The Terrifying Terraces of Lafayette
How a proposal for 315 apartments came to embody the California Housing Crisis and the burgeoning YIMBY movement
Lafayette, CA has become the unwilling poster-child of California’s raging housing shortage and the debates about “local control” vs. the state interest in alleviating the housing crisis. One proposal for 315 apartments has led to over a decade controversy, numerous articles in publications big and small, acclaimed books featuring the fight, and numerous events with talking heads. How did the saga to build 315 apartments on vacant land become the embodiment of the Great California Housing Debate?
Watchers of this saga have slogged through hearings with public comment stretching into the night, lawsuits and more lawsuits, activists and politicians going toe to toe… and now the Terraces of Lafayette may finally be coming to a close.
This afternoon we’re pulling together the Activist who Sued the Suburb, the City Manger who Changed His Mind, and the Young People Taking Up the Flag for a round-table discussion we’re calling “Never Change, Lafayette.”
To catch you up on the drama so far…
To many, the City of Lafayette embodies an average exclusionary suburb in California. It has decent schools, crippled by Prop 13 and supplemented by wealthy local parents. It has expensive homes, with prices inflated by a chronic shortage. Despite its BART Station, it has traffic that everyone says just keeps getting worse and worse. And over the years, Lafayette has enjoyed a lot of local control over what housing got built — and what housing didn’t.
In 2011, developers proposed to build low-rise multifamily housing on land between Deer Hill and Pleasant Hill Roads near Highway 24. From that moment on, the debate raged about the Terraces of Lafayette. Neighbors organized against the apartments, and the City of Lafayette proposed an alternative for the site: 44 single family homes. City Manager Steven Falk thought this was a good compromise. And the developer agreed, but made a deal with the city: if the 44 single family home project was disapproved, then the original 315 unit project would be back on the table.
But some thought this deal was… well… total crap. These kinds of deals had been brokered in cities like Lafayette for decades, quietly thwarting state law and leading to a chronic housing shortage. No one project could be seen to make the difference between abundant housing and a perpetual crisis, but together they could be understood as California’s collective action problem on housing. And a burgeoning YIMBY movement was fed up with the nonsense. Enter Sonja Trauss.
For the first time ever, pro-housing YIMBY activists got involved in a local housing dispute. SF Bay Area Renters Federation and Sonja Trauss, sued the City of Lafayette, for forcing the developer into this deal, and the developer for agreeing to it, citing California’s Housing Accountability Act. (This has been misreported in some places as CaRLA.)
The first suit is by the San Francisco Bay Area Renters Federation. It claims Lafayette broke state law when it failed to approve the apartment project, even though the property was zoned for high density housing.
The group’s co-founder, Sonja Trauss says the apartments would have rented at median rates for median income people. “Lafayette hardly has any apartments. So, we sued because that is a violation of the Housing Accountability Act,” she said.
The lawsuit also claims discrimination, saying apartment residents tend to be “more ethnically diverse than the existing population” of Lafayette.” So the failure to put in apartments will “disproportionately affect racial minorities.”
The judge ruled for the city and the developers, unable to conceive of the idea that future residents and their interests should be represented. While other YIMBY lawsuits continued to move forward, activists settled with the Lafayette developer and moved on to Berkeley and other cases. Meanwhile, YIMBYs helped pass SB 167, which helped strengthen the Housing Accountability Act going forward.
The developer also moved forward with their plan for 44 single family homes. But — surprise surprise — Lafayette NIMBYs were not placated. In 2016, a local group called Save Lafayette, whose mission is to preserve the bucolic nature of Lafayette, placed a referendum on the ballot over the approval of the 44 single family homes, and successfully killed the single family homes at the ballot.
The developer and the City Manager Steven Falk tried to explain to Save Lafayette that if the 44 single family homes failed, the 315 apartments would come back. Save Lafayette didn’t believe it. But back it came!
In early July, the 315 apartments came to the Planning Commission for review, where it was discussed at length. In the end, each Commissioner said they could not deny the project, citing the Housing Accountability Act — a major victory for housing activists and due process.
After 9 years, the project was finally up for review by the Lafayette City Council. 315 units, 63 set aside for affordable housing. Opponents sang their usual song: “Lafayette has already built enough housing; there’s a potential fire risk; what about the traffic; the beautiful hillside; the neighborhood character…”
During the more than five hours of public comment, YIMBYs called in from all over the Bay Area to cajole, berate, beg, plead, demand, and hope that Lafayette would say yes. Not just because State Law demands it, but also because it would benefit Lafayette itself.
A new group, Inclusive Lafayette, has taken up the flag and is asking their fellow citizens to open their hearts to new neighbors. Brothers Jeremy and Benji Levine are leading the charge calling for abundant housing and a Lafayette that they themselves won’t be inevitably priced out of.
On August 24th, Lafayette’s City Council will hear the project once again. Once again they will choose to either say “yes,” “no,” or decline to make a decision — what used to amount to a no. If they say yes, we can celebrate a well-earned victory for housing and the changing mentality in exclusionary communities. If they vote no, we’ll all head back to the courts.
The most likely outcome is they will once again punt and decline to make a decision. In previous years, this would have amounted to a quiet defeat for housing. But this year, thanks to YIMBY-backed SB 330, sponsored by Senator Nancy Skinner, this means the 315 apartments will be approved by default. And Lafayette — like so many communities across California — will demonstrate that they cannot be trusted with the local control to deny housing.