Bay Area City Delays OK for Apartment Project That Sparked a Housing War

The hamlet of Lafayette, California, nestled in the Berkeley Hills east of Oakland. (By Stacey Baca – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0)

(CN) — After nine hours of public testimony, the fate of one of the most fought-over housing projects in the San Francisco Bay Area will have to wait another two weeks — although under recently amended state laws, city leaders have little choice but to greenlight the project. 

The Lafayette City Council punted the decision-making to Aug. 24, at which point they will decide whether to approve or reject an apartment complex called The Terraces on a sloping parcel within city limits. 

The project has divided the community into camps but has also served as the flashpoint for a refashioning of housing policy in the Bay Area and throughout the state of California. 

Denial of the apartment complex in 2015 sparked a concerted effort by housing policy advocates to help strengthen housing laws to compel local jurisdictions to approve more housing projects, particularly high-density projects located near public transit. 

O’Brien Homes of Menlo Park first brought forward its plans to build the 315-unit apartment complex in 2011. After a lengthy and rigorous environmental analysis process, the city approved the proposal only after the developer agreed to build 44 single-family homes instead of the complex.

Following approval, the California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund sued the city in 2015, saying the denial of the project violated the California Housing Accountability Act of 1982. 

The lawsuit and countersuits involving the city of Lafayette and The Terraces project became the flashpoint for the so-called YIMBY — Yes in My Backyard — movement. YIMBY advocates say local governments are too often standing in the way of the construction of high-density housing and this trend is responsible for a suite of problems including the state’s acute housing affordability crisis and related issues such as homelessness, traffic congestion and climate change. 

Prior to the 2015 suit, the Housing Accountability Act was a little known and rarely enforced regulation that guided housing in California. Since the lawsuit, several California lawmakers like Scott Weiner, D-San Francisco, have passed and attempted to pass laws that obligate municipalities to greenlight high-density housing projects that meet certain conditions. 

In 2017, then-Governor Jerry Brown signed amendments to the Housing Accountability Act to enhance enforcement, in part by awarding attorney fees to petitioners under the act and empowering judges to fine noncompliant cities. 

For many, The Terraces, proposed to be built near a Bay Area Rapid Transit station, is a perfect example of the type of project that should be used to increase the housing stock in the region. 

Other residents with the group Save Lafayette argue The Terraces is out of step with the community character. 

Lafayette is a town of 26,000 located east of Oakland, lying at the foot of the Berkeley Hills and spreading out through the valley below. Some residents said Lafayette should retain the more rural and semi-rural setting that distinguishes it from the densely urban environments of its neighbors to the west.

They made their opinions known at the marathon City Council meeting Monday.

“I want to dispel the notion this is an affordable housing project,” said Steve Drury of Save Lafayette. “This is 80% market rate.”

Drury said the project violates state environmental laws because of a failure to study impacts to species as well as a host of other environmental issues. 

Other Lafayette residents said the project is necessary to diversify the suburban enclave and to give others, including minorities, a chance to access the amenities afforded by the community. 

“This project would open up housing stock in our city and our region to a diverse cohort of families, allowing them access to our exemplary public schools, commute to jobs in Alameda or San Francisco counties solely via public transit, and to enjoy the natural beauty we all cherish,” said resident Chris Wikler.  

While the split in residents’ attitudes toward the project was evident from the beginning of the meeting, there was also an unusual level of rancor between city councilmembers and the project applicant. 

At one point, City Councilmember Cam Burks accused O’Brien Homes attorney Brian Wenter of ghostwriting a letter from state Senator Nancy Skinner, D-Oakland, that urged the City Council to approve the project. 

“Can I ask you when the last time you met with Sen. Skinner either by phone or in person or email or text?” Burks asked at one point.

Wenter questioned the relevancy of the line of interrogation and refused to answer, leading to a testy exchange that was only interrupted when Mayor Mike Anderson urged both men to move on. 

Wenter also said O’Brien Homes believes previous statements by Vice Mayor Susan Candell against the project indicate her prejudice and that she should recuse herself from the approval process. 

“We will answer questions from Vice Mayor Candell, but only under protest,” Wenter said. Candell did recuse herself in 2018 but later changed her mind.  

The amendments to the Housing Accountability Act have already had the intended effect in other communities. 

Los Gatos, a wealthy Silicon Valley enclave on the northern fringe of the Santa Cruz Mountains, denied a housing project called North 40 in 2016. The project called for the construction of 320 homes and stores on a 44-acre parcel in the city. 

The developers sued the city in 2017 and a few months later a Santa Clara County judge ordered Los Gatos city officials to reconsider the development proposal in light of the Housing Accountability Act. The City Council approved the project later that year. 

Similarly, the SF Bay Area Renters Federation successfully sued the city of Berkeley for denying a developer’s proposal to tear down a dilapidated building and construct two three-story homes. The city agreed to approve the project as part of a settlement. 

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