Palo Alto Mayor Lydia Kou, a staunch critic of California's approach to encourage more housing development, announced on Monday, May 15, that she plans to run for the state Assembly.
Kou, a Realtor who has been serving on the City Council since 2016 and is now in her second term, hopes to win a seat in a district currently being represented by Assembly member Marc Berman, another former Palo Alto City Council member, in the 2024 election. The 23rd Assembly District includes Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Mountain View, Atherton, Woodside, Pacifica, Ladera, Los Altos, Los Altos Hills, Portola Valley, Saratoga and Campbell.
Though both are Democrats, Berman and Kou differ significantly on policy. While Berman has been a reliable vote of support for recent housing bills that have created streamlined and by-right processes for approving housing developments, Kou has strongly opposed these laws, characterizing them as an attack on local control. In March, she used her "State of the City" speech as a platform to attack recent Sacramento bills such as Senate Bill 9, which allows split lots in single-family zones; SB 10, which creates a process for cities to build at higher densities in transit-rich areas than underlying zoning would normally allow; and SB 35, which created a streamlined approval process for housing projects in jurisdictions that fail to meet their housing quotas.
She referred to the methodology used to develop the housing quotas as "highly flawed," called the mandated numbers "widely inflated" and criticized the housing laws for failing to provide "genuine affordable housing." She also blamed "developer-friendly legislators" for raising Regional Housing Needs Allocation targets to "unrealistic levels," to ensure that most cities will fail to meet their targets.
On the local level, Kou has established a reputation as a tough critic of new developments and a stalwart of the council's slow-growth political camp, often referred to as "residentialists." Last week, she was the only council member who voted against adopting the new Housing Element, arguing that the entire process is based on misguided mandates from Sacramento.
"There is little evidence that these Housing Elements … actually address the high cost of living, the housing affordability crisis," she said at the May 8 meeting. "Furthermore, the state bills that rewrote the number of housing units that need to be built are flawed beyond logic."
In her May 15 announcement, Kou said she wants to move to the Assembly to "fight for new approaches to addressing homelessness, crime, affordable housing and the rising cost of living." The top priority on her list would be to stop politicians who she claims are "taking away local democracy by putting developers in charge of land use and silencing local communities."
Kou also said she would address homelessness by building more shelters and giving local governments the power to require that people use that shelter, rather than sleep on the streets.
She also wants to see a greater emphasis on mental health and training for individuals as they transition from homelessness. Focusing solely on housing construction in insufficient, she told the Palo Alto Weekly.
"I really think we need to kind of also invest in mental health part of it and drug treatment. ... They have to be mentally on the path in order to be get into training for a job and then work their way to a stable housing," Kou said. "We're just building, building and building, and it's not really solving the problem with homelessness."
She also said she supports taking on "career criminals" by making sure there are consequences for individuals who commit repeated thefts and other crime. This may include revisiting Prop. 47, a 2014 initiative that reclassified various drug offenses and other non-violent crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. The goal, she said, is to make sure criminals face consequences.
"When something bad happens, we expect police officers to do their jobs. When officers do their jobs and then we turn around and ... we let the (offenders) go, it's a revolving door," Kou said. "It doesn't help police officers, and it doesn't help the people who are harmed."
Kou also said she would like to curb government spending by reconsidering major projects like the extension of Caltrain to downtown San Francisco. She told the Weekly that she is undeterred by the barriers of challenging an incumbent.
"We live in a democratic society, so it's up to the people: If they want to see change, they can elect me. If they want status quo, they can stick with whomever they want," Kou said.