By Anita Enander for Mercury News
The Mercury News recently reported on the story of a Los Altos Hills developer working to construct a 20-unit apartment building on a single-family lot — using a state law that prevents neighbors and local elected officials from having any say in approving the project.
He is not alone. Throughout California, for-profit developers are racing to invoke this nuclear option, called the “Builders Remedy,” to construct massive projects in residential neighborhoods, including more than a dozen high rises in Santa Monica and a 2,300-unit project in Redondo Beach.
While we all agree that we need more housing of all types in California, it is essentially only developers, their hand-picked politicians and their so-called “YIMBY” cheering section that agree we should create these units with zero input from local communities.
The so-called Builders Remedy is not new, but it has been given new life by a series of recent state laws such as SB9 and SB10 that have stripped local communities of any meaningful say in local planning issues. That means developers can tear down single-family homes, build multi-story, multi-unit buildings and leave you with a higher tax bill for the cost of new roads, transit, schools, parks and other services — to say nothing about the impact on your neighborhood.
Dangerously, it also means that in high-fire threat areas such as Los Altos Hills and many other Bay Area communities, developers can place even more Californians in harm’s way without having to adequately address issues such as increased fire protection or how residents will evacuate on even more crowded roads during a fire emergency.
Draconian remedies like this kind of unrestricted power for developers is certainly driven by the state’s housing crisis. But that does not mean the solution is to give developers a blank check while leaving local residents with higher tax bills or silencing local elected officials who want to speak out on behalf of their residents.
Our housing crisis has many causes — and there are many solutions that do not include suspending our democratic rights to have a say about what happens in our own communities. These solutions include restoring the state program that once helped fund appropriate affordable housing, the state investing in the roads and transit that allows for new housing without increasing traffic gridlock, training more construction workers, investing in innovative modular construction and many other appropriate steps.
Look no further than San Jose for an example of how citizen input can be the basis of new housing that makes sense for a local community. San Jose didn’t silence local voices, it encouraged them, and the result was an “Urban Village” plan for new growth where it makes sense — near existing jobs and well-served transit.
What’s important to note is that “Builders Remedy” is not any kind of remedy for our state’s affordable-housing crisis. The developers don’t need to build any additional affordable housing in exchange for the massive value of the de-facto up-zoning they will enjoy. And despite the repeated claims of developer-backed groups, flooding the market with luxury housing does not lead to more affordable housing; in fact, it frequently drives up the cost of housing as it leads to gentrification and displacement.
Neighbors working with neighbors to shape growth so it makes sense for everyone isn’t part of the problem — it can be a vital part of the solution.
That’s why across California local elected officials and concerned neighbors are fighting back, forming a statewide group called Our Neighborhood Voices to help bring back a local say in housing issues. For Los Altos Hills and communities across the Bay Area and California, it is a race to restore our democratic rights to shape what happens in our own neighborhoods and to turn back the flood of developer-backed bills that allow them to build what they want, wherever they want, and leave us with more taxes, more traffic and even more dangerous construction in high-fire threat areas.
Anita Enander is a former mayor of Los Altos.