Piedmont’s Affordable Housing Plan: More Servants’ Quarters

downtonabbey copyThe city of Piedmont is one of the wealthiest and most exclusive communities in California, but per state law, Piedmont is required to demonstrate that it’s regulations do not block the construction of a “fair share” of new housing, including affordable housing. This doesn’t mean that Piedmont is required to build new housing. However, it does require the city to demonstrate that its municipal rules don’t impede new development.

Affordable housing is a big part of the state’s law that requires cities to show how they are creating opportunities for developers to build new housing units. Lots of cities are eager to attract affordable housing development, including Oakland and San Jose. Piedmont, however, was founded as a wealthy enclave, and has built itself out physically, and politically, to exclude the construction of affordable housing within its limits.

So it’s not surprising to read in Piedmont’s Housing Element (a document that spells out how the city plans to create opportunities for building a “fair share” of housing, including affordable housing) that Piedmont’s only contribution to creating more affordable housing is to add servants’ quarters to some of the mansions that dot it’s hilly landscape.

According to Piedmont’s Planning Commission, the city has a very small number of rental housing units, only 50 apartments. All of them are crammed along Linda Avenue on the Oakland border. Piedmont has only 50 vacant lots upon which to build new housing, and many of these sites are unfit for construction of any large multi-unit structures. Piedmont was zoned decades ago to be a community of homogenous single family homes with large yards and long driveways. The only variation really was in the size of the lots, starting with large houses surrounded by generously proportioned yards up to the multi-acre estates along Sea View Avenue where every residence has its own private tennis court and pool and English garden fit for long walks under rows of redwoods and oaks. Piedmont’s city charter requires a referendum of all voters to change zoning in any area of the city from its current single family status to a multi-family zone that could accommodate apartment construction, or renovation of existing mansions into multi-unit buildings. In other words, this ain’t gonna happen.

The result is that Piedmont isn’t likely to build affordable housing, even though it’s required to demonstrate that developers have the opportunity to build affordable housing that would contribute a “fair share” to the Bay Area’s needs. The solution Piedmont’s government has come up with to build new and affordable housing is to encourage the addition of servants’ quarters—small studios and apartments added to the basements or attics above the garages of mansions. In fact, many homes in Piedmont were originally built with servants’ quarters for butlers, maids, nannies, gardeners, and other helpers. But having help fell out of fashion after the 1960s, so lots of these quarters were turned into dens or guest rooms. Piedmont’s planners hope that homeowners will take these spaces in their houses and re-convert them into rental units.

“Given the lack of vacant and redevelopable land in the City, Piedmont has historically explored other ways to meet future affordable housing needs,” explains the city’s Housing Element. “Since the 1990s, the City has found that the most effective approach is to actively encourage the production of second units.”
Here’s a more detailed description excerpted from Piedmont’s Housing Element explaining what these second units are:
“The City of Piedmont has a long tradition of allowing second unit housing. Many of these units were initially created as living quarters for domestic employees. Today, second units in Piedmont provide housing for professionals, seniors, caregivers, child care employees, relatives, and young adults entering the housing market, among others. In some cases, elderly Piedmont homeowners have moved in to second units on their own properties in order to retain ownership and have a source of retirement income. Given the single family character of the city and the absence of land available for new development, second units are the most practical and prevalent form of affordable housing in the city today.”
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1 comment
  1. Kit Vaq said:

    Thanks for your insight on this issue about Piedmont, Darwin. I’m always amazed how some people in the Oakland Glenview neighborhood, which is next door to Piedmont, like to compare Oakland to Piedmont as if it were and should be the same in design and culture. The attitude is worse in Montclair, another hills neighborhood nearby. Some privileged Oaklanders tend to forget that Oakland is a major urban city with all the complexities that come with a large urban community, and are clueless why people from the flats would even travel to the hills, except in their minds, to commit a crime. The fact that Piedmont is guarded by street cameras also shows their exclusivity is a visible reminder to the unsuspecting who might wander there. It’s a visually nice place to live kind of like on a TV film set for “Leave It To Beaver” or “The Brady Bunch,” but if you don’t have the money, don’t bother even venturing there. It’s truly an established enclave of the privileged, wealthy, white few. There are many communities like this in the Bay Area, but still there is not enough affordable housing for the majority of the population, and that majority is growing.

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