• Tue. Apr 20th, 2021

A simple home renovation, a slur and a federal case in Los Altos

Satish Ramachandran wanted to update and improve his one-story suburban home — spruce up his patio, remodel the kitchen and convert a garage into a living space.

But a $50,000 renovation gradually and painfully turned into a life-altering obsession for the 57-year-old, Indian-born entrepreneur. His project — a routine home remodel in a wealthy Silicon Valley community — opened a bitter neighborhood dispute tinged with allegations of racism, video surveillance and years of recriminations and legal fees.

The renovations have remained unfinished and in limbo for nearly eight years. Disputes with a neighbor and building inspectors stalled the project and spilled into criminal and civil state courts. Now Ramachandran has filed a federal civil rights suit claiming widespread racial discrimination by city of Los Altos employees.

The suit claims 14 Asian and Indian homeowners in Los Altos were denied approvals for home improvements and expansions, while at least one White family was granted permission for a similar project.

“I don’t say these things lightly,” Ramachandran said. “There’s a very, very entrenched sense of entitlement going on.”

The suit filed in U.S. District Court in San Jose charges a city employee told Ramachandran, a Los Altos homeowner for 20 years, to “Go back to India” during a 2013 home inspection.

Ramachandran filed complaints and public records requests to see if his experience was isolated. According to the suit, it was not.

In a separate incident, a city building official refused to inspect a kitchen remodel in the home of another Indian-born homeowner because he disliked the family’s landscaping, according to the suit, saying, “This might work in India, not here.”

The city in a statement denied the allegations against Los Altos employees.

The suit says Ramachandran’s experience highlights the challenges Asian, Indian and other minority professionals have moving into the affluent, majority White enclave in Silicon Valley.

It also shows the difficulties of building and renovating in the Bay Area’s most exclusive cities. Los Altos, with a median home price of $3.4 million, has been targeted by the state for failing to meet home-building goals for all but luxury houses, and for enacting restrictions on building accessory dwelling units, or ADUs.

Dylan Casey, executive director of the nonprofit California Renters Legal Advocacy & Education Fund which has sued Los Altos, said resistance to development is common in Bay Area communities. Often, local building codes are designed to guide large developers and are difficult for homeowners to navigate. The confusion can lead to selective enforcement, Casey said.

“If we had clearer, simpler and more permissive rules on remodeling and developing houses,” he said, “it would lead to a lot less of this thing.”

In 2013, Ramachandran decided to put a wet bar in his home, convert his garage into a small apartment, add a new 60-square-foot shed in his backyard, and upgrade the front patio.

He talked through the project with building officials and secured the necessary permits. But his renovations — particularly the shed placed along the property line — irked his neighbors of nearly 30 years, the Jacobs family, according to the suit.

The neighbors complained to the city. They later disputed the property line separating Ramachandran’s shed and their backyard studio, public records show. Eventually, a Superior Court judge agreed with the Jacobs and approved a new property line six inches farther into Ramachandran’s property. He is appealing.

In July 2013, a city inspector came to Ramachandran’s house unannounced during construction. The inspector showed up at the behest of the neighbors, the suit claims. “Why do you live here?” the suit says he asked. “Why don’t you move to San Jose?” Then he yelled at Ramachandran to “Go back to India!”

Ramachandran immediately told the inspector to leave and complained to city officials. The inspector is still employed by the city. “They were just putting me through the wringer,” Ramachandran said.

The dispute began to obsess him. He cut back on his work as a tech consultant and he started renting rooms in his home for additional income. He discovered other Asian and Indian families had reported similar treatment, the suit says.

In one example, the Kedia family never got approval for their kitchen remodel after a Los Altos city inspector told them to landscape their yard, the suit says. The inspector issued a stop-work order, even though work had been completed. The city has never signed off on the project. The family, which owns multiple properties in the city, declined to comment.

In another case, the Ling family approached the city about renovating and expanding a small, old backyard unit. The city had no record of the structure and ordered the Lings to remove the existing kitchen. The family declined to comment.

The suit claims Los Altos turned down numerous home improvement applications from Asian and Indian homeowners while approving code exceptions and a similar project for the Jacobs family.

“They retaliated against him because he stood up for himself,” said Bill Cohan, Ramachandran’s attorney. “Can you imagine being in that situation?”