The city of East Palo Alto, now 35 years old, continues to face critical challenges: skyrocketing housing prices, displacement of its renters, a lack of higher-wage jobs, crushing traffic and parking problems and other quality-of-life issues. On Nov. 6, 2018, the city’s voters will be tasked with choosing two City Council candidates who will make decisions that will shape the city for years to come.
Out of seven candidates, five are challengers and two are incumbents: Mayor Ruben Abrica and Councilwoman Donna Rutherford. The Palo Alto Weekly asked the candidates to weigh in on the city’s recent progress and how they envision governing the city in the next four years if elected, focusing on housing, parking and traffic and jobs. Their responses are below.
As a City Council member, he was a strong supporter of funding and using city property for a temporary “safe parking” area for homeless persons living in RVs. (He was absent from the final vote in support.) He supported some funding for adding 80-100 low-income apartments to the nonprofit Eden Housing-owned Light Tree Apartments. Abrica supported a request for proposals to move forward a low-income housing project at 965 Weeks St., which could commence building next year.
He supports Measure HH, a tax on large commercial office spaces, which voters could approve in November. Up to 35 percent of that money would be earmarked to build low-income housing and for housing assistance.
He also supported Measure O, a ballot measure passed by voters in 2016 that increased the gross tax on large landlords. The tax will fund a program to assist at-risk and displaced residents.
During his tenure, the council also supported hiring a housing project manager and is moving ahead with a Comprehensive Affordable Housing Strategy to help maintain and expand affordable housing in the community. The council also approved a memorandum of agreement related to the Facebook Campus Expansion Project in Menlo Park, which includes a community-benefits program and the creation of a $20 million Housing Catalyst Fund that will identify and finance the development and preservation of affordable housing in the city.
If re-elected, Abrica wants the city to be involved in more housing development for different economic levels. He would support working with nonprofits to build housing. He would also work on eradicating homelessness.
“I think it really is time,” he said. “I would involve the county, nonprofits and the city to come up with a plan on preventing and helping people to not be homeless. With a good plan and engaging the community, we could make a bigger dent.”
Parking and traffic:
He would work to institute a citywide shuttle system. The city should work with the Ravenswood City School District to provide buses so fewer parents drive students to school. To alleviate parking congestion on residential streets, he supports building parking structures on vacant land, using existing parking structures during off hours and hiring security guards to patrol the parking sites. But there are also less costly short-term solutions for overnight parking, such as leveraging existing lots at churches, the Ravenswood 101 Shopping Center and offices with parking structures, he said.
“At a community level, we need to do our part. Churches could work with neighbors and set up a parking system and have their own way of dealing with it. That is the big irony. We do have spaces that are totally empty, and people are fighting over-crowded and congested streets,” he said.
The council just approved going ahead with a mobility study.
Abrica and the council have asked police Chief Al Pardini to establish a traffic unit because the police department currently doesn’t have a dedicated traffic-enforcement team.
Abrica supported the pedestrian-bike bridge at Clarke Avenue, which is currently under construction and will create an east-west path across U.S. Highway 101. He also supports the University Avenue pedestrian-bike overpass and future improvements to the 101 overpass.
“Our main challenge is to try to get more people access to better jobs that pay better. In the long term, education really has to improve,” he said, noting the problems at the Ravenswood City School District. “That is the foundation for better jobs. Within one generation we can see a difference.”
In 2017, Abrica voted to support allowing Amazon to add a jobs-counseling center instead of following the city’s 30 percent first-hiring policy. At the time, he said the existing policy is old and needs to be revamped. The job-center proposal was “innovative” and the kind of project that could kick off how the council has to think about what development really means: about training people and about wages, he said.
“There are a lot of ways the city can help the community to be in a better economic situation,” he added.
But he now supports workforce-development training and retraining by requiring developers to commit to job-training component at their businesses so residents can obtain higher-paying jobs. The previous 30 percent first-source-hiring policy largely provided only low-wage jobs and was never enforceable, he said.
He also supports Measure HH, which, if passed by voters, would earmark funds toward job training in high tech and the building trades for residents.
As a planning commissioner, Huerta worked on the accessory-dwelling-unit ordinance and on helping people who faced illegal foreclosures. He has experienced homelessness.
He supports developing a robust below-market-rate housing program and Measure HH, the gross tax on office space, to help prevent displacement.
Also, he said, “We need to spend the money from (Facebook’s 2016 Catalyst Fund for low-income housing) now. … I would work with other nonprofits and get it going.”
If elected, Huerta would take a more proactive stance in all areas, from housing to traffic and jobs development, he said. He would seek to expedite low-income housing development and spending money already earmarked such as housing. The city should analyze and be active earlier in the process in shaping the impacts of large developments on the community, such as those at Facebook in Menlo Park, rather than writing comments during the environmental-impact-report period, he said.
Huerta said the city must be more proactive at the planning level if it wants to prevent wholesale takeover by office developments. He supports requiring developers to build inclusionary housing for residents of all economic levels as part of any project. In the past, the below-market-rate requirement “had a better impact than putting money in a housing in-lieu fund,” he said.
Parking and traffic:
Huerta supports prioritizing enforcement of existing parking and traffic laws rather than adding new laws. The proposed overnight oversized-vehicle-parking ban would affect people’s incomes. He supports finding creative ways to use existing lots for overnight parking.
He would have a 3,000-pound weight limit for commercial vehicles on city streets to reduce damage to roadways and infrastructure. Willow Road is built for heavier vehicles; East Palo Alto’s infrastructure is not, he said.
Huerta would also be vigilant about protecting the city against Facebook’s expansion impacts and traffic incursions into East Palo Alto. He is against a proposal by Facebook to add a road from University Avenue to Willow Road on O’Brien Drive, which he said would heavily affect East Palo Alto. He is also against a dedicated bus-only lane on Willow, which he called a “giveaway” to Facebook.
Huerta was against the City Council’s approval of Amazon’s alternative to the 30 percent first-source hiring program: funds for a employment resource center.
“As soon as Amazon punched a hole in it, nobody’s going to respect it,” he said of the first-source hiring policy.
The city should develop a new first-source-hiring program that would include educating youth for tech jobs. Hiring outside the community, “you are paying for that other person to commute here and that impacts the community,” he said.
Huerta said he would like to push for more light-industrial development as part of the Ravenswood Business Plan; developers want to build office space only, he said.
Lopez has been a vocal supporter of protecting and aiding homeless RV dwellers. After losing her job during the dot-com bust, at one point she was forced to live in her car with her three sons. She worked up to three jobs to make ends meet, she said.
“We need to look at what we can create to help people remain in their home and not have restraints through regulations,” she said.
“Given that houses in East Palo Alto are more than $1 million, now the city is making money on the taxes. That should go back into the community, and go back into the things that are needed, and that’s housing, whether to build or help people to stay in housing,” she said.
If elected, Lopez would work to ensure that all residents who live in the community are able to stay there. While the rent-control ordinance protects renters in multi-unit dwellings, many people are slipping through the net, she said.
“We can build on that policy -- to be creative to help the community with rental assistance,” she said.
The City Council missed an opportunity to garner more financial support for housing when it allowed Amazon to walk away from the 30 percent first-source-hiring policy in lieu of funding for an employment resource center, she said.
“Our city officials passed it without any negotiations, without any accountability, without any funds to help the housing crisis here,” she said.
She supports enlisting large corporations such as Facebook and Amazon to provide additional funding to help build housing and offer renter assistance. The $20 million in the Catalyst Fund from Facebook -- about $10 million of which goes directly to the city’s low-income-housing needs -- is “pocket change” to such companies, she added.
Parking and traffic:
Lopez is opposed to a proposed city ordinance to ban oversized vehicles from overnight street parking. The ordinance would put additional pressure on already struggling homeless families and force them to live without shelter, she said.
“The parking crisis has to do with the housing crisis. You have to fix that first. I know people want to go straight to the parking issue,” she said.
Lopez would seek leveraging existing parking lots or the IKEA parking structure. East Palo Alto residents who get off work late could park there and take a shuttle to arrive near their homes. The city could use the parking spaces as in-lieu compensation from businesses skirting the 30 percent first-source hiring policy, she said.
“If you are not providing jobs, give us your parking spaces and pay for the shuttle,” she said.
The city should create a separate fund to mitigate traffic-impacts caused by big developers, she said.
Lopez supports raising the local minimum wage.
She did not approve of the City Council’s deal with Amazon for an employment resources office in lieu of fulfilling the 30 percent first-source hiring policy. She supports first-source hiring, particularly of people in the community who already have degrees, and training for tech jobs.
“We need to push on them (the companies) for training,” she said.
Rutherford supports strengthening the city’s Rent Stabilization Ordinance. She is a strong supporter of transitional housing for at-risk and homeless residents. She will make every effort to prevent displacement of long-time residents, she said.
She supports Measure HH, which would tax big developers on a square-foot basis to provide funding for low-income housing and programs to prevent displacement. She supports deed restrictions when new housing is built, which would protect some units and homes from astronomical rent increases.
“(Preventing) displacement is near and dear to my heart. I want to keep those residents here who have lived in the community a long time,” she said.
She would consider zoning changes to the city’s General Plan to include housing overlays on some properties that don’t currently allow for housing and continued protections for residents in rent-controlled units.
As a council member, she supported passage of funding and use of city property for a temporary “safe parking” area for homeless persons living in RVs. She supported some funding from the city’s cap and trade for adding 80-100 low-income apartments to the nonprofit Eden Housing-owned Light Tree Apartments. She supported a request for proposals to move forward a low-income housing project at 965 Weeks St., which could commence building next year.
As mayor, Rutherford also supported putting 2016’s Measure O on the ballot, which voters approved. It increased the gross tax on large landlords to help prevent displacement. The tax will fund a program to assist at-risk and displaced residents.
During her tenure as a council member, the council also supported hiring a housing project manager and is moving ahead with a Comprehensive Affordable Housing Strategy to help maintain and expand affordable housing in the community. The council also approved a memorandum of agreement related to the Facebook Campus Expansion Project in Menlo Park, which includes a community-benefits program and the creation of a $20 million Housing Catalyst Fund that will identify and finance the development and preservation of affordable housing in the city.
Parking and traffic:
Rutherford supports enforcing current laws regarding parking and traffic. She is also in favor of some additional measures.
“The city has to look at providing some kind of ordinance to change the zoning,” regarding overnight parking of large vehicles, the overflow of parked cars from neighboring Menlo Park neighborhoods and abandoned vehicles, she said. Rutherford supports possible permit parking or perhaps a parking sticker for residents on vehicles. Such measures would help identify abandoned cars and equipment that do not belong to residents.
She supports looking at lots that could be dedicated for larger vehicles, perhaps with a small fee for parking.
As a council member, she supported moving the city’s Mobility Study forward.
Rutherford said that development would help create jobs and improve the city’s economy, but it must be balanced. She supports adding requirements that commit companies to offer job training when they apply for permits for new developments.
Skinner supports rent control and just-cause eviction protection. He supports developing out-of-the-box ideas, such as teaching people skills while improving the community: for example, teaching contractor skills while the person builds and renovates housing, which can lead the apprentice to later find a good-paying job.
If elected, he would work with other cities to solve the housing problem, starting on a temporary, emergency basis. He would tap Silicon Valley’s local billionaires for funding quick loans that could help enlarge the housing stock.
“We need to sit down and plan. We need to make our own decisions,” rather than waiting for someone else to come along, he said. Solid planning would help the city to resist making decisions based on the dictates of powerful and wealthy developers, he said.
“If you come in from Facebook with a bunch of money, we will let you come, but we will not let you dictate what goes on in the city,” he added.
He would also work to reduce the number of people living in overcrowded dwellings.
Parking and traffic:
Skinner would strive to look at problems holistically.
“One thing to do is to enforce existing laws. In the Gardens, everybody parks on the sidewalk,” he said, noting that people drive up on rolled curbs, blocking the path of pedestrians. The problem leads to a snowballing effect. Parents don’t want to walk their children to school in unsafe streets, which causes traffic problems, he said.
He would help solve the parking problem by utilizing unused parking spaces in church lots and existing public spaces. Building high-rise parking structures could also be an option.
To reduce traffic, he would support commissioning studies to gather data. He would try strategies such as encouraging businesses to move some jobs from Fremont to 2020 Bay Road when it is developed to also reduce traffic snarls and increase local employment.
“We don’t necessarily need more IKEAs,” Skinner said.
Instead, the city needs to include a good mix of retail and other smaller businesses that support community needs. As with housing, he supports training people to do tasks that help build the community.
Skinner supports vocational training. He would like to take understaffed city jobs and add paid interns while helping residents build skills. He also supports creating vibrant retail and amenities that support the community. Skinner also supports hiring staff who are committed to live in the city. Not enough of the current staff live in town, he said. He supports programs where youth and adults can work and learn together.
Wallace-Jones supports low-income housing and strong planning.
“We could’ve been more forward thinking in tackling the housing crisis,” she said, although she noted the problem and blame is regional and is not owned by East Palo Alto.
She would also look at large lots -- particularly those owned by seniors who are land rich but cash poor -- as ways to generate additional auxiliary housing. She would think outside of the box to help seniors monetize their land, which would also give them a legacy to leave to their children, thus raising some families’ financial stability.
Wallace-Jones supports finding ways to put more long-term residents on the path to home ownership. She would accomplish this goal by working with local billionaires to “buy down” the cost of housing. Through investment funds, the investor would pay for the high cost of construction; the resident/buyer would pay a lower, affordable price to purchase the home. When the homeowner moves out, the investor can be reimbursed through the sale, she said.
She is co-owner of a real estate investment company, JRS & Associates, according to her Form 700, a statement of investments, income and assets of business entities and trusts required by the state Fair Political Practices Commission.
In June, she signed a petition requesting the city to reject the RV Safe Parking Pilot Program on environmental and security grounds and unresolved questions related to programs and services and rules at the city-owned Bay Road site.
Parking and traffic:
Wallace-Jones would look at possibly building a parking structure for overflow residential parking. Some areas of the city could have permit parking. She would look to green-commuting options and incentives as ways to reduce traffic.
She supports green-transportation alternatives such as Proposition 6 and Measure W to relieve traffic congestion.
As a member of the city’s Technical Advisory Committee, Wallace-Jones has been working with the Ravenswood City School District Board of Education to assist district employees who will be laid off because of the district’s budget issues.
She supports Measure HH, which, if passed by voters would provide money for low-income housing and job training. The current economy is “returning some of the largest profits to shareholders in the history of the U.S. Measure HH does a decent job of trying to return some part of shareholder money to the community,” she said.
But Wallace-Jones also said the goal should be not to tax corporations. Rather, the city should strive to get all entities to do their fair share. She would work to leverage her experience in the tech sector. Her goal is to get businesses to develop and drive solutions and funding so residents can have higher-wage job skills and jobs.
Find more coverage on Palo Alto area races here.