Stewart Hyland doesn't have experience as a sitting city councilman, but his work for the past two decades is deeply tied to one of the main pillars of the East Palo Alto community: its nonprofit organizations.
"I've always worked in nonprofits, either as a community organizer or as a union organizer," he said.
Because of his extensive positions with groups such as One East Palo Alto Neighborhood Improvement Initiative, Faith in Action and, currently, the Housing Leadership Council of San Mateo County, to name a few, Hyland said he already has an intimate knowledge of the council's process and the larger community concerns.
"(I) have an understanding of how folks are being affected by what policies that are in effect and also a little bit about budget work," Hyland said.
If elected to the council, Hyland said he wants to ensure East Palo Alto residents see the benefits of Measure HH, a 2018 voter-approved parcel tax on large office developments to fund career training programs and affordable housing; support the city with its Ravenswood/Four Corners TOD Specific Plan; and retain the city's current residents through affordable housing, while also inviting new tenants.
Hyland has called for a "broad-minded" approach when thinking about who the city should serve with affordable housing. Though he's not the only candidate who has emphasized the creation of units for middle- to low-income earners, Hyland is the only one so far to openly address a specific subgroup of lower-income residents: the formerly incarcerated.
"I think single-room occupancy will be great for a lot of our folks that are returning from being incarcerated," he said.
At the same time, he stressed that it doesn't mean East Palo Alto can't accommodate an economically diverse community. The problem, Hyland suggests, is finding the common ground between all types of housing and tenants.
"This economy is so out of whack, it doesn't make any sense to separate ourselves by class," he said. "We need to think more holistically."
One tool Hyland suggests the city could look into is inclusionary zoning to bring a mix of affordable and market-rate units and, as a result, help preserve "the flavor" and cultural diversity of the city.
On commercial development, Hyland said he wants to move forward with the city's existing Ravenswood/Four Corners TOD Specific Plan. (A couple years ago, Hyland gathered primarily Spanish-speaking parents for community discussions about what the development should look like.)
"I thought we laid out a good plan," he said, appreciating details like the floor-area ratios, which limit building construction on a plot of land, and the various types of proposed mixed-use developments.
Hyland was also a huge proponent of the Measure HH parcel tax in 2018, rallying community support by knocking on residents' doors. Hyland's next move is to ensure East Palo Alto residents see the fruits of the measure's career pathway and affordable housing components.
"It's just taking a long time to get that off," he said. "Especially the career ladder piece — we haven't yet hired a consultant to do the research on what the best practices are."
In Hyland's vision for a job training program through Measure HH, prospective residents would be prepped for a job or internship before office construction projects are finished. That way, by the time the spaces are complete and a company is looking to accept workers, a cohort of East Palo Alto residents will be ready.
Hyland said one immediate action the city could take is to partner with nearby school districts and community colleges to speak with companies considering a potential move to East Palo Alto about the best steps to develop a certain career path.
During the pandemic, Hyland has spent some time helping homeless individuals through the St. Vincent de Paul Society, closely interacting with those deeply impacted by the health crisis. He commends the city for having some of the strongest tenant protections in place for renters, but also knows, through his work at the Housing Leadership Council, that it's not enough for many residents and that the city has requested money from Samaritan House to provide rental assistance.
When asked if the city should provide financial assistance to renters, Hyland said the city should continue leveraging its relationships with nonprofits and other donors for further assistance.
Hyland also belongs to the camp of East Palo Alto residents who believe the city has a strong relationship with its Police Department. There are changes he would also like to see, such as less harmful, de-escalation tactics along with a more extensive training curriculum for cadets.
In thinking about what role he would fill that is currently missing on the council, Hyland said his decision to run mainly came from dissatisfaction with the pace of decision-making, citing the city's progress on Measure HH.
"It's good to have a good understanding of what's going on, and I think I showed that," he said. "But the other side is (having) someone that's not comfortable with that pace that may want to move things along faster and be more responsive to what the community's needs are."
Read profiles of the other six candidates: