STANFORD — Nestled just south of Stanford University’s campus, amid narrow winding roads lined with imposing oaks and historical estates, an exclusive enclave has neighbors pitted against neighbors over a legal battle that poses a new twist on the region’s housing crisis.
The Upper San Juan neighborhood, once home to two men who later became U.S. presidents as well as a secretary of state, has 123 single-family homes that mostly house senior university faculty and some of their widows, who retain their houses through their lifetimes.
The battle here is an all-too-familiar story in the Bay Area. Residents who have lived in their homes for decades are clashing with those raising alarm bells over the area’s exorbitant housing costs and lack of development. The issue in Upper San Juan has put some of the Stanford faculty in a vice, turning it into a radioactive topic of conversation and laying bare starkly different views about how to tackle the region’s housing woes.
A new lawsuit, filed by a Stanford professor and a housing advocacy group, claims Santa Clara County broke state law after amending Upper San Juan’s development standards. The modifications came after years of concerns from residents who wanted to preserve the character of their neighborhood. The changes increased front yard setbacks and put a cap on lot coverage of both single-family and multi-family homes.
“If cities and counties can simply sidestep state law and prevent construction of housing, that’s just really bad for citizens around this entire state,” said Ken Shotts, a tenured political economy professor who lives in an adjacent neighborhood. He and the California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund are suing the county.
County officials, however, insist that they haven’t made it any harder to build in Upper San Juan and are legally in the clear. During a vote in May, County Supervisor Joe Simitian, whose district includes the Stanford area, described the new rules as “modest.”
“It’s easy when we look at this particular neighborhood in isolation to forget that there are 8,000 acres of Stanford land,” Simitian said during the meeting. “There is quite a bit of opportunity and quite a bit of flexibility if there is a desire to create additional housing.” He and the county’s legal counsel both declined an interview request.
Upper San Juan and nearby neighborhoods were created just a handful of years after the university was established in 1885, with the goal of having faculty and staff live on campus. But Upper San Juan in particular is unique – its lot sizes are much larger than the surrounding area’s. So are its past residents. Both Herbert Hoover and John F. Kennedy once lived in Upper San Juan. So did former Secretary of State George Shultz.
The neighborhood’s historical homes, many over a century old, are leased by the residents while Stanford owns the land underneath them.
In the intervening years, Stanford and the county have battled over the prospect of adding more housing. The university sued the county in 2018 over a new law that aimed to promote more affordable developments, though Stanford dropped the case in 2020. The university also withdrew its application from the county’s planning department in 2019 over what would have been a major expansion of both student and faculty housing.
In the Upper San Juan neighborhood specifically, the university has promised to try to alleviate the faculty housing shortage. The Cabrillo-Dolores Faculty Homes, set to be completed next year, replaced two unoccupied single-family homes with seven new ones.
The price tag for the new developments have yet to be determined. Sale prices of surrounding homes in recent years range between $2 million to $4 million.
But the Cabrillo-Dolores development has met resistance from some Upper San Juan residents ever since its inception in 2015. They claimed that the new homes weren’t a good fit for the historical neighborhood, so the Board of Supervisors began exploring options to preserve the neighborhood’s character.
Last spring, county supervisors unanimously voted to change the minimum distance homes must be set back from the street to 30 feet from 25 feet, while establishing standards for how much of a lot can be covered by a house to 20% for single-family homes and at 35% for multi-family homes.
The lawsuit against these changes is a particularly thorny one for Upper San Juan residents, several of whom declined to discuss the case, with one stating that it could disturb the harmonious relationships that had been developed over years.
One resident, English professor Blair Hoxby, maintains that the county rules aren’t making it any harder for faculty to live there.
“County standards are not keeping people out of the neighborhood,” wrote Hoxby in an emailed response. “The problem is not a lack of homes.” Hoxby said there are “beautiful, vacant” houses on the market in Upper San Juan that aren’t being purchased.
He added: “We would be delighted to welcome Professor Shotts as a neighbor and would gladly invite his family over for a meal and a walk around the neighborhood.”
Plaintiffs in the case argue that the supervisors’ changes violate Senate Bill 330, which was passed in 2019 and is supposed to help prevent local governments from instituting new laws that do “anything that would lessen the intensity of housing.”
Todd Williams, an East Bay-based housing attorney, said that the county supervisors’ changes probably fall into a legal gray zone. The county didn’t outright change the zoning of Upper San Juan but changed rules on the edges that a judge may determine make housing more difficult.
“There is a real tension right now with what the state Legislature is trying to do to address the housing crisis and local governments maintaining their discretion over local land use policy,” said Williams. “This is an area of the law that has not previously been tested.”
For Shotts, the answer is simple.
“I think this is just bad public policy,” he said about the county’s new rules. “What we need in this area is more housing.”