Juan Mendez says he has been determined to give back to his community of East Palo Alto since high school. But it wasn't until he started studying public policy at the University of California, Berkeley that he learned about the real impacts he could make at a local level through city politics, veering him away from a pre-law track.
"Law school was about applying the law, and not so much about creating it," he said.
Today, at 23 years old and having graduated from UC Berkeley this May, he's the youngest person to be running for a City Council seat this year in East Palo Alto.
Already, he's gained some government experience. As an alternate on the East Palo Alto Planning Commission, Mendez said he's acquainted with the drawn-out process of approving developments and is learning what commissioners and council members of other cities are doing about it.
"I've been more involved with the city and trying to understand where the city is right now, what it's missing and where it's heading," Mendez said of his work, which he started in May 2019.
As Mendez made that transition during college, East Palo Alto too was changing. In 2017, Amazon moved in. Then a wave of other developments, he estimated about 27, started coming into the city.
His home was changing in real time. His interest piqued and he decided to meet the council at a special retreat in 2019 to get his foot in the door.
Then the COVID-19 health crisis hit — bringing more uncertainty for East Palo Alto residents — all but cementing Mendez's desire to get involved with the city and its future.
"I think, now more than ever, we need to be strategic with what we're doing," he said. "What can I do to ensure we are taking the rights steps?"
The first-generation college graduate is campaigning on four priorities: affordable housing, a greener East Palo Alto, education and traffic congestion.
From his vantage point on the Planning Commission, Mendez said that one of the city's current issues is that the process to build affordable housing takes too long: 18 months, he claims. That's if everything goes well, assuming the applications are on time and everything is approved by the commission — and that's part of the problem, Mendez said.
"In those 18 months, we lose residents on a monthly basis (because) they can't afford to live there, especially now with COVID impacting their income," he said.
Mendez proposes to expedite the process, putting affordable housing as a top priority on his list of city development projects. For example, if there are any buildings the city already owns, primed for affordable housing, the council should have the power to shorten the timeline.
He also believes that the council could start pushing office developers toward building mixed-use developments and create a program that incentivizes homeowners to build safe accessory dwelling units on their properties.
"I don't have a specific percentage (of affordable housing), but the more the merrier," he said. "We need more affordable housing in East Palo Alto even though the city is already leading the way."
In thinking about low-income renters during the pandemic, Mendez said the city should extend its eviction moratorium, which expired Sept. 30. (State Assembly Bill 3088 bill, also known as the "Tenant Act," currently protects residents from evictions if they pay 25% of any missed rental payments between Sept. 1 and Jan. 31. East Palo Alto has a later repayment period that starts on March 1, 2021.) He also hopes to negotiate with landlords to reduce or erase tenants' debts.
Mendez is also making calls to revisit the city's Climate Action Plan, criticizing in particular how the current goals such as the emission reduction were set in the early 2000s and are outdated.
"The city set a Climate Action Plan in that by 2020, they want to reduce 15% of our gas emissions," he said. "We're in 2020, we still haven't seen ... whether we met that benchmark. ... If we have, let's set a new robust goal that reduces (emissions) by 25%."
Traffic congestion has become a growing concern for East Palo Alto residents for the past five years. Mendez lays the blame on regional development around the city rather than city growth through projects such as the University Avenue building that houses Amazon. It's why he makes the case for impact fees charged to regional projects and says East Palo Alto needs to be included more in discussions around future regional developments.
In the meantime, Mendez said he's looking at Menlo Park's Willow Road overpass at U.S. Highway 101 as an example of the type of expansion he wants to make to East Palo Alto's current infrastructure, which could entail more lanes for cars and cyclists as well as sidewalks.
"We look at our (University Avenue) overpass, and it's like you're fighting for your life when you make that cross over that bridge," he said. "There's residents dodging cars and … I've seen way too many accidents happen there. So where are we with our expansion?"
Mendez was a student of the Ravenswood City School District and now plans to rebuild an alliance with the district as a city councilman in order to "properly fund" the city's education system, according to his campaign website.
The East Palo Alto Academy alumnus said the city is not short on resources or after school programs the youth community can get involved in; however, he thinks major companies such as Facebook, Amazon or Google should create more opportunities such as internship programs that will be reserved for the city's youth.
"What we're missing is a new perspective, a new energy and new ideas on City Council," Mendez said. "I just feel like, as a city, we've had this mindset of complacency and just being OK with what the work that they're doing, when we need more people doing even a little bit more."
Read profiles of the other six candidates: