For years, the town of Atherton in California—located in the heart of Silicon Valley—has been an enclave for the wealthy. While it's not literally protected by gates, the municipality has long been criticized for using zoning laws to ensure it can "keep out anyone who is not wealthy or white," as one housing advocate told The Guardian in 2020. The end result is that it's consistently ranked as being the most expensive zip code in the U.S. to live in.
Recently, housing has become a hot-button issue for Atherton residents, many of whom are tech executives. California law requires Housing Elements (plans documenting a community’s housing needs and strategies to meet them) to be updated regularly, with Atherton slated to provide an update for a 2023-2031 cycle. Part of this process means specific cities must present a plan to rezone areas for affordable housing (or, at least, more housing construction in general), or be subject to sanctions and loss of funding from the state.
For the past 8 months, the town has had public meetings leading to the publication of an initial draft on June 9. This opened up a 30 day review period where over 300 written comments were provided—including those from billionaire investor Marc Andreessen and his wife staunchly opposing the building of multifamily housing.
Revisions were approved and incorporated into a new draft which was then transmitted to the California Housing and Community Development on August 2. Reviewing the various meeting notes and watching the recordings of community meetings—which are posted to YouTube by the city—paints the picture of an obscenely wealthy community not only staunchly opposed to the construction of more and varied housing, but struggling to find adequate reasons that might prevent the state from forcing the building of affordable housing in the country's most expensive zip code.
In a June 15 meeting, council members opened up with acknowledgement of the community's "irritation and frustration" with the plan. In the public comment section, opposition to the zoning was consistent. One resident called the housing update a “grave mistake that Atherton would regret forever.” They went on to implore the council to find other options which were “less impactful to the town and don't destroy the character," suggesting that "we should stick with one-acre minimums."
Another resident also chimed in to implore the council to pursue options that don’t “destroy the character of the community.” Most of the public echoed similar concerns, insisting that multifamily housing units should actually be plopped outside of the core of the town to reduce traffic congestion (and stay out of sight) or that reducing the average size would somehow reduce the quality of life in the town or that this was the council giving in to authoritarian overreach by state planners.
"I would love to see what happens in Southern California, but they have pushed back very hard," said another Atherton resident in public remarks. "What we're asking is don't do what's easiest, do what in the end's going to be best for our community."
One member of the public offered a comment that suggested that the previous speakers had proposed plans that protected their neighborhood while targeting his own neighborhood—which he referred to as the "poverty pocket" of Atherton—with construction of multifamily housing units. "It appears to be totally discriminatory and the story could be, once again, sued for redlining neighborhoods,” they told attendees.
Do you work in Atherton or for the town itself? Or do you have information about community plans to turn schools and other buildings into housing units? We’d love to hear from you. From a non-work phone or computer, you can contact Edward Ongweso Jr securely on Signal at +1 202 642 8240, or email firstname.lastname@example.org
The redlining which they alluded to is the racist discrimination widely embraced in the region—specifically in towns like Menlo Park, Atherton, and Palo Alto—that sought to segregate minorities by excluding them through a variety of methods ranging from rejecting loans for home mortgages to outright banning non-white prospective home buyers from purchasing a home in certain neighborhoods.
"If the town decides to pursue overlay zoning because 'their hands are tied,' that would be ignoring all these voices. It would be short sighted if this is done for the expediency of low hanging fruit to reach the state mandate," one resident said at a July 20th meeting, referring to the rezoning mandate. "The state doesn't care about Atherton's uniqueness. I think they should and I think that should inform it." The resident promised that if overlay zoning was talking about, he and other community members in Atherton and Oakwood to "do whatever we can to stop or limit the scope of development."
At a July 27 meeting, Atherton City Manager George Rodericks said that he was concerned that a focus on property values would encourage housing advocates to "call attention" to people who live in Atherton.
"It's very evident that this community has larger lot sizes than most other communities, that we have a high value of land, and that we only have predominantly single family zoning," he said. "That makes us unique and the state is really focused on the best way to attain affordable housing is through multifamily housing."
"I mentioned to the mayor when this came up, I have a concern that if our excuse is just high value of land that we automatically become a target, not just by the state but by housing advocate groups out there that can really call attention to members of our community."
When reached for comment, Rodericks directed Motherboard to a recent update from his office about the town's housing plan. That update states that "affordable housing in the traditional sense in Atherton is not soon to be realized" and says the town will try and meet the state's goals through "accessory dwelling units, workforce housing at schools, and through the potential of Senate Bill 9 lot splits."
Another resident at the June 15 meeting expressed concerns about safety—not just from traffic, but from crime—that they believed the housing update would make it worse. "The crime has increased substantially in Atherton—I was driving down the street and got pulled over by a police officer thinking 'Why are you in the neighborhood?' I do believe that if you put many homes on that block, that it will affect the crime rate. I'm concerned about that: parking at my home, coming in and out of my house at night."
It’s a little more complicated than that. The last year we have crime data for Atherton is 2019, where crime had slowly risen over the previous few years yet still remained much lower than surrounding wealthy areas with already low crime rates (e.g. Menlo Park and Palo Alto). But not only is Atherton a relatively safe place, but it’s not entirely clear that increased population density results in increased crime rates.
To take New York as an example, population density has increased over the past 25 years but crime rates have plummeted. In New York City, we see crime rates increase with density, but outside of it, there is a plateau before the correlation disappears again. That is all to say, there are other factors behind crime increases and decreases than population density.
One factor, of course, is the systematic impoverishment and disenfranchisement of large sections of the population by the wealthy. And with all its focus on zoning to "preserve the character" of the town, that's exactly what Atherton achieves.