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Palo Alto's Lydia Kou Channels Anti-Sacramento Anger in Challenge to Assemblymember Marc Berman

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A collage of a woman with black hair against a blue background and a man with dark hair against a lighter blue background.
Marc Berman (right) faces a challenge from fellow Democrat Lydia Kou (right). (Images courtesy of Lydia Kou and Marc Berman/Photo collage by Lakshmi Sarah of KQED)

On a recent Sunday evening, about a hundred people packed into a community center in Palo Alto for an event titled “Town Hall to Save Our Neighborhoods.”

What were the neighborhoods being saved from? The answers were displayed along the walls: enlarged renderings of tall apartment buildings proposed in suburban neighborhoods and along California’s coast — a rogue gallery of potential developments critics call the monstrous byproducts of state laws encouraging the construction of dense housing over the objections of some local residents.

“It’s dangerous for us to not have local input,” said Maria Bautista, who came to the event from nearby Los Altos. “It is the case that most residents choose to live where they live.”

Lydia Kou, a Palo Alto City Council member, organized the town hall. For years, Kou has been one of the Bay Area’s most outspoken elected officials in opposition to state housing reforms to ease construction. Now, she is running for state Assembly, challenging incumbent Marc Berman, a fellow Democrat, on the March 5 primary ballot.

Kou is vowing to “shake up” the state capitol, where she said Democrats are “taking away local democracy” by limiting the ability of local governments to block developments. Berman, who has backed the Legislature’s pro-housing direction since taking office in 2016, is not softening his stances in the face of Kou’s attacks. That dynamic has turned the race into something of a referendum on state zoning reforms — a temperature check on housing for voters in the 23rd District, which includes Palo Alto, Mountain View and West San José.

Photos of development on a wall in display
Proposed housing developments on display at the ‘Save Our Neighborhoods’ town hall in Palo Alto, on January 21, 2024. (Guy Marzorati/KQED)

“We’re only weeks away now from knowing a great deal about what’s going on in our community,” said Liz Kniss, a former Santa Clara County supervisor and Palo Alto mayor, who supports Berman.

Two competing political currents underlie the Berman-Kou contest. Since 2017, the state legislature has passed dozens of laws aimed at boosting the supply of housing in California, in part by limiting the ability of local governments to block development. At the same time, Kniss said, an anti-housing coalition has grown in Palo Alto, home to the largest block of voters in the 23rd District.

An inflection point came in 2013, when Berman (then a council member), Kniss and the rest of the Palo Alto City Council voted to rezone a parcel on Maybell Avenue to allow for a 60-unit apartment building for low-income seniors.

A group of residents, including Kou, opposed the senior housing — calling it a giveaway to developers that was too large for the neighborhood. They gathered signatures to put the development plan up for a vote on the ballot, where it was defeated in November 2013.

“It was a shock to all of us; none of us knew that there was an underground that was really objecting to housing,” Kniss said. “I remember the night that Maybell was defeated, and we were all just like, this couldn’t be in Palo Alto. And since then, we’ve stayed on that new track.”

In 2016, Berman was elected to the state Assembly. In that same election, Kou won a seat on the Palo Alto city council, joining a wing of the council dedicated to limiting development that quickly chafed at the housing reforms gaining momentum in Sacramento.

“Through the years that I have been a council member, I find it harder and harder to represent my constituents, mostly because of the state laws and state mandates that come forward that have really almost eliminated or usurped our local land use and zoning laws,” Kou said. “More and more [resident’s] voices are being diminished or eliminated through these housing laws.”

Born in Hong Kong, Kou moved to Sudan as a child, where her mother raised her while running what Kou describes as the first Chinese restaurant in the country. In Palo Alto, Kou has worked as a realtor — and embraced the role of needling housing supporters, like with a 2017 tweet that read, “There’s plenty of housing, you just need a superb Realtor, like me.”

“I came here because I’m looking for the American dream, and I work very hard, but as time went on, I started to realize people are saying, ‘Oh, you can’t say that, you know, it’s not politically correct,” Kou said. “And then as time went on a little bit further, you’re trying to be so politically correct all the time with everything you’re saying, you’re not saying anything.”

Kou is approaching her current quest for Assembly, a rare challenge by a local lawmaker against a state legislator of the same party with similar brashness and novel ideas.

Asked how cities like Palo Alto and Mountain View can resist new housing after welcoming thriving tech companies and their workers for years, Kou turned the question on its head: Why can’t the state dampen demand by requiring remote work or encouraging companies to take their jobs elsewhere?

“Diversify, make some incentives for companies to have their headquarters other places versus just all gathered here,” Kou said. “Why is it only focused on Mountain View and Palo Alto?”

But Berman is just as unapologetic about his support for laws that limit the ability of local governments to block new housing. With few signs that thriving tech, health care and university workforces will abandon the region, Berman said the housing-jobs imbalance in cities like Palo Alto has left many workers in the area with limited housing options or crushing commutes.

“We’ve done a great job in Silicon Valley of creating jobs. We’ve done a terrible job in Silicon Valley of creating the housing we need to house all the people that are taking those jobs,” Berman said. “That pressure has been pushed down on the folks that can least afford it.”

Since taking office, Berman has voted for bills to streamline housing approvals and legalize duplexes, along with other legislation to stop local governments from blocking new housing or limiting ADUs.

“We want to find ways to provide our local municipalities with as much support as possible; we want to provide them with as many carrots as possible,” he added. “But for decades, there has been no stick.”

Alex Melendrez, a national chapter manager with YIMBY Action and local Democratic activist, said he has watched Berman take a pro-housing message into small gatherings across an Assembly district that includes some of the most exclusive zip codes in California.

“Places where we sometimes think that maybe, given the audience, it wouldn’t be a very palpable thing,” Melendrez said. “But he’s using his platform to also educate his constituents on why this is important to them and their family members and their neighbors as well.”

Melendrez said it’s much too soon for the state to consider any pivot away from encouraging housing development, given the decades-deep hole in supply. However, some residents of the district feel that they’ve given up the ability to shape their neighborhoods without the promised impact on housing supply and affordability in return.

“I’m a supporter of housing. I like more housing built,” said Badri Sridharan, a Saratoga resident who attended Kou’s town hall. “But when I see 150 laws being passed and nothing happening, I’m suspicious.”

A report published last year by the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at UC Berkeley analyzed the dozens of housing laws passed in Sacramento over the last seven years and concluded, “It is too early to know whether the full set of new state laws is having a meaningful impact on spurring increased homebuilding.”

Berman said his conversations with residents lead him to believe that there’s support in the district for the state legislature to continue on a pro-housing path — even if that direction leads to a district that looks different in the future.

Amala Raj, a high school student from Menlo Park, will vote for the first time this year and supports Berman. She said the need for more affordable housing “outweighs the loss of the quiet and exclusive communities that we have going on right now.”

“This district is such an amazing place with so much culture and so much great food and so much wonderful stuff going on,” Raj said. “And so it sucks housing policies and just the way that we have built is pushing people out.”

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Berman should have no problem amplifying his message in the closing days of the race: his campaign has spent $325,873 compared to just $68,751 by Kou — and a super PAC funded by groups representing doctors, dentists and landlords has shelled out $174,950 to send pro-Berman mailers across the district.

But the presence of two Republicans on the primary ballot, Midcoast Community Council chair Gus Mattammal and attorney Allan K. Marson, makes it possible that the district’s small GOP vote will fracture, allowing both Berman and Kou to advance to the general election — potentially extending the housing debate to the fall.

Years after the surprise defeat of the Maybell housing development, Kniss, the former mayor and supervisor, can no longer take for granted that her neighbors are on board with a pro-housing agenda.

“Are we right or wrong?” she wondered. “Have we been whistling up the wrong tree, and we didn’t read our community correctly?”

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