Atherton, California, is a prosperous little town in Silicon Valley, a few miles south of Meta’s headquarters. The town’s average home value, according to Zillow, is just shy of $7.5 million; median household income exceeds a quarter of a million dollars per year. It’s one of the poshest ZIP codes in a state riven by homelessness, housing insecurity and wealth inequality.
So when Atherton residents oppose the development of new housing in their backyards, they hardly make sympathetic figures. Local homeowners Steph and Ayesha Curry learned as much recently when they wrote a letter to the town opposing a multifamily housing development at 23 Oakwood Blvd., the lot abutting their property.
In theory, I could hardly ask for a better foil than an Atherton multimillionaire who doesn’t want to live next to some apartments.
I’m a professional YIMBY (meaning “Yes in My Back Yard”). I spend most of every day thinking about how California can relieve its housing crisis by building more homes. In theory, I could hardly ask for a better foil than an Atherton multimillionaire who doesn’t want to live next to some apartments.
But this particular story isn’t quite so simple. For one thing, Steph Curry is the starting point guard for the Golden State Warriors, one of the greatest basketball players ever, and something of a secular saint to the people of the Bay Area. For another, the Currys raised some not unreasonable privacy concerns in their letter opposing the project.
“We hesitate to add to the ‘not in our backyard’ (literally) rhetoric, but we wanted to send a note before today’s meeting,” they wrote, according to Complex. “Safety and privacy for us and our kids continues to be our top priority and one of the biggest reasons we chose Atherton as home.”
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The issue, the Currys clarified in the letter, is that residents of 23 Oakwood would have clear sightlines into their property. For most people, that would be a trivial concern; unless you live in a truly remote area, odds are you close the blinds before you change out of your clothes. But Steph Curry’s fame means he faces more attempts to invade his privacy — and his family’s privacy — than the rest of us. If I were a mega-celebrity trying to give my children a relatively normal life, I’d probably do everything in my power to make sure people couldn’t peer into my house. To that end, the Currys proposed a compromise: “taller fencing and landscaping to block sight lines onto our family’s property.”
No doubt part of the reason the Currys’ objection to the 23 Oakwood proposal made national headlines is the convenient framing: It’s very easy to dunk on (sorry) wealthy NIMBY celebrities who talk a good game about social justice while policing wealth segregation in their own neighborhood. The Currys’ acknowledgement of their reluctance to “add to the ‘not in our backyard’ (literally) rhetoric” shows they realized the narrative is basically a layup. (Sorry again.)
The wealthiest enclaves have been the worst offenders when it comes to blocking new housing development.
But even if the Currys were engaged in some more clear-cut villainy — like their neighbor, venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, who, despite being worth nearly $2 billion, is apparently apoplectic at the possibility that any multifamily housing in Atherton would “MASSIVELY decrease our home values” — they wouldn’t be the real problem.
The real problem is structural. It has little to do with the Currys and everything to do with the anti-housing land-use policies of tony suburbs like Atherton.
Consider the cause for Atherton’s insane home values. It helps that the homes are very big and very nice. But even more important is the scarcity of those homes.
Atherton is in the center of one of the world’s richest and most economically productive regions: the home of Meta, Stanford University, Alphabet and Apple, to name a few of the most important multibillion-dollar institutions in Silicon Valley. Hundreds of thousands of people are employed in the region’s tech sector, and thousands upon thousands more clean their homes, deliver their groceries and drive their rideshares.
But as the labor force of Silicon Valley swelled over the past 20 or 30 years, housing production stayed largely stagnant. The highest-wage earners outbid everyone else for the existing housing stock — raising prices to their current astonishing levels.
The wealthiest enclaves have been the worst offenders when it comes to blocking new housing development. This further enriched the residents of those enclaves by guaranteeing staggering growth in their property values, which in turn helped lock out undesirables (read: non-rich people). What was left of the Valley’s working class was confined to nearby towns like Redwood City and East Palo Alto.
Atherton enforced this income segregation by outlawing the construction of virtually anything except single-family homes — which had to be built on lots that, according to the town’s zoning code, could be no smaller than 1 acre. The City Council even voted to shut down its local commuter rail station partly over fears that the state would mandate more housing development near transit stops.
Atherton isn’t the only city that took such pains to maintain its exclusivity. Local governments throughout the state — including big cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco — have strangled housing development, and plunged the entire state into a social, political and humanitarian crisis. Atherton is only exceptional because of the sheer magnitude of the wealth locked behind its walls.
Ending America’s multiple, interlocking housing crises will require that we end the staggering mismatch between economic activity and housing production in places like Silicon Valley.
Individual homeowners are not the main obstacle. Instead, California and other states must contend with a system that has made it far too easy for local governments to put asset growth for rich people ahead of everyone else’s housing needs. That does not preclude cities from making reasonable accommodations for existing residents. But it will require building many, many more homes. And for the sake of fighting income segregation and promoting fair housing — a necessity in and of itself — California will need to ensure that many of those homes are built in places like Atherton.