Check out Palo Alto Online’s City Council Voter Guide for comparisons of all seven candidates’ views on housing, rail crossings, sustainability and public safety.
Julie Lythcott-Haims decided to run for City Council shortly after reading a New York Times profile in June about Susan Kirsch, a Mill Valley resident and NIMBY activist who has determinedly opposed a 20-condominium development in her neighborhood.
For Lythcott-Haims, the story hit close to home. She lives near the Maybell Avenue site where a nonprofit developer tried to build a development with 60 apartments for low-income seniors and 12 homes only to see the plans get derailed in a 2013 referendum. Lythcott, an author, public speaker and former attorney and Stanford University dean of freshman also understands the magnitude of the local housing crisis. Even with her professional accomplishments, she needed help from her mother to afford a downpayment, mortgage and the original property taxes on her home on Maybell Way. They split the payments 50-50, she said.
“Three generations under one roof in what started as a real fixer-upper is how our Palo Alto dream came true,” Lythcott-Haims said during her kick-off speech in August.
The Kirsch profile, she said, pulled her out of her malaise and showed her that there are things worth fighting for. Housing is on top of the list but also youth mental health, climate action and creating a sense of belonging for everyone in Palo Alto.
“I don’t think life is a race that one person wins,” Lythcott-Haims said in an interview with the Weekly. “I don’t think we win as a society unless we all make it. That makes me a pretty aggressive liberal Democrat and I believe wholeheartedly in that imperative.”
Her experience in Palo Alto hasn’t always been sunny and warm. When she and her husband moved into her Greenmeadow home in 2000 and began renovating it, they received what she called a “nasty petition” from neighbors.
“It was a cruel process that I will never forget, and I will always be an advocate for people whose neighbors tell them they can’t lead their lives,” Lythcott-Haims said at a forum sponsored by the Weekly. “I tried to convince them by being on the right side of the facts and the law. What I learned as I got older was listen, be vulnerable, create space for humans to share if they’re angry, if they’re afraid. Let’s start there.”
Lythcott-Haims brings a national reputation into the local race as an author of three acclaimed books, “How to Raise an Adult,” “Real American: A Memoir,” and “Your Turn: How to Be an Adult,” and a speaker whose TED talks receive millions of views.
Born in Nigeria to a white mother and a Black father, she described in her memoir her childhood in Reston, Virginia, a planned community near Washington, D.C., her academic journeys through Stanford University and Harvard Law School (“I believed in law as the tool that could help Blacks and people of color more broadly, and all of those who are culturally and systematically disregarded in America”), her lucrative but unfulfilling stint at the Palo Alto firm Cooley Godward (“I’d gone to law school to help other people, but I took a corporate job to help myself”) and her role from 2002 to 2012 as dean of freshman at Stanford (“It is joyful work almost every single day. What I love most is showing first-generation students, poor students, students of color, queer students, and anyone who grew up feeling like ‘the other’ that I believe in them, and by extension the university believes in them, even when under the rushing weight of stereotype they don’t believe in themselves”).
She was not immune to these stereotypes. “Real American” includes one episode in which a white woman at Stanford Shopping Center learned that Lythcott-Haims went to Stanford and immediately asked her what sport she played and another, years later, in which a white colleague at Stanford began to play with her hair. She recalled a childhood incident in which a racial slur was written on her locker and, later, her anxieties over whether she was Black enough to take part in Stanford’s community of Black students.
Lythcott-Haims wants Palo Alto leaders to “stop avoiding talking about race.” During a Weekly forum, when candidates were asked about how Palo Alto can ensure “fair and unbiased policing,” everyone talked about the general need to improve staffing and support the new police chief in his reform effort. Lythcott-Haims, who spoke last, said she was stunned that no one else mentioned Black people or George Floyd.
“We can’t tame what we can’t name. We have to be able to talk frankly about these things,” she said at the Weekly forum.
She said she supports either getting rid of the Police Department’s K-9 unit or limiting the dogs to drug searches. She would also institute mandatory unconscious bias training for all first responders and create “a system to track and evaluate demographic data showing whom officers stop and why, and whom neighbors complain about and why.”
Like other candidates, she is prioritizing housing. Unlike most of her opponents, however, she supports recent state efforts to loosen zoning, including Senate Bill 9 (which enables split lots in single-family zones and construction of up to four homes), Senate Bill 10 (which allows cities to upzone lots for greater housing density in areas served by public transit) and legislation to support accessory dwelling units.
And though she supports 100% affordable housing units, particularly for disabled adults or unhoused individuals, she wrote in a survey response that she prefers inclusionary zoning — a requirement that market-rate developers designate 15% of their units as below-market-rate housing. That’s because “it pencils out and because we need to undo the vestiges of a discriminatory past by ensuring that people of all income levels live as neighbors instead of segregating our low income neighbors (who are disproportionately of color and/or immigrants) to their own housing in ‘less desirable’ pars of town.”
She believes her inclusive, collaborative approach will help the city make progress on some of its most intractable issues: the renovation of Cubberley Community Center, where she wants to see a city gym and a cafe; the redesign of the rail corridor, for which she favors a viaduct for trains (an alternative that the council had previously considered and ultimately scuttled); and meeting the city’s ambitious climate goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2030, with 1990 as the baseline. She wrote in a survey that she would like the city to mandate that natural gas will no longer be in use by 2035 and to provide on-bill financing and subsidies for low-income residents to promote electrification.
Lythcott-Haims also wants the city to do more to address youth mental health. If elected, she would establish a Youth Task Force on Mental Health to engage youth about their needs and to partner with schools, clinicians and nonprofits to expand support services. On this topic, as on many others, she believes that the best way to get ahead is through honest discussions with community members whose voices have been marginalized for too long.
“We’re going to have brave, heartfelt conversations,” Lythcott-Haims told the Weekly. “Investing in human relationships — that’s the way forward.”
Stay tuned: The Palo Alto Weekly’s endorsements in this race will be published on Oct. 7.
This article was originally published by Palo Alto Online.