planning for multifamily
MAPPING IT - Low and medium density residential parcels (shown as the “small multi-unit housing” area) within a half-mile of a bus stop, not adjacent to a pre-1941 house, not within “hillside” or “historic” areas, and not within the very high fire risk (VHFHSZ) zone appear to account for 9.6% of the town’s total area. (Map by Jake Wilde using ArcGIS Pro)

California’s Department of Housing and Community Development seemed on the verge of approving Los Gatos’ residential plan, its Housing Element (now more than a year overdue), when the backpedaling began.

On Feb. 6, Council voted to introduce a new measure to defend single-family and moderate-density areas against housing Sacramento is pushing Los Gatos to accept.

“I see the knife at our throats saying, if we don’t make this vast transformation to the character of Los Gatos, then we won’t be certified,” said Vice Mayor Matthew Hudes, who introduced a complicated motion to prevent multi-family units from being invited into vast swaths of the community. “It’s going to impact hundreds of residents—thousands of residents.”

As Los Gatos has made minor policy changes in recent months (adopting a Housing Element Overlay Zone and easing-up on story pole requirements, for example) the critiques from HCD have been dwindling.

For many items, the State had given an unofficial thumbs-up in behind-the-scenes meetings with Town staff and its consultant.

‘I see the knife at our throats’

—Vice Mayor Matthew Hudes

The housing czar has been very clear, though: it would like to see the community permit a wider variety of residential unit styles, to create more options for people who’d like to live in the exclusive enclave at the doorstep of the companies driving global technological innovation.

HCD didn’t say Los Gatos had to promise to build multi-family housing in single-family and medium-density zones.

The agency is only asking the Town to commit to considering it in the future.

But for many locals, this is a bridge too far.

Some homeowners are worried that it’ll be more difficult to find parking in the days ahead and say evacuating during wildfires could become harder.

The regularly-scheduled Council meeting was held as many people in the Santa Cruz Mountains were still dealing with road closures from a powerful storm that knocked out electricity for a good chunk of the town.

Parts of some routes just outside of Los Gatos are still single-lane from 2023 tempests.

“There’s fire danger in having congested roads up in the hills,” said resident Rick Kananen. “They’re already not wide enough.”

Many citizens are worried that if they allow for one little crack of potential multi-family housing, the whole dam will break, causing property values to spiral.

Hudes himself referenced the new State laws designed to prevent communities from being more permissive of affordable housing and then reversing course later.

Los Gatos Council considered changes to the Housing Element Draft on Feb. 6. (Drew Penner / Los Gatan)

Debating words

A solid chunk of the meeting centered around whether the Town should agree to look at introducing new housing types in “a variety of” neighborhoods or “town-wide.”

It was interesting to hear the more conservative officials take up this issue once again, particularly since more liberal ones have consistently given ground on this point.

Councilmember Rob Moore even included “variety” in his motion, at the prior Council meeting; HCD has said it’s okay with either.

Hudes was particularly irked that the Town had gone to HCD to talk about direction provided by the Housing Element Advisory Board that differed from what was discussed by Council.

Staff clarified that officials had not, in fact, changed the language back to “town-wide” (as recommended by the HEAB) and presented this to HCD behind their backs.

Council was getting the chance to consider this update now, staff added.

For months now, Councilmembers have been bellyaching that HCD is having staffing issues and hasn’t been clear about what exactly it wants Los Gatos to do.

One thing that the agency has said, however, is it wants Los Gatos to build 150 multi-unit-style homes, instead of 50, in small or medium-density zones.

The Housing Element Draft explains that this is only referring to things like accessory dwelling units, micro units, pre-fabricated homes, and clustered cottage housing—not large apartment blocks.

Hudes tried a motion that sought to restrict multi-family housing in these areas.

It would have modified zoning “to allow residential or increased residential intensity and/or density in a variety of neighborhoods. This includes zoning amendments already completed along higher intensity corridors with access to transit and other opportunities (North 40, Los Gatos Boulevard, Highway 9, and Winchester Boulevard) and for sites within lower-density neighborhoods (Oka Lane, Lark Avenue Area, Union Avenue, Downtown Area).”

Housing Element consultant Veronica Tam said her read on the motion was that it would do the “opposite” of what HCD has been asking for.

Unsurprisingly, Moore, the most pro-housing voice on Council, wasn’t a fan of this approach.

“I think this doesn’t make any sense,” he said. “I don’t understand this.”

Councilmember Maria Ristow didn’t like the motion text either, arguing it failed to follow HCD’s direction.

“It just doesn’t seem to address the comment,” she said. “I think we’re just going to go backward.”

Matthew Hudes
Vice Mayor Matthew Hudes (left) urged Councilmember Rob Rennie (right to protect single-family zones from intensification. (Drew Penner / Los Gatan)

But Mayor Mary Badame saw it a little differently.

“It seems to me we’re adding specificity,” she said.

Hudes noted his intention was to focus residential development along higher-intensity corridors.

Los Altos actually won HCD over with this sort of approach, he added.

“They list the sites that they are proposing to change in the lower-density neighborhoods,” he said.

Mayor Badame said Los Gatos should follow the “clever wording” Los Altos employed.

But Los Gatos’ outside legal counsel, from Goldfarb & Lipman LLP, said being more specific at this stage (when HCD is okay with a vague description) could expose the Town to lawsuits if some of the neighborhoods get developed while others don’t.

Councilmember Moore noted HCD’s indicated it’s fine with this section of the Draft, meaning changing it now would create obstacles to winning approval.

Every day the Housing Element is uncertified is another day developers have rights to build housing that they otherwise wouldn’t.

Los Gatos has already received 13 SB330 housing development plans (including duplicate addresses and preapplications), including some that mention plans to invoke the “Builder’s Remedy” law, which comes into play when a community doesn’t have a compliant Housing Element.

This motion failed 2-2 with Councilmember Rob Rennie abstaining.

Hudes said it’s important to exercise restraint “so we’re not having fourplexes put up in historic neighborhoods.”

Ristow would later point out that Los Gatos’ historic neighborhoods already have fourplexes.

Rennie joins the push-back against Sacramento

After a second recess, Hudes presented another motion to, “facilitate small multi-unit housing in certain low and medium density designations. This includes creating mixed residential neighborhoods through new and innovative housing types that meet the changing needs of Los Gatos households and expand housing choice in a variety of neighborhoods. Housing types include, but are not limited to single dwelling units, multi-family dwelling units, accessory dwelling units, small and micro units, use of prefabricated homes and clustered/cottage housing. This zoning will occur in a variety of areas throughout town but NOT in areas which are vhfhsz (very high fire hazard severity zones), historic districts, adjacent to homes in our historic inventory (currently pre-1941) homes, in hillside residential zones, within 500 feet of an evacuation route and are more than ½ of a currently established public transit stop.”

He clarified that he meant “or” are more than half a mile from a bus stop, which would preclude plenty more places from higher-intensity development.

In response to a Los Gatan tweet about the motion, Jake Wilde, a geography and urban studies student at San Jose State University, calculated that this would only leave 9.6% of the town open for these sorts of small multi-family developments.

motion text at Los Gatos Town Council
Hudes’ motions were projected on a screen for Council members and the public to see. (Drew Penner / Los Gatan)

Town Manager Laurel Prevetti threw another wrench into things when she confirmed Los Gatos doesn’t have official evacuation pathways, meaning, under Hudes’ wording, all of Los Gatos would be off-limits—something the State would never go for.

“Every street becomes an evacuation route,” she said.

Councilmember Moore said the motion would preclude “almost the entirety of the town” and would mean Los Gatos was “backtracking.”

He said Hudes’ motion actually puts Los Gatos at risk of being forced to accept more residential units from developers, because it’s likely the housing ministry will reject the new approach, causing further delays.

“HCD was telling us to put more units in,” he said. “I think we have a Housing Element that’s in good condition right now, and we’re starting to undermine it.”

It’s the sort of motion that Councilmember Rennie often votes down.

But in this case, clearly nervous about his standing with homeowners, he decided to side with Hudes and Badame, upending the trajectory of Los Gatos’ housing policy.

The motion passed 3-2, with Moore and Ristow against.

After the vote, Rennie seemed unclear on what exactly he had agreed to support.

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Drew Penner is an award-winning Canadian journalist whose reporting has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Good Times Santa Cruz, Los Angeles Times, Scotts Valley Press Banner, San Diego Union-Tribune, KCRW and the Vancouver Sun. Please send your Los Gatos and Santa Cruz County news tips to [email protected].


  1. Drew Penner’s article leaves me totally confused. He jumps from one condition to another, without any background, that is sorely needed. I agree with Hudes and Badame on not trying to jam in housing that is inappropriate for the culture and history of Los Gatos. And Moore, well, he needs to grow up. His ideas are certainly not needed. Next time, don’t vote for him!

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