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Wealthy California town says it can’t build mandated affordable housing. The reason: Mountain lions.

Mountain lion kittens discovered in Thousand Oaks, Calif., on Nov. 30, 2021. (National Park Service/AP)
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An affluent Bay Area town is blocking the development of new affordable housing because of the supposed endangerment of mountain lions in the area, in a move to skirt state law that’s been described by lawmakers and critics as “absurd” and “shameless.”

The town of Woodside, Calif., was among the areas facing the prospect of building new housing as part of Senate Bill 9, the state’s new split-lot law. The law, which went into effect last month, allows homeowners to divide single-family lots and build up to four residential units in a lot.

But town officials announced in a memo last week that Woodside was putting an indefinite hold on the affordable housing because of a clause in SB 9 prohibiting development in areas recognized as habitats for protected species. They argued that since mountain lions are a protected species and a candidate for the California Endangered Species Act, no split-lot housing could be built in a mansion-heavy community that the U.S. Census Bureau says has a median household income of more than $250,000.

“Given that Woodside — in its entirety — is habitat for a candidate species, no parcel within Woodside is currently eligible for an SB 9 project,” Woodside Planning Director Jackie Young wrote Jan. 27.

The news was first reported by AlmanacNews.

While local officials argue that the town’s stance is in good faith, Woodside’s announcement has faced blowback from housing advocates who say the town’s decision is a clear attempt to circumvent or delay the building of affordable split-lot units.

“This is so absurd,” Laura Foote, executive director of YIMBY Action, an activist group that supports construction of housing, told the San Francisco Chronicle. “It is an example of the extreme absurd lengths cities will come up with to evade state law.”

State Sen. Scott Wiener, a Democrat representing San Francisco who was one of the architects of SB 9, predicted possible legal action against the town.

“Woodside announced it’s exempt from state housing law because of … mountain lions,” he tweeted. “I’m all for mountain lions. I’m also for people. You know, the ones who need homes. Can’t wait for the lawsuit against Woodside for this brazen violation of state law.”

Woodside officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment early Thursday. Woodside Mayor Dick Brown told AlmanacNews that the town supported the health and preservation of the state’s mountain lions and would not sacrifice it at the expense of split-level housing. There are between 4,000 to 6,000 mountain lions in California, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

“We love animals,” said Brown, adding that it’s “not the Woodside way” to put housing over environmental preservation. “Every house that’s built is one more acre taken away from [mountain lions'] habitat. Where are they going to go? Pretty soon we’ll have nothing but asphalt and no animals or birds.”

The dispute in the California town comes as rents are rising across the United States, in what’s been an ongoing housing policy challenge for the Biden administration. Average rents rose 14 percent last year, to $1,877 a month, with cities such as Austin, New York and Miami experiencing increases as high as 40 percent, according to real estate firm Redfin. Americans expect rents to continue to rise — by about 10 percent this year — according to a report released this month by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Rents are up more than 30 percent in some cities, forcing millions to find another place to live

As higher rent prices are also expected to be a key driver of inflation in coming months, President Biden has vowed to add nearly 100,000 affordable homes over the next three years by providing low-cost funding to qualifying developers, and by encouraging states and local governments to reduce zoning and financing rules for affordable housing.

California has long struggled with housing affordability and homelessness. In response, the state legislature passed Senate Bill 9 last summer, allowing two-lot buildings to be built on single-family lots. The measure, which would allow for as many as four units on a single lot, was vehemently opposed by local government groups and homeowners who claimed that the law would signal “the beginning of the end of homeownership in California.”

Proponents, such as Toni Atkins, president pro tem of the California Senate and the bill’s author, argued to the New York Times that the law still “respects the character of neighborhoods.”

“It’s a modest production bill, and it’s one that will give opportunities to people who haven’t been able to own a home,” Atkins said last year.

In Woodside, a town of roughly 5,500 between San Francisco and San Jose, nearly 20 houses or lots are on the market for more than $1 million, according to Zillow. A handful of properties featuring six bedrooms and up to 10 bathrooms are listed between $27.5 million and $39.8 million. Larry Ellison, who serves as executive chairman and chief technology officer of Oracle, reportedly invested $200 million to upgrade his 23-acre, 10-building property in Woodside that is inspired by Japanese imperial design, according to Forbes.

The town had previously opposed mandates related to state housing. Woodside’s town council voted in 2020 to adopt a resolution outlining how state housing law “deprives us” of the abilities required to meet the needs of the community. Brown, who was then mayor pro tem, was among those who voted for the resolution, according to AlmanacNews.

Days after SB 9 went into effect, Woodside had explored options to weaken potential development stemming from the new law. In early January, the town passed several housing measures, including size restrictions on new units to 800 square feet and prohibited basements in those units. The town also banned development in areas prone to wildfires, according to a Jan. 11 memo.

The mountain lion push last week, however, has put an indefinite hold on split-lot housing in Woodside. Town Manager Kevin Bryant told AlmanacNews that no SB 9 housing applications were submitted to Woodside before all applications were suspended.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife is expected to decide soon whether mountain lions should be listed as an endangered species in the state.

Foote had difficulty figuring out the logic behind the town’s position to put the environment over housing.

“You can build a McMansion and that somehow won’t hurt the mountain lion,” Foote told the Chronicle. “But if you build two units, the lions will somehow fall over and die.”

The town’s decision was panned by critics across California as “stunningly shameless.” Actress Katy Stoll, who grew up near Woodside, argued that there is “plenty of room for multiple homes on those lots” in the community without additional environmental impact. Others agreed.

“What shameless ridiculousness,” tweeted San Francisco Supervisor Matt Haney (D). “Fourplexes are good, actually. No threat to your town, neighborhoods or to mountain lions. Rawr.”

Abha Bhattarai contributed to this report.

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