Stanford University on Wednesday filed two lawsuits against Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, charging county officials of unfairly and illegally targeting the university with a recently adopted law that aims to promote more affordable housing on campus.
The university is contesting the new "inclusionary housing" law, which the board approved on Sept. 25 and which requires the university to designate 16 percent of all new housing units as below-market-rate housing. The two lawsuits, filed in state and federal courts, allege that the county's law violates the Equal Protection clauses of the U.S. and California constitutions, which prohibit government entities from treating one individual differently from others in similar circumstances.
The university also indicated that it plans to sue the county over a separate law that the board had also passed on Sept. 25, one that significantly raised the "housing impact fees" that Stanford has to pay for every square foot of new development. Under the law, the fee is slated to go up from $36.22 to $68.50 per square foot.
In a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court, Northern District of California, Stanford takes issues with both policies, though the new suit only pertains to the "inclusionary housing" law (Stanford has a later deadline for challenging the ordinance on impact fees). It argues that the county is illegally forcing Stanford to bear the burden of solving what the county itself had determined to be a regional problem: A severe shortage of affordable housing.
By targeting Stanford with its new affordable-housing requirement, the county is violating the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits states from denying "any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws," the university alleges in a complaint.
"The County ordinance impermissibly singles out Stanford University," Geoffrey L. Robinson, of the firm Perkins Coie LLP, wrote on behalf of Stanford in the federal lawsuit. "Through its ordinance, the County has intentionally imposed affordable housing requirements exclusively on housing development constructed by Stanford."
The lawsuit, as well as a similar one that the university filed in state Superior Court comes at a time when Stanford and the county are negotiating a new "general use permit" (GUP) to govern the university's future growth. Stanford has applied for a permit to build 2.275 million square feet of academic spaces and 3,150 new units (a combination of student beds and faculty housing) by 2035. The county is set to rule on Stanford's GUP by mid-2019.
The legal challenge was widely expected. During recent hearings on the new housing ordinances, Stanford consistently objected to the two new laws and had proposed its own plan for promoting affordable housing, which includes converting existing market-rate homes to below-market-rate housing, building some new housing and contributing funds for future affordable-housing projects. On a recent episode of the Weekly's news show "Behind the Headlines," Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian alluded to Stanford's expected legal challenge over the new housing laws.
Against the backdrop of litigation, Stanford and the county are now kicking off negotiations on a development agreement that may include some — or all — of the policies in Stanford's proposal, as well as other conditions that the county may request as part of the expansion project. But while Stanford was hoping that the development agreement would obviate the need for the new laws, county supervisors opted in September to pass both housing ordinances, with the understanding that they can revise or repeal them once the county and Stanford complete their negotiations.
In a statement, Stanford announced that irrespective of the lawsuits, the university intends to "continue working constructively and collaboratively with Santa Clara County to negotiate a long-term agreement as part of a new General Use Permit that would include significant additional amounts of affordable housing."
"While contesting its unequal treatment under the ordinance, Stanford is not taking a broad position opposing inclusionary housing ordinances," the Stanford statement reads. "Stanford also is not seeking to stop the construction of affordable housing; on the contrary, the university supports and is a major participant in the development of affordable housing, both for members of the university community and for local residents."
As evidence, it points to its contributions to affordable housing since 2000, when its last general use permit was approved. The university has paid more than $26 million in affordable-housing fees and has constructed 816 units that it says meet county standards for affordability for low-income and very low-income households.
The county also cited the ongoing construction of Escondido Village Graduate Residences, which will bring another 1,300 units to the campus.
"The issue in the litigation is not about Stanford's commitment to more affordable housing, but rather that it is unlawful for Stanford to be singled out for unequal treatment in a county ordinance," Stanford's statement reads. "Santa Clara County's studies determine that all new housing, anywhere in the county, generates demand for affordable housing. However, the county's new ordinance applies to a single entity, unreasonably targeting Stanford and violating constitutional equal protection principles."
Watch the Dec. 7 episode of "Behind the Headlines" where Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian gives an update on Stanford University's expansion proposal or listen to the conversation on our new podcast.