Suing the Suburbs: Housing Scarcity Hits the Courts in the Bay Area

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When it comes to urban living, the biggest issue for most residents is housing, and in no city is that more true than San Francisco. The City by the Bay leads the nation for most expensive living units, and prices only continue to balloon. There are more than a few reasons why, from gentrification, to the booming tech industry, a high standard of living, and even self-inflicted wounds brought on by city policy—but one of the main belligerents is the simple issue of supply and demand. There just aren’t enough homes in San Francisco and the Bay area to accommodate population growth. The solution seems equally simplistic: build more, but the execution hasn’t been on point.

It’s not just more homes that need to be built, but affordable ones. Home prices in San Francisco are bonkers high with the median home sale priced at $1,076,000 with average rents at $4,600. To combat this, Regional Housing Needs Allocation has set goals for the local counties to up housing construction to meet demand. Unfortunately, no Bay Area county is on track to meet their short or long term goals, and – to make matters worse – many cities and municipalities continue to favor more lucrative single family home development over low to moderate income apartment buildings.

To fight this problem, one advocacy group is taking a novel approach: they’re suing.

“Sue the Suburbs” is more than a catchy slogan, it’s a lawsuit that’s actually being pursued by the San Francisco Bay Area Renters’ Foundation (SFBARF) against the suburb of Lafayette. SFBARF hopes to change the tide in the war for affordable housing, and they’re putting Lafayette on the frontlines.

The controversy began in 2011 when a 315 unit apartment complex called Terraces of Lafayette was proposed targeting future tenants with low to moderate incomes. Buildings such as these are sorely needed in the Bay Area, and, in the face of stagnating new development in cities like SF and Oakland, commuter suburbs like Lafayette were increasingly targeted by developers to meet housing needs.

Then, as the project began taking shape, the developer submitted a new one in its place. The new proposal, called Deer Hill, would consist of 44 single family homes, sports fields, and a playground. Deer Hill would be much more lucrative. The new homes are estimated to sell at 1.2 million each compared to the average rent of $2,100 a month per unit up for grabs for the original Terraces project. The project received quick approval from the city. That’s when SFBARF stepped in.

SFBARF had already attempted to push Lafayette to reject Deer Hill in favor of Terraces. Planning director John Rahaim called the acceptance of the more lucrative prospect of Deer Hill “an irresponsible position” in the face of a population boom and rising housing costs. Growth is a blessing and a curse for the Bay Area, a double edged sword of challenge and opportunity. The population of San Francisco alone has gone up 1.3% between 2013 and 2014 which puts it in the top 10 in the nation for urban growth.

One of the biggest obstacles blocking the development of affordable homes is the fundamental nature of capitalism. Developers see little incentive to build apartment complexes with cheaper units when they could build condos or single family homes and charge a premium, as is the case with the Deer Hill project. Another roadblock is social stigma. Many communities readily associate the phrases “affordable housing” or “low income” with words like “crime”.

Neighborhoods can be quick to block developments that they fear will lower property values or increase crime with the “less wealthy” families who take of up residence within them. Both attitudes such as these and the business practices of developers influence the politics and policies of the decisions makers. That’s why when Deer Hill was approved, SFBARF felt they had to go outside of the box to usher in any degree of change.

“We need some new tools in the toolbox, because housing costs have gotten out of control, and by definition whatever we’ve been doing so far has not been enough,” says Gebriel Metcalf director of the urban planning think tank SPUR.

The housing crisis in Lafayette, San Francisco, and the Bay Area is more than an economic one. The social ramifications reach far and wide, and are having a negative impact on communities. Not only is it causing problems due to gentrification and working families getting priced out of their neighborhoods, it’s also making it harder for communities to receive the services they need and rely on. the city of Lafayette is having a difficult time staffing their schools with teachers, for example. One of the major reasons why is that the average teacher simply can’t afford to live there.

Police officers, cooks, nurses, city workers . . . all are the kinds of people who wouldn’t be able to afford a 1.2 million dollar home at Deer Hill. Even EMTs and paramedics make an average salary of only $31,270 a year. All these people need places to live.

“Should the City Council decide to prioritize homeowners’ aesthetic preferences over the needs of its service workforce,” wrote Sonja Trauss founder of SFBARF, “we will not hesitate to take legal action to defend the housing policies of this state.”

The lawsuit is unprecedented, though it’s not without merit. It centers on the 1982 California Housing Accountability Act which states that when a proposed development includes low to moderate income households and meets zoning requirements that a jurisdiction cannot deny approval or reduce project density unless it threatens health and safety. SFBARF organizers argue that the vast majority of proposed housing projects, including the Terraces of Lafayette proposal, met those standards and therefore have no basis to be rejected. Their claim is that to do so in favor of the downsized Deer Hill for arbitrary reasons is a violation of the law.

All SFBARF needs to do is find plaintiffs. The website Sue the Suburbs is designed to do just that. Organizers want to build a case with would-be Terraces residents who are now missing out due to the change in project to Deer Hill.

“We’re looking for people who would want to live in Lafayette and who meet the income requirements,” says organizer Brian Hanlon.
SFBARF hopes they’ll be able to build their case and show, empirically, what a mistake for the city and the Bay Area building Deer Hill over Terraces of Lafayette would be. The best case scenario is that they could block it, an outcome many legal experts doubt. Still, no matter the result, advocates believe the ultimate victory will be to expose the inherent injustices in housing politics, and Lafayette may just be the first battle in a long, tense war.

  • Ian Kallen

    It never ceases to amuse and disgust me how people unfamiliar with the area, unfamiliar with the history and unfamiliar with the site make stuff up about what should be there. This article is a big steaming load of their FUD. The Environmental Impact Report for the Terraces project found over a dozen significant and unavoidable impacts as well as health and air quality concerns. The site is *directly overlooking a major freeway*, adjacent to one of the busiest most congested intersections in the region, it’s distance to nearest the BART station exceeds 1.5 miles (generally, people don’t walk that, they drive), that train station’s parking lot is already full most weekday mornings by 7:45am and the neighborhood’s elementary school in the area is full (they’re placing students at a different site 15 minutes away). These are facts.

    The extensive grading and earth movement required to build on what is basically a grassy hillside over the freeway is insane. In short, it’s a terrible location for a project of any significant scale.

    Why aren’t folks worried instead about how the residents in the 12,000 homes being planned in Concord are going to get around? The infrastructure isn’t there and the commute paralysis and air quality will only get worse. The area needs to be able to absorb the growth that’s comes with every economic boom (and deal with the downdraft when there’s an economic bust), but the infrastructure that enables it has to be there. The FUD that this is an affordable housing issue is wrong and oversimplified. And in the meantime, building every ill-conceived project developers will float out there won’t bring the desired outcome.

    • Hey there Ian. Thanks for the comment.

      I don’t actually disagree with anything you’re saying, and I wasn’t personally advocating for or against SFBARF’s attempted lawsuit when I wrote this article. I simply wished to present their stance and basis for their claims. I certainly don’t think your points are invalid, and acknowledge I presented no oppositional argument, but I do not believe that makes the article FUD. The focus of the article is why SFBARF is doing what they’re doing and not on the for or against arguments concerning their suit. Though I can understand if you feel opposition to SFBARF is under represented, if represented at all. Because that is without a doubt true. – Jesse