SF Chronicle: YIMBYs love to hate her. Inside one Bay Area mayor’s anti-housing campaign

Note from Lydia:

“Anti-housing?” I am not anti-housing in any way. I am for housing that makes sense and against turning over all housing decisions to for-profit developers. That doesn’t make me “anti-housing” – it makes me pro-neighborhoods.

But this article was fair on one point: it gave me room to communicate why a growing grass-roots movement is being organized to restore democracy in local planning. I’m running for Assembly because like so many people, I don’t think the status quo is working when it comes to the most important issues facing our community or our state. If you agree, I hope you will learn more about my campaign and consider joining our fight.

This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Palo Alto Mayor Lydia Kou is the Silicon Valley politician the YIMBYs love to hate. 

As the pro-housing “yes in my backyard” movement has spread across California, bringing with it an avalanche of state laws making it more and more difficult for neighbors to block residential development, Kou has doubled down on her role as the South Bay’s most pugnacious anti-YIMBY, an outspoken critic of what she feels is Sacramento’s overreach in forcing municipalities to build housing.

She accused the movement of promoting “collectivism” that she said was “reminiscent of the urban planning orthodoxy in the late, great Soviet Union.” On Twitter, Kou, a residential real estate broker, said, “There’s plenty of housing, you just need a superb Realtor, like me.” 

In March, Kou delivered a state-of-the-city address that amounted to a full-throttled diatribe against state laws that force cities to build housing. 

“What it does do is take away the ability of local government to make local planning decisions about the built environment,” Kou said. “That goes against the whole meaning of democracy.”

If Kou’s address sounded like a campaign speech, that’s because it was: A week before the address, Kou had announced that she was running for state Assembly against incumbent Marc Berman. In announcing her bid, the 55-year-old Kou promised to be a force against state officials who she said are “taking away local democracy by putting developers in charge of land use and silencing local communities.”

But if Kou’s rhetoric sounds in line with other so-called “residentialist” activists who fight state mandates, it comes at an awkward time for Palo Alto, which is among the California cities that has failed to win approval for its state-mandated housing element, a blueprint in which the city must plan for 6,086 housing units to be constructed by 2031.

The lack of a compliant housing element has opened up Palo Alto to “builders remedy” projects, allowing developers to bypass the city approval process in jurisdictions out of compliance with state law. Already, two Palo Alto property owners have submitted builder’s remedy projects while two pro-housing organizations — YIMBY Law and the California Housing Defense Fund — have sued the city for failure to adopt a compliant housing plan.

The longer the city lacks a certified housing plan, the more Palo Alto risks losing out on state funding.

Matt Regan, vice president of public policy for the Bay Area Council, which Kou has criticized for sponsoring pro-housing legislation, said that “when cities like Palo Alto refuse to build they are forcing their obligation onto neighboring communities.”

“The voters who support no growth candidates like Lydia Kou need to understand that this is not ‘housing or no housing,’ ” Regan said. “It’s housing or dire consequences; the loss of money for police and roads and other services.”

Laura Foote, executive director of YIMBY Action, said that public opposition to new housing is less common in the state than it was a few years ago, but figures like Kou who do hold those positions “are getting more explicit.”

While Kou can be combative on social media, and is often the only dissenting vote at council meetings, she comes across as shy and formal. Kou, 55, was born in Sudan, where her family owned a Chinese restaurant, and then immigrated to Guam, where she was educated. She eventually moved to Palo Alto 25 years ago with her daughter and opened a video rental shop, which she operated for 10 years before realizing that the business model was not going to last. She became a Realtor.

Living in the suburban Barren Park enclave, Kou became active in her neighborhood. “I did a lot of listening to what people were happy with and what they were not,” she said. “People started to seek me out to chat.”

While most of her early work was around emergency preparedness, she got involved in housing issues in 2013 when she backed a successful referendum to kill an approved 60-unit low-income senior housing project on Maybell Avenue. A year later she lost a bid for City Council, before winning a seat in 2016.

Kou critics point to both the Maybell ballot measure as well as a vote she took against a rezoning that would allow a 59-apartment complex for adults with disabilities on Wilton Court. (While she voted against the rezoning, she eventually supported the project in a later vote.)

While Kou maintains that the Maybell development would have increased traffic and threatened the safety of children who use the street as a “safe route” to school, former Palo Alto City Council Member Adrian Fine said the vote exposed her ideology.

“That is what launched her political career and that is a stain on the soul of Palo Alto,” said Fine. “The fact is that the city of Palo Alto killed housing for low-income seniors — and Lydia led that effort.”

If Kou has used her elected position to say no to housing, she has also voted against myriad other proposals, including office buildings, a car dealership, a hotel and telecommunications equipment, according to coverage in Palo Alto Online.

Whether her positions will resonate with voters is unclear. Berman, the pro-housing incumbent, received 73% of the vote against his Republican opponent in the last election. In addition to Palo Alto, the district Kou is running for includes several Peninsula cities with a history of exclusionary zoning and denying residential development, including Menlo Park, Atherton, Woodside, Pacifica, Los Altos Hills and Portola Valley.

Berman’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Some residents in the district said Kou’s campaign would captivate voters who feel disenfranchised. Despite the flurry of state and local laws making it easier to build, former Los Altos City Council Member Anita Enander said the state’s aggressive push on housing is unpopular.

“There is a lot of sentiment up and down the Peninsula and statewide that Sacramento has chosen to blame cities for things that are not cities’ fault, and is taking punitive actions that are not justified,” Enander said, adding that Kou “cares about whether it’s the right thing for the community, not the political consequences of the vote. That is something that is missing in Sacramento.”

Another Kou supporter, Mark Meyers, an emergency services training instructor, said he got to know Kou 20 years ago working side by side during disaster preparedness exercises.

“She is a real boots-on-the-ground person,” said Meyers. “She will be a fresh thinker for the state. We need that — we have gotten away from what community means.”

But while current homeowners may support Kou, the fact is that the city has become increasingly unaffordable to all but the wealthiest. The median home price in Palo Alto is nearly $3 million and median rents are over $4,500.

Leora Tanjuatco Ross, Palo Alto resident and YIMBY Action organizer, said Kou’s opposition to new housing amounts to “a supremely narrow and selfish vision of the future,” where she cares only about homeowners. 

“For the past several years, she has told Palo Alto residents that they are worthless, to our faces, while smiling,” said Tanjuatco Ross. “She talks about the ‘most valuable Palo Alto residents’ like the rest of us are garbage.” 

Alex Melendrez, a San Bruno resident and national chapter manager at YIMBY Action, called Kou’s campaign “a little laughable” considering the overwhelming support for housing. He said Berman has strong support in part because “he has supported every pro-housing legislation that has crossed his desk.”

“Her views on housing are very detached from reality,” he said.

Sonja Trauss, who founded the YIMBY movement a decade ago, said the idea that Palo Alto can remain a bucolic small city is absurd considering it’s the home to Stanford University and many of the top tech companies in the world. “It should really be a mini-city. I am excited for the builder’s remedy projects but there should be a lot more,” she said.

Still, Kou remains unapologetic. She said the vision of Palo Alto as a place with mid-rise apartment towers is out of step with why many families moved there.

“I am an immigrant — I came here with my family because I value the idea of democracy,” she said. “People have a right to have their voices heard. The politicians in Sacramento are undermining democracy with their top-down laws and increasing the cost of living.”

Changing the status quo that isn’t delivering for our communities starts with changing the culture of sending the same people to Sacramento again and again. If you agree, join our campaign for change today