Controversy erupts in Atherton as state housing plan deadline passes

ATHERTON – Tuesday was the deadline for cities to submit their “housing element” to the State, identifying places where high density housing could be built to satisfy their mandated allotment. With housing being the hot button issue that it is, that might be easier said than done.

Some residents of Atherton — the wealthiest community in the Bay Area — were having a hard time imagining multi-family housing in their town at all.

Hans Brender walked through the house he’s lived in for 40 years. He wondered how long it would still be his.

“I had my joy, raised my kids, now I have to move to another area,” he said. “Whatever’s left for me…you know, when you’re 85 years old, you can’t make plans anymore.”

That’s the fear the discussion about the housing element had caused him. The 85-year-old heard that his was one of 17 homes along busy El Camino Real that was identified for high density rezoning. He was scared that meant he had to move, but it turns out he may not be in trouble at all because the Town Council was looking to do anything they could to avoid rezoning–or “upzoning”–for multi-family housing. At a meeting Tuesday afternoon, they were discussing the idea of using ADU’s–or granny units–to help satisfy the mandate. But they knew they had to do something…

“If we don’t have a certified housing element today, we run an extreme, real risk of lawsuits–we’ve been told they’re out there–and builders remedy,” said Councilmember Diana Hawkins Manuelian.

The so-called “builder’s remedy” would remove local authorities from any say in future multi-family construction projects. The owner of one home on Oakwood Boulevard has already said he plans to build high density housing, with or without the town’s control. That has people worried, including one notable neighbor, Stephen Curry. The law seems clearcut but, at the meeting, there were still folks in Atherton who thought the town should simply defy it.

“I would encourage the City Council and legislatures of cities who do not like these laws, to challenge them,” said Mary Gillis during public comment. “And if it means litigation, it means litigation. But we’re talking about the character of communities where people pay millions of dollars to live here and expect, in return, privacy and space.”

But as Atherton tried to figure out a way to avoid the kind of choices that other cities were making, Kevin Zwick, CEO of United Way Bay Area, said it is a matter of equity. He said the housing element was created during the civil rights struggle as a way to battle racial and economic injustice, but it only now has the teeth to make it a reality.

“Towns and cities are going through change,” Zwick said. “And I don’t think just because you spent more money on your house than somebody else spent money on their house, that California law or the California Constitution should be applied differently.”

The law does not require towns to build or finance new housing–but they must PLAN for it. For the next 8 years, Atherton has been assigned 348 new homes for people in all income levels. The Council was considering what they call an “overlay zone” near the commercial corridor and local schools may add some housing, as well. They hoped that, and the ADU’s, and the property on Oakwood would be enough. But the deadline was Tuesday tonight, and the Town Council knew it had to submit SOMETHING or face losing all control. And that’s not something a town like Atherton is used to dealing with.

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