Monte Sereno Council
Monte Sereno Council, June 6. (Drew Penner / Los Gatan)

Monte Sereno turned to granny flats—also known as accessory dwelling units—as a way to satisfy affordable housing mandates, adopting its draft Housing Element in the nick of time, at the end of January.

But with California’s Department of Housing and Community Development partly rejecting this approach, March 31, saying Monte Sereno needs to allow multifamily units in its borders to overcome a legacy of segregation, current and former elected officials expressed their frustration and confusion at Council on June 6.

Former Mayor Shawn Leuthold, speaking during public comment, was frustrated the housing authority will only allow the City to count 160 toward the 223 (193 plus a 15% buffer) it’s required to plan for. 

“How do we say, ‘No,’ and appeal?” he asked. “They cannot be the certifying body.”

former mayor
Former Monte Sereno Mayor Shawn Leuthold. (Drew Penner / Los Gatan)

Monte Sereno is now moving toward incentivizing lot splits permitted under the new SB9 law, but Council members weren’t interested in following Sacramento’s lead toward apartments or condos.

The State specifically dinged Monte Sereno for not taking its earlier letter to heart, noting Monte Sereno didn’t make changes to the Housing Element draft to explain how it would welcome lower-income people into the city.

In fact, HCD says it isn’t just a good idea for Monte Sereno to think about building higher-density homes—it doesn’t have a choice.

“While the element was updated to include a program to ‘analyze’ opportunities for multifamily zoning, it still must identify and analyze significant and realistic opportunities for multifamily development in the planning period as part of this update,” states the rejection letter, sent by HCD Senior Program Manager Paul McDougall to Monte Sereno City Manager Steve Leonardis. “Based on the outcomes of this analysis, the element must include programs to make sites available with appropriate zoning, allowable densities (e.g., 20 units per acre) and development standards to encourage and facilitate multifamily development at maximum allowable densities.”

The housing authority says Monte Sereno didn’t go far enough in proving how it would create space in the Silicon Valley city for people of any race, religion, sex, marital status, ancestry, national origin, color, familial status or ability level, in the document that’s supposed to satisfy Regional Housing Needs Assessment mandates.

“The element requires revision to complete an assessment of fair housing,” the letter reads. “Among other factors, the City is entirely the highest resource category in access opportunity, wholly a concentrated area of affluence and predominantly consists of households with the highest median income, a stark contrast to the rest of the region. As a result, the element should include a significant and robust suite of actions (not limited to the RHNA) to promote housing mobility and increasing housing choices and affordability throughout the city.”

Councilmember Javed Ellahie, a Pakistani-American, bristled at the contention that Monte Sereno was racially segregated—and he said as much.

“Just because the prices are higher, it’s not a segregation issue, it’s a wealth issue,” he said, telling an EMC Planning Group consultant, appearing over Zoom, to straighten the housing authority out on this point. “If you could do something in that regard that would be very helpful.”

Councilmember Burton Craig was absent from the meeting.

Monte Sereno Mayor Bryan Mekechuk speaks during the City Council’s June 6 meeting. (Drew Penner / Los Gatan)

Mayor Bryan Mekechuk, a former Toronto resident, sided with Ellahie, noting the four present Council members were all born outside of the United States of America, lending his voice to the choir calling for HCD to rethink their view of the community, which has an average income of $418,535, according to 2021 US Census data.

Councilmember Rowena Turner asked outgoing City Attorney Denise Bazzano, of Burke, Williams & Sorensen, if the City might appeal the letter.

Bazzano said the City can’t question the overall RHNA numbers at this point, and pointed out Monte Sereno still has time to make changes before serious penalties kick in.

“At this stage, there is nothing to actually appeal,” Bazzano said.

Ellahie said racial segregation doesn’t exist in Monte Sereno.

Ellahie said he doesn’t see Monte Sereno as a racially segregated place. (Drew Penner / Los Gatan)

“I don’t believe we have any,” he said, addressing Ande Flower of EMC Planning. “Isn’t Monte Sereno already ‘affirmatively fair?’”

“This is a great question,” Flower said, pointing out that HCD wants Monte Sereno to do a regional analysis of segregation patterns. “It makes sense that it’s hard to see.”

In its first review, HCD points out that Monte Sereno itself agrees that there are probably what’s known as Racial Concentration Areas of Affluence neighborhoods in the community.

But, like with Los Gatos, the State says Monte Sereno needs to come to terms with the fact that the entire city is a site of racial segregation.

Vice Mayor Evert Wolsheimer said he’s been trying to study up on HCD rules, commenting, “—which, believe me, takes a substantial amount of coffee.”

Turner said she believes HCD is violating the due process clause in the Constitution.

Rowena Turner
Councilmember Rowena Turner rolls her eyes while speaking about HCD’s recent actions. (Drew Penner / Los Gatan)

“They say, ‘Here’s your RHNA allocation,’ and yet, ‘We’re going to give you more things that you’re going to have to overcome,’” she said. “That doesn’t seem fair.”

During the public hearing, Alex Qiao held up a picture showing the property where she and her husband have been trying to build housing under the State’s new SB9 process.

There’ve been way too many hurdles, particularly how California’s minimum unit size for such developments is 800 square feet, while Monte Sereno set a maximum of 800 square feet, she stated.

Qiao characterized this as a frustrating paradox.

“It is arguably legal, but senseless,” she said.

Alex Qiao
Alex Qiao speaks about the challenges of building housing in Monte Sereno. (Drew Penner / Los Gatan)

Her husband Johnny Zhang said opening up housing options would benefit Monte Sereno as a whole.

“Such small houses are not desired by residents,” he said of 800-square-foot SB9 units. “I urge you to consider the long-term benefit and make the necessary modification to the SB9 ordinance.”

Bruce Lerman said residential options are so bad his son had to move to San Jose.

He, too, lambasted the City for its 800-square-foot SB9 maximum, in his public comments.

“Congratulations, you met your goal,” he said. “You’ve actually forced my son out of the area.”

Leuthold asked the body he used to lead to open up SB9 rules—but not by much.

“We (wouldn’t) want to suddenly split 500 of our units here,” he said. “We want to split 30 units.”

And as far as the requirement to put in multifamily? The former mayor predicted Council members who move in that direction would face the wrath of local voters.

“You know what happens when we try to identify lots,” he said. “There’s going to be recalls.”

Leuthold derided Los Gatos’ major affordable housing project, the North 40, as producing many luxury homes but not as many affordable units as some community members had originally hoped for.

“That’s not helping solve any problems,” he said. “We need to say, ‘No, no, no,’ to HCD.”

Mekechuk, the current mayor, asked Leuthold how he thinks the City should ease SB9 restrictions.

Tony Jeans
Developer Tony Jeans has been working with local families on SB9 lot-split applications. (Drew Penner / Los Gatan)

“Do you think we should direct staff to expand the availability of SB9, and to come back to Council on some ideas on how to do that thoughtfully?” Mekechuk inquired.

Leuthold acknowledged Monte Sereno was required to play the housing “game” designed by Sacramento, and agreed that SB9 was likely the City’s best next move.

“When they split they’re going to be two half-acre lots,” he said. “We don’t want to be promoting that for all 1,000 units here.”

Developer Tony Jeans said SB9 homes can fit into Monte Sereno appropriately.

He’s submitted one so far, and has several more on the way.

“These are reasonable projects,” he said. “We don’t need to deal with this confrontationally.”

Ellahie suggested striking a partnership with West Valley Community Services as a way to get HCD off Monte Sereno’s back, showing it has a plan to make some ADUs available for lower-income households.

Monte Sereno City Planner Diana Perkins said she now had direction to move forward with a new SB9 ordinance.

On her way out of the meeting, Qiao said it was disappointing to see the Council seemed more interested in the perspective of former Council member Leuthold than their experiences.

“Three minutes is very, very short, and they don’t respond,” she said, of how their public comments went compared to Leuthold’s. “When he speaks, and when he finished his time, he’s able to do the interaction.”

Nevertheless, she was heartened to see the Council now appears to be opening up to the type of housing they want to build.

“It feels like it’s going in the right direction, but it also feels like it’s being deferred,” she said. “They have to do something, so they move forward a little bit. But how much? And what’s the end result?”

Qiao noted the Council appeared unclear about the definition of the multifamily housing it seems to fear so much.

“California needs homes,” she said. “Just give people homes. Granted, I wouldn’t want a 20-unit-per-acre multi-family (development) next to my door.”

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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].


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