America’s most expensive zip code is taking a stand against ultrawealthy NIMBYs like Steph Curry and Marc Andreessen—in the smallest possible way

February 23, 2023, 6:42 PM UTC
Steph and Ayesha Curry, pictured during a visit to the White House in January, have privacy concerns.
Noah Graham/NBAE—Getty Images

Known for its lack of sidewalks, its high-profile residents who want to keep a low profile, and its stunning single-family homes, Atherton, Calif., is at a crossroads. Not only is it home to some of Silicon Valley’s wealthiest, it’s also among the region’s least diverse towns, with some of the highest income per capita in the entire country—along with being the nation’s most expensive zip code. But the state is requiring it to adopt a new housing plan, and the billionaire investor and multimillionaire basketball star who call it home don’t like that one bit.

Every eight years, the state of California requires all local governments to adopt housing plans, also known as a housing element. This is essentially a blueprint showing how the jurisdiction plans to meet its housing requirement. In Atherton’s case, the state has put it on the hook for 348 new units over the next eight-year cycle—not such a big ask, you’d think. This will require partial rezoning and some development of multifamily housing. But Atherton’s previous zoning prohibited any single-family home from being built on less than a third of an acre of space. 

“Things are very different this cycle,” San Francisco peninsula housing advocate Jordan Grimes told Fortune. “This is the first cycle where the housing element really has some teeth to it—there’s some consequences.” The difference is apparent when looking at recent complaints over housing policy voiced by two of Atherton’s most prominent ultrawealthy residents: billionaire investor Marc Andreessen and NBA superstar Stephen Curry. Both figures are typically associated with progressive causes; on housing in their community they identified as ultra-NIMBYs, or “not in my backyard.” For once, the state appears to be taking a stand. But the housing crisis in America, California, and the Bay Area is so bad that it’s instructive to look at what a measly victory this is for the pro-housing crowd.

Last year, Andreessen, cofounder of venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz and famous for his early investment in Facebook, wrote a letter to town officials objecting to multifamily overlay zones, which the town had intended to propose in its housing element. Andreessen had written an influential essay titled “It’s Time to Build” in 2020, basically condemning the “failure of action” or “our widespread inability to *build*,” as he put it. 

“I am writing this letter to communicate our IMMENSE objection to the creation of multifamily overlay zones in Atherton,” he and his wife wrote. “Please IMMEDIATELY REMOVE all multifamily overlay zoning projects from the Housing Element which will be submitted to the state in July. They will MASSIVELY decrease our home values, the quality of life of ourselves and our neighbors and IMMENSELY increase the noise pollution and traffic,” The Atlantic reported

This year, Andreessen was joined by one of his neighbors, Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry and his wife, Ayesha Curry, before Atherton adopted its housing element and sent it to the state for review. It includes the rezoning of 23 Oakwood Boulevard, which is near the Currys’ home, to a multifamily zoning overlay—and the property owner intends to develop into a 16-unit apartment building. “We hesitate to add to the ‘not in our backyard’ (literally) rhetoric, but we wanted to send a note before today’s meeting,” Curry and his wife wrote, before they went on to make one of the classic NIMBY complaints. “Safety and privacy for us and our kids continues to be our top priority and one of the biggest reasons we chose Atherton as home,” local paper the Almanac reported earlier. 

Before the town adopted its housing element, rezoning 23 Oakwood Blvd., the Currys asked that it be left out of the town’s housing element, or in the very least, that the town build taller fencing or some sort of landscaping to protect their privacy. 

One particular consequence of this cycle seems to be cause for concern for the town and its residents: the “builder’s remedy.” If Atherton doesn’t have a compliant housing element, a developer can come in and propose a project that doesn’t follow local zoning standards, although the city would still have to approve it. 

Grimes said that you used to be able to submit a bare-bones, basic plan and the state would certify it. But because of California’s ongoing and worsening housing crisis, the state is now requiring local governments to have policies in place that allow housing to be built. The California Department of Housing and Community Development isn’t asking for counties and cities to build more housing themselves, rather just to show there’s a plan in place. 

“Cities have to have policies in place to ensure that there’s no segregation happening within their borders,” he said. “That becomes a big problem for a place like Atherton, which is extremely wealthy.”

Grimes added: “Because Atherton doesn’t allow anything other than single-family homes, they essentially use zoning to keep people out.”

As of last year, 73% of Atherton’s residents are white, 18% are Asian, close to 9% are Hispanic, and 1% are Black, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. 

Unlike Curry, Andreessen’s (along with other residents who submitted complaints) outrage seemed to have worked, and multifamily housing zoning overlays were removed from the proposal. 

This time around it wasn’t so easy. The property of debate near the Currys’ residence was submitted in the housing element (after several complaints and hours of debate) and rezoned to allow for the construction of up to 16 units—with a 20% affordability requirement. But nearly all other multifamily housing zoning was removed from the housing element, so it’s unclear whether the state will certify it. 

Still there are differences in what Andreessen and Curry are opposed to, Grimes told Fortune. In that, Andreessen wanted to remove all multifamily zoning overlay, essentially saying that he doesn’t want multifamily housing in Atherton. But Curry’s letter “was really a very pure example of NIMBYism, I mean, he admits as much in the letter itself,” Grimes said. 

But it’s not just Andreessen and Curry who’ve raised opposition (although in different circumstances) against the mere thought of multifamily housing developments in Atherton—the town’s residents who aren’t considered such high-profile individuals aren’t huge fans of such proposals. 

Local Realtor and Atherton resident Dana Carmel told Fortune that residents are having a hard time with rezoning because with more units come more cars, traffic, and safety concerns, among other things in a town that hasn’t seen much change.

“Because this is completely new to the town, I think the residents want to make sure that it’s well thought out and makes sense from an environmental and safety standpoint,” Carmel said. 

She suggested that ADUs (accessory dwelling units) or Senate Bill 9 lot splits could serve as potential solutions, adding that although there might not be 16 additional units, there could be two to four—a bridge between meeting the state’s criteria to help solve the housing crunch, while keeping the “integrity and feel of Atherton.”  

And that’s exactly what Atherton seems to be doing. For its housing element, Atherton is relying on the development of vacant lots, the subdivision of property using SB 9, the development of new units for Menlo School and Menlo College, the multifamily opportunity at 23 Oakwood Blvd., and residential ADU developments. 

Nonetheless, the state still has to certify the plan—and Grimes told Fortune he’s not expecting that to happen because he thinks Atherton will have to do more to meet the state’s requirements. Fortune’s requests for comment to Curry and Andreessen’s businesses were not immediately returned.

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