Atherton, like every other municipality in California, is required to comply with the Housing Element requirements under the state’s Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA), as administered by the state Housing and Community Development Department (HCD). Over the past 4-5 years, the state legislature has passed bills to require an increase in housing, based on the theory that an increased housing supply will reduce the cost and improve the affordability of housing in California. The RHNA guidelines are supposed to increase supply and affordability, but to date they have largely benefited developers at the expense of local control (by city councils) and affordability has not improved.
In the last housing cycle administered by HCD (2015-2023), Atherton was obligated to zone for 94 new housing units. In the new housing cycle (beginning January 31, 2023), Atherton is obligated to zone for and see built 348 new housing units (an increase of 375%). Atherton objected to this significant increase because, unlike many other cities and towns, Atherton has no undeveloped property on which to build, other our only park (Holbrook-Palmer Park) and adding housing to our park would remove the only recreational resource in Atherton.
Atherton’s outsourced planning group initially insisted that to comply with the 348 RNHA housing requirement that the city council must zone for denser development than is currently allowed. The planning group recommended that the city council add “Overlay Zoning” to authorize property owners to build 6-20 townhouses per acre on specifically identified lots in Atherton (generally on busier streets and near the periphery of Town). After initial consideration, the Council decided against this suggested density increase because we realized that with property costing approximately $8M per acre, no matter how dense the allowed development, the housing that would be built would never be affordable if the developer had to purchase the land. Further, we heard from several hundred residents that they didn’t want townhouse development in Atherton. In general, Atherton residents have spent dearly to buy into a community that is semi-rural, quiet and not crowded.
I believe that the ONLY place that townhouses can reasonably be in Atherton to yield affordable housing is on existing school property. Because land is so expensive in our Town, affordable housing can only be built by the existing landowner and the ONLY realistic location for townhouses to be built is on current school property. This is not a small matter in Atherton because we have seven schools and on every school day Atherton’s population just about doubles with the influx of students and school staff. Accordingly, there is an enormous need at all of these schools for affordable housing for their teachers and staff.
Based on this strategic understanding that the only realistic affordable housing in Atherton must be built without a required purchase of new land, the Town’s recently submitted Housing Element relies on a strategy to (1) enable and incentivize schools to build townhouses on their land for their teachers and staff and (2) encourage residents to build and rent ADUs (accessory dwelling units) on their property. The incentives for residents to build new ADUs (and to qualify existing pool or guest houses as ADUs) are (1) the square footage of any ADU (separate from the main house) or JADU (within the main house) is excluded from the maximum allowable square footage on the property and (2) if we get sufficient interest to build ADUs, then we should be able to avoid any requirement that we approve denser development.
Over the next few months, the city council and Town staff will design a comprehensive program to incentivize residents to build ADUs to satisfy the bulk of our RHNA housing obligation and we will be asking residents to confirm that they are interested in building these ADUs (or converting pool or guest houses to qualify as ADUs. This will have to be a very robust program in order to satisfy HCD that Atherton will build sufficient ADUs to satisfy a large part of our RHNA housing obligation.