Federal judge rejects Stanford’s affordable housing complaint

Oct. 11, 2019, 11:56 p.m.

U.S. District Judge Beth Freeman of San Jose has dismissed Stanford’s challenge of a Santa Clara County housing ordinance requiring 16% of units on residential developments on University land be reserved for affordable housing at a below-market rate. 

Santa Clara County Counsel James Williams claimed victory on Thursday, calling the lawsuit “meritless.”

Stanford’s case, which failed to convince the judge, had centered on the equal right to protection. The University claimed that it had been unfairly “singled out to bear the burden of addressing a countywide shortage of affordable housing, despite the fact that Stanford’s property comprises less than half of one percent of the land zoned for residential development in the unincorporated County.”

The University further alleged that Santa Clara County had rushed to get Stanford-only ordinances on the books to gain negotiating leverage in the fight over Stanford’s GUP application, extracting as much affordable housing as possible. In 2018, the County Director of Planning and Development recognized that Stanford had “single-handedly satisfied most of our Regional Housing Needs Allocation for affordable housing.”

Stanford’s complaint refuted the county’s rationale for the legislation, that problems of affordable housing were especially pronounced in the local University area relative to the general situation of the county. 

But Judge Freeman found that Stanford did not meet its burden to prove the law lacked any rational basis for differential treatment.

“The Ninth Circuit has made clear that ‘[t]he burden is on the one attacking the legislative arrangement to negative every conceivable basis which might support it,’” Freeman wrote.

Citing Ninth Circuit precedent, Freeman’s decision rejected Stanford’s premise that legislation focused on only one tiny contributor to a larger crisis or legislative priority is unfair. 

She invoked the established ability of government agencies to tackle regional problems by focusing on individual property owners and developments, citing a living-wage law in Berkeley that targeted only Berkeley Marina businesses and was subsequently upheld by the courts.

“The County is correct that both the Supreme Court and the Ninth Circuit have made clear that ‘the legislature must be allowed leeway to approach a perceived problem incrementally,’” Freeman wrote.

She dismissed the case with leave to amend, meaning Stanford could choose to modify and resubmit its lawsuit to the court.

The University intends to redraft its complaint to show that the rule is irrational and discriminatory, according to a statement to The Chronicle from University spokesperson E.J. Miranda.

The University now has the opportunity to rework its case. Changes could include another attempt at describing the county’s approach as irrational, finding an example of a developer that has been treated better, or differentiating the case at hand from the precedent Judge Freeman cited.

Contact Cooper Veit at cveit ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Cooper Veit '22 is an opinions writer and amateur Steinbeck scholar from San Francisco. Talk to him about the work and life of John Steinbeck, and contact him at cveit 'at' stanforddaily.com.

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