On July 24th, Stanford University issued a not-so-veiled threat to Santa Clara County: if you try to regulate us, we will sue you.
Let’s back up. For two years, Stanford has been seeking a permit from the County to allow the university to expand until 2035. In April, consultants hired by the County published a report studying the housing cost generated by this development.
In May, based on this report, the County began considering two regulations to mitigate the impacts. The first was an Affordable Housing Fee Ordinance, which would require Stanford to pay fees to the County at a rate proportional to its academic growth. In total, the report shows that Stanford should be charged up to $326 million to mitigate its impacts. The second was an Inclusionary Housing Ordinance. This would require the university to create affordable units in proportion to new market rate housing on campus. The paired ordinances would incentivize Stanford to build affordable units on campus– units that could go to workers, some of whom commute six hours each day.
In response to these reasonable regulations, Stanford sent a letter to the County claiming that these ordinances were “unlawful”, implicitly threatening a lawsuit if the County moves forward with them. The University’s legal arguments are weak at best.
First, the University alleges that they are being singled out, violating equal protection. The ordinance is not specific to Stanford as an entity, but is defined geographically as the northwest unincorporated county. While it is true that this proposed fee is much higher than any other development fee, the difference is not arbitrary and therefore not unlawful. Counties must weigh the costs and benefits of mitigation measures (p 18). While mandating payment of a full mitigation fee from a private company might result in the company relocating, thereby negatively impacting job growth, Stanford cannot pack up Hoover Tower and relocate. Therefore, in this case, the County can properly price development without hurting job growth. The ordinance is not vindictiveness on the part of Santa Clara County– it is the result of properly applied research and government procedure.
Second, the letter claims that the fee amount is not proportional, even though the County has already spent significant time and tax dollars to study the issue in their Affordable Housing Nexus Study, which determined the appropriate proportionality of impact to fee imposition.
Finally, they argue that the ordinances would qualify as a modification of the 2000 General Use Permit and the Stanford Community Plan. While this complaint is true, the County can easily remedy this issue while still implementing the ordinances.
As an alternative to the ordinances, Stanford has offered to mitigate its housing impacts via a Development Agreement (DA), which lays out Stanford’s proposed mitigation mechanisms. While a DA has the potential to offer housing solutions outside the scope of either ordinances, the DA that Stanford currently offers is insulting. In offering a mere fraction of the money necessary for full mitigation ($36 million instead of $326 million) and offering to convert units to be affordable without clarifying who those units will be made available to, Stanford shows that it either has not listened to or does not care about the needs of its community. If Stanford is serious about a meaningful Development Agreement, they ought to conduct meaningful outreach. If a student coalition can do so in creating its platform (a platform that would be easily incorporated into a Development Agreement), we don’t see why a university can’t as well.
The Stanford Coalition for Planning an Equitable 2035 is baffled as to why Stanford is so opposed to housing its workers on campus that they would threaten a lawsuit to avoid having to do so. As Stanford complains about technical minutiae, we must remember: if Stanford wanted to build housing for its workers, it could. Stanford is trying to paint itself as a victim and cast this debate as a matter of legality. In doing so, they intentionally restrict our vision of what is possible.
Ultimately, it is a moral issue: whether Stanford — with all of its resources — decides to actively support its workers and build out a truly inclusive community for all of its members. Stanford itself said it best: “When Stanford sets ambitious, bold goals and marshals the institutional will to achieve them, dramatic things can happen.”
— Amulya Yerrapotu ’20 & Matt Nissen ’20