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Crime or peak urbanism? YIMBYs can't help but applaud the transit officials who built secret apartments inside Bay Area train stations

Kate Talerico, The Mercury News on

Published in Home and Consumer News

In California's Bay Area, where it can easily cost north of $900,000 to build a single new-unit of affordable housing, how did former Caltrain officials end up building two secret apartments inside two Peninsula stations for the measly sum of $50,000?

Not legally, San Mateo, California, prosecutors allege.

Former Caltrain Deputy Director Joseph Navarro and contractor Seth Andrew Worden are facing felony charges for misusing public funds to build residences within the Burlingame and Millbrae stations. Employees discovered Worden’s Millbrae apartment in 2020, but didn’t learn about Navarro’s secret spot inside the Burlingame station until an anonymous tip in 2022. Both were fired.

Their alleged criminal activity — or ingenuity as some see it — has been met with admiration online from a few folks, especially housing advocates who say that so-called “transit-oriented development” like this is exactly what the Bay needs more of.

“If this isn’t a case for building more housing next to transit then I don’t know what is,” wrote one user on social media site X, formerly known as Twitter.

Many were impressed that Worden and Navarro — who spent $8,000 on the Millbrae unit and $42,000 on the Burlingame unit, respectively — managed to convert the office spaces into housing at such low costs.

“Hire that man to build housing,” wrote Mark Dinan, a recruiter based in East Palo Alto. “$42k for an apartment!”

For $42,000, Navarro allegedly installed a kitchenette, shower, plumbing and security cameras, prosecutors said. The pair are accused of trying to fly below the radar by making sure none of the invoices surpassed $3,000, which would have triggered further authorization from Caltrain and TransAmerica Services Inc., the firm that employed Worden.


New housing is notoriously expensive to build in California — beyond high construction costs, impact fees and the permitting process can cost thousands of dollars, fees that Worden and Navarro would not have paid.

The crime also highlighted the plight of super-commuters in the Bay: District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe told the San Francisco Standard that the apartments were a “convenience” for the two former employees.

“They figured the Bay Area (commute) really is lousy,” Wagstaffe said.

Some on social media had to admit: living in a historic train station like Burlingame, which was built in 1894 and designated a historic landmark in California, sounded appealing.

California lawmakers have been encouraging more “transit-oriented development” in recent years in an effort to create mixed-use, walkable communities that offer easier access to jobs and services. In just the last decade, hundreds of homes have sprung up along the Caltrain line, transforming the downtowns of cities in the Peninsula and South Bay. Even more are on the way.

Marc Joffe, a policy analyst at the Cato Institute, said it could be worthwhile to consider converting some Caltrain stations — which sit on valuable real estate at the middle of town — into more housing. Legally, of course.

Worden, a 61-year-old resident of Oceanside in San Diego County, was arraigned in late March and released on his own recognizance, court records show. Navarro, 66, formerly of the Bay Area and currently living in Newtown, Pennsylvania, is scheduled to be arraigned April 29.

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