America’s “richest” ponders townhomes to satisfy state housing goal

Atherton, a haven for tech billionaires in Silicon Valley, has little room to build 350 units required

Atherton Mayor Rick DeGolia (iStock, Rick DeGolia)
Atherton Mayor Rick DeGolia (iStock, Rick DeGolia)

Atherton, a Silicon Valley town considered the wealthiest in the nation, is thinking about doing what has historically been unthinkable there: allowing townhomes among its brick-walled mansions.

The town northwest of Stanford University, where the typical manse is worth $8 million, will consider allowing relatively plebeian row houses for the first time in its 99-year history, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. The reason: a new state mandate to build hundreds of new units.

Atherton Mayor Rick DeGolia said rezoning the town would allow as many as 10 units to a 1-acre parcel.

“The way to get to the numbers the state is requiring us to add townhomes,” DeGolia said.

The 5-square-mile town of 7,000 residents has become a redoubt for tech billionaires and sports stars who reside behind high brick walls and opaque gates, in properties studded with tennis courts and pools.

Two years ago, Bloomberg pegged it as “America’s richest town,” where the average income is north of $500,000 a year. A Zillow market survey puts the average home at $8.1 million – and that includes only the “middle price tier,” whose values have gone up 17.9% over the past year.

In March, an entity managed by Jonathan Ratner paid $44.8 million for a 20,000-square-foot estate, marking the priciest sale in at least three years in the nation’s most expensive zip code.

Its residents have included Google’s Eric Schmidt, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, WhatsApp founder Jan Koum, Golden State Warriors basketball star Steph Curry and Microsoft’s late co-founder Paul Allen, whose former home sold in 2020 for more than $35 million.

The wealth of its residents can’t exempt it from state mandates, however.

A more stringent Regional Housing Needs Allocation requires cities across the state to increase housing by the end of the decade – or face stiff fines and have the state take control of local zoning.

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The requirement for Atherton is similar to that in Woodside, which cited mountain lions as a reason not to build homes, and Portola Valley, all of which must add around 300 units over the next decade. When the Town of Portola Valley recently considered zoning changes without the consent of individual property owners, it was met by the threat of legal action, according to the newspaper.

For Atherton, a town of about 2,200 homes, that means adding 348 housing units by 2031. Either the town allows the construction of in-law units for its so-called housing element, or it must zone for multi-unit townhomes, its mayor said. And that has made residents unhappy.

A public meeting attended by about 100 residents late last month, several suggested Atherton resist the state mandate at all costs.

“Some people were so adamant to oppose the state mandate that they looked at paying the fine,” said DeGolia, who estimated that the fine would be $100,000 per month. The new mandate will go into effect in 2023 and last for eight years, which would add up to about $9 million.

“There is absolutely no way we are going to do that,” DeGolia said. “To pay that sort of fine will require a vote of the people.”
The choice to build is slim. Atherton only has two parcels – once being Town Hall land, the other a 22-acre park, which was willed to the town in the 1950s under the condition it would revert to Stanford if not used for recreation.

That leaves a corporation yard in the middle of town that might yield five townhomes. And eight public and private schools, including the prestigious Menlo School and Sacred Heart Schools.

In an effort to both provide teacher housing and add to the housing stock, the schools were offered an expedited deal to build higher density housing on campus for faculty and staff.

“This was an important strategy,” DeGolia said. “But no school took advantage of it.”

[San Francisco Chronicle] – Dana Bartholomew

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