-housing groups.
"So they're stacking the decks," Lewis said.
HCD has confirmed it received the town's draft element, but the town has not been assigned a reviewer yet, said Town Planner Lisa Costa Sanders. The town expects a phone call from the department with verbal comments 60 days after submittal and a letter 90 days after submittal.
Rodericks noted that the state is paying attention to feedback from third party groups, like the Housing Leadership Council, given that it included input from the group in its comments on Redwood City's draft housing element, which was rejected by the state in early July.
Jeremy Levine, a policy manager for Housing Leadership Council, told the council during the meeting that it's important to look at the housing element not just as a way to comply with the law but to really try to meet the housing needs in Atherton. He urged officials to think of the preschool teachers, gardeners and municipal workers are being priced out of the area.
"You need a strategy not just to permit ADUs but to get deed-restricted affordable ADUs that are on the rental market," he said. "There are a lot of ways to minimize the impacts of multifamily housing."
Housing on school campuses
Housing has been so scarce in the Bay Area that school districts in San Francisco and Milpitas have asked families to volunteer to house teachers.
Other schools are taking a different approach by building housing for their staffers. The Jefferson Union High School District, which serves communities that include Pacifica and Daly City, recently built 122 units for its teachers.
The San Mateo County Community College District is building 30 units of housing at Skyline College in San Bruno, according to the district website. The district has discussed building more workforce housing at Ca?ada College in Woodside, but lacks the funds to do so.
Atherton's draft housing plan includes faculty and staff housing at local school campuses, but the town needs to be more proactive if it wants this to happen, said Hawkins-Manuelian. There are funding grants to build housing the town should look into, she noted.
She said she spoke with Atherton schools, like Adelante Selby Spanish Immersion School, but learned the town will need to go through the San Mateo County Office of Education.
"We need somehow to get in the pipeline," she said.
Atherton's plan includes some 40 units of new housing at Menlo College on El Camino Real over the next eight years to meet its state-mandated housing production. The units and parking would likely cost the four-year private school $20 million, which the school doesn't have, said President Steve Weiner.
College officials suggested that the town could support the cost of constructing housing and parking on campus through the identification of a new source of funding, possibly by issuing bonds. Rodericks said in an email that while "no solutions are off the table," the town is not actively considering a public bond issue in support of affordable housing.
Prominent town residents respond to multifamily housing
Powerful tech tycoons who live in Atherton wrote that they don't want to see townhouses built.
The Atlantic published a story in early August about venture capitalist and Atherton resident Marc Andressen's letter to the town saying he and his wife, philanthropist Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen, were immensely against designating multifamily housing overlays in town. This is despite his essay just two years ago in which he advocated for building more housing in the Bay Area.
Other publications like The New York Times followed with stories on other Atherton tech leaders who wrote to the town opposing building beyond single-family lots.
Mayor DeGolia would like the town to begin gathering statements of intent from residents who plan to build ADUs to show the state the numbers proposed in its element are legitimate.
DeGolia acknowledged the significance of the element to the town during the meeting, noting he's received more responses on this topic than any other during his nine years on the council.
"This is the biggest issue for our town in the next 18 months," he said.