In what appears to be the first Bay Area attempt at the “builder’s remedy” for a town without an approved Housing Element, a Los Altos Hills property owner is trying to subdivide his home into 20 units. Though he admits that if the scheme works, he’s just going to sell the property and move.
San Francisco did manage to pass its Housing Element, a state-mandated plan which, for us, meant a plan to build 82,000 new housing units by 2031. And by passing it and getting it approved in time, the city was able avoid the so-called builder’s remedy, which would allow any developer to push through any project they please, with no need to adhere to zoning requirements, as long as 20% of the units are low-income units, or if 100% of them are moderate-income units.
Many Bay Area cities did not get their housing elements passed or approved by the state by the January 31 deadline. Among these is Los Altos, which was only required to build a relatively paltry 438 new units. And even with that seemingly low threshold, Los Altos still pulled some eyeroll-inducing maneuvers to create the illusion of compliance, like claiming they were going to build housing on a Methodist Church and Draeger’s grocery store, which was news to that Methodist Church and Draeger’s grocery store.
And one property owner is going ahead with what appears to be the first Bay Area attempt at a builder's remedy project. And it’s a doozy, as the Bay Area News Group reports that a Los Altos Hills homeowner is moving forward with plans to tear down his own home and build 15 apartments and five townhouses, for a total of 20 units on his 1.84-acre property.
“There’s this option sitting in front of me to do something very different, and the town can’t say no,” the homeowner Sasha Zbrozek told the Bay Area News Group.
On one hand, you can certainly sympathize with Zbrozek’s situation; his home suffered severe water damage in a 2019 storm, he has been unable to get his repair permits through the Los Altos City Hall, and describes his home as “cold and wet.” On the other hand, the News Group reports that “if he gets to move forward with the apartment complex project, he’d likely sell it off to a developer to build it and move back to the Southeast where he grew up.”
In other words, the “builder’s remedy” may be more of a “flipper’s remedy” in practice.
And there will likely be legal challenges to the plan. This is the tony Los Altos Hills, after all, and his neighbors can certainly afford to sue. And while there have been just under two dozen builder’s remedy projects initiated in southern California, those too are likely to be tested in the courts.
Zbrozek’s architect Mark Hogan (whose firm OpenScope Studio also designed SF’s Vapor Room dispensary), seems to realize this project is in unchartered waters. “There’s no precedent in the area for doing one of these,” Hogan told the News Group. “Nobody knows exactly how it’s going to play out.”
It’s also notable that Zbrozek submitted two plans, the other a scaled back version, which only included the five townhouses and not the 15 apartments. That indicates this may all be some sort of bargaining tactic, with Zbrozek submitting a larger project simultaneously to make the smaller one seem like a more amenable compromise. After all, the New Group reports that if the smaller version of the project gets approval, Zbrozek “might decide to stay put” and not move or unload the developed property.
Image: Coolcaesar via Wikimedia Commons