Suburban Park lives up to its bucolic name. The trees are leafy. The lawns are manicured. School-age children glide by on push scooters and bounce basketballs on sun-dappled sidewalks.
And it’s here, amid the nearly $2 million single-family homes in this Menlo Park neighborhood, that a new battleground has emerged in the fight to preserve what some still consider an American ideal: one home for every lot.
Outside every fifth house or so are green lawn signs proclaiming “Yes on V,” in support of a ballot measure that would make it harder to build apartments throughout the city. The measure would require a vote for any changes to what can be built — but only in single-family neighborhoods.
“We have no choice,” said Nicole Chessari, a Suburban Park homeowner who is co-leading the Yes on Measure V campaign. “No one was listening to us.”
Californians opposed to new development in their neighborhoods have long had local elected leaders on their side. But their power to say no is waning. Faced with a massive housing shortage, state leaders over the past half-dozen years have approved a bevy of new laws to override opposition to new housing and have become more willing to take recalcitrant cities to court.
There are new laws to permit backyard apartments, allow duplexes on single-family lots, convert offices and big-box stores to housing and prohibit parking requirements near transit. Central to these changes are new mandates for cities to not only plan for more housing but to do so in a way that reverses racial segregation.
So, residents in some California cities are firing back. From Menlo Park to Watsonville and Laguna Beach, they’re hoping to rely on another time-tested tradition: using the ballot box to restrict growth.
A case study
Menlo Park’s Measure V arose to contest one specific project: ninety units of affordable housing with priority for teachers and staff of the Ravenswood City School District in Suburban Park.
The concrete lot is now overrun with weeds. But it was once home to the James Flood Elementary School, which closed in 2011 due to dwindling enrollment. Ravenswood district staff have been searching for a way to reuse the parcel — and generate income for the district — ever since, said William Eger, chief business officer for the district.
“When I arrived a couple years ago, the district was in the process of analyzing our overall district footprint, thinking about, ‘How do we address some of these funding inequities?’” Eger said. “How can we use some of the assets we have, including our physical assets, the land that we own, in order to provide for our staff to afford to live in the area?”
In January, the district’s board took a step toward building teacher housing on the former school site, when it voted unanimously to enter into an exclusive negotiating agreement with a developer. And it was around that time that Chessari and her neighbors caught wind of the plan.
“When we heard that they wanted to build new housing on [the site], we were actually very excited about that,” she said. “But then we heard the volume, and were like, ‘Whoa, that’s going to transform the neighborhood into a thoroughfare and totally change it and make it unsafe for our kids.’”
The former school property is flanked on two sides by Suburban Park and rows of single-family homes. To the east is Highway 101, and to the west is Flood Park, a green space with a baseball diamond and picnic tables.
When the school was open, traffic flowed through the park. But in early discussions about housing on the site, the district contemplated routing traffic through the neighborhood instead.
What followed was several months of negotiations among some Suburban Park residents, district staff and city council members. Chessari said neighbors opposed to the district’s plans ultimately had three demands: reduce the number of housing units from 90 to 60; guarantee — as opposed to prioritize — 50% of the units would be used for Ravenswood staff; and provide a second egress.
She and some residents met with four of the city’s five council members but failed to reach an agreement.
If the council didn’t have her and her supporters’ interests in mind, then Chessari thought residents should be able to voice their concerns directly. So, she started gathering signatures for a ballot measure.
That way, she said, anytime developers propose projects in single-family neighborhoods across Menlo Park, residents would be able to weigh in. Nearly 80% of the city’s residential land is zoned for single-family housing.
“After seeing what happened in our [neighborhood], it was kind of a case study,” Chessari said. “This can and will happen citywide.”
Those measures, however, have become increasingly at odds with changes to state law, said Chris Elmendorf, law professor at UC Davis.
“Ten years ago, this strategy … would have seemed pretty clever,” he said. “But I don’t think it’s necessarily so clever or effective now.”
Every eight years, cities produce housing element reports showing how they will rezone areas to meet state-mandated housing goals and — new for this cycle — reduce residential segregation. Local leaders have long written these reports only later to ignore them without consequence.
But that’s changed as state leaders have become more willing to hold cities accountable, Elmendorf said.
“The state housing agency is no longer treating housing element approvals as a one-and-done proposition,” he said. “It is instead treating the housing elements as an eight-year contract between the state and the city over things the city will do, including rezoning.”
In Menlo Park, city leaders included plans to rezone the Flood school to allow for 90 affordable housing units in its draft housing element. Once a property is rezoned, new state laws prohibit the city from reducing the number of allowed housing units or requiring onerous conditions, like a second road, that might make the project financially infeasible.
Then, Chessari said, “It’s out of everybody's hands. The city has very, very limited ability to control the project.”
There are also real consequences now for cities that fail to present housing plans that meet the state’s requirements. When that happens, they may lose control over what gets built there altogether.
Such is the case in Redondo Beach, where a developer in August proposed a massive, 2,300-unit housing project at the site of a defunct power plant, while the city was out of compliance.
“As long as that housing element is not compliant, people can come in and build some pretty dense housing,” said Michael Manville, associate professor of urban planning at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs.
So, some cities have been ignoring their own voters’ ballot measures if they limit the amount of housing needed to satisfy the state.
In Alameda, for instance, residents voted in 1973 to prohibit apartment buildings across the island town. A second measure in 1991 capped densities to one home for every 2,000-square-foot lot.
In the Southern California city of Encinitas, voters need to approve any major changes to what can be built there. City leaders have twice put the entire housing element to a vote only to have residents reject it. So, a judge allowed local leaders to ignore the voters.
Elmendorf said the lesson there is that while voter initiatives can clog up — or at least delay — the process for cities to rezone for more housing, they can’t override state law.
“There is no authority of the voters of Encinitas or Menlo Park or any other city to do through direct democracy something that the city council cannot do,” Elmendorf said. “Voters can’t exempt themselves from that law by passing a ballot measure.”
The question in Menlo Park is whether Measure V will prevent the city from meeting new obligations under the housing element to undo racial segregation by requiring cities to site affordable housing in more affluent neighborhoods.
'Who are we really?'
For many of the opponents of Menlo Park’s Measure V, the ballot initiative is not simply about limiting apartments in single-family neighborhoods: It’s also about whether the city will continue policies that have disproportionately harmed residents of color.
Suburban Park was first established in the 1920s and grew during the post-WWII housing boom. In 1949, Menlo Park annexed it, along with the Belle Haven neighborhood directly to its east. At the time, both were mostly white neighborhoods.
Real estate agents actively recruited Black homeowners to Belle Haven in a process known as racial steering, and then tried to scare white homeowners into selling their properties, a practice called blockbusting.
Belle Haven is separated from Suburban Park and the rest of the city by the Bayshore Highway, which was widened in 1956 to become Highway 101. Pam Jones, a longtime Belle Haven resident who grew up in the area, remembers how the highway widening disconnected Belle Haven from the rest of the city.
“It changes everything, and it isolates you,” she said. “There was just this sense of being unwelcomed.”
Both neighborhoods were originally part of the Ravenswood district, but Suburban Park seceded in 1975, joining the Menlo Park City School District instead. A 1976 lawsuit challenged the racial isolation of students of color at Ravenswood, ultimately resulting in a settlement agreement 10 years later. But Ravenswood continues to serve almost exclusively students of color.
Of the four elementary school districts in Menlo Park, Ravenswood is one of the least well-resourced with the lowest average teacher salaries. Eger said the proposed housing project would generate roughly $500,000 for the district annually — money that would go to staff salaries.
“That’s big money for us,” he said. “We know this is a huge need for our staff, and it’s a huge need for our families.”
The disparities between the two neighborhoods transcend educational outcomes, though, and also manifest in the city’s development patterns. Suburban Park has remained relatively unchanged in the past 20 years, but Belle Haven and the adjacent, formerly industrial area now known as the Bayfront, have seen rapid growth.
“The ballot measure can then be seen to continue the same cycle of putting the highest densities and most affordable units in the area of the community that is predominantly lower income, marginalized, and communities of color,” the report reads.
For Jones, the intent of Measure V is clear.
“It’s really about racism. It’s about classism,” she said. “Whenever you say, ‘You're going to change my neighborhood, you’re going to blight my neighborhood,’ you are talking about people of color that don't look like you.”
Chessari recoiled at that suggestion.
“Honestly, that argument is very offensive to me,” she said. The city could choose to site increased development downtown.
Jones and Chessari do agree on one point, though: Measure V is about the future of Menlo Park and who gets the last word on what can be built, and where.
“Who are we really?” Jones wondered. “How do we really want to live? How do we want to treat our neighbors?”
She added, “We'll know when all of the ballots are counted.”
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