One key principle behind the spate of laws passed in the last two years aimed at increasing California’s housing density is that every city in the state is essentially the same.
That’s why new laws have eliminated single-family residential zoning throughout the state, and not merely in the most sprawling cities and counties. That’s why virtually every street in the state with any commercial elements is now subject to high-rise development, if developers can be found to do the work.
It’s a one-size-fits-all philosophy that was bound to create major conflict when it began affecting the often-quirky cities that make up much of this crazy-quilt state.
One of the more eccentric such places is Atherton, long a haven for the super-rich, sitting in the midst of Silicon Valley, a short distance north of Palo Alto and Stanford University.
This 5-square-mile city of 7,060 is host to a major contingent of the wealthiest dot-com investors and executives. Its residents include the founder of Netflix; the head of video game maker Electronic Arts; the chief of the financial technology firm SoFi, for which the modern stadium housing both the Los Angeles Rams and Chargers is named; top executives of Google and Apple; and a host of venture capitalists who got fabulously wealthy by investing early in some of those firms and others.
The median home sale price there has exceeded $7 million for the last few years.
Now Atherton is being told by the state it must create 348 new housing units or suffer major losses of state funding for police, fire department, water facilities and other public needs.
But how to build that many new units, enough to house 1,000 or more persons, almost one-seventh the current population, in a town where very few homes occupy less than an acre?
And how to do that and still let many of them be priced affordably in a city where homesite land alone sometimes brings upwards of $8 million, which would raise the price per unit well above the $1 million level already seen in some other areas with high land values?
Advocates of denser housing often call local residents who oppose dense new housing developments in single-family areas NIMBYs, for Not in My Backyard.
They could find some classics in Atherton, where billionaire investor Marc Andreesen opposes new multi-family housing near his home, but in a 2020 essay griped about the lack of new housing across the country.
“We should have gleaming skyscrapers and spectacular living environments in all our best cities,” he wrote then, according to The Atlantic magazine. But duplexes and three-floor apartment buildings near his own home, uh-uh.
As conflict neared with the density enforcement unit created this year by state Attorney General Rob Bonta, several Silicon Valley giants with major executives living in Atherton began trying to buy off trouble.
Meta, the new name for Facebook’s parent, pledged $1 billion to help stave off housing woes on the San Francisco Peninsula. Google put in another $1 billion. Apple pledged $2.5 billion and Netflix supported a housing nonprofit.
A letter-writing campaign with a spate of famous signees spurred city officials to cut out the townhouse part of its housing plan, which would need state approval to become official.
Instead, the city government proposed a program encouraging residents to build and rent out additional dwelling units (ADUs) on their properties. These “grandma units” could be fenced off from the main part of large properties, providing privacy for all.
But it’s doubtful that hundreds of mansion owners could simultaneously create rental ADUs. For one thing, they would have a hard time finding enough contractors, plumbers, electricians and other tradesmen to build so many units in short order.
This sets up a seemingly inevitable battle between America’s richest city, with an average household income topping $400,000, and state officials determined to create dense new housing everywhere for even the poorest people.
Which could lead to a far wider crisis if the denizens of this posh small city should decide to take their marbles with names like Google and Facebook and Netflix and Apple and Nvidia and move them to other places.
Talk about unforeseen consequences of a well-intentioned policy!
Email Thomas Elias at [email protected].