Debunking Myths of Measure HH

In true Halloween spirit, I’m seeing inflamed, sensational, and just flat-out false things being thrown around as “facts” to scare people out of voting YES on HH. In this political climate, few things are spookier than opinions based on wrong assumptions or formed by privilege and presented as facts.

Some of the questions/concerns I hear are totally valid ones! Other claims I hear are flat-out myths, assumptions, and opinions. Let’s debunk some of those here. Read below for my response to many of the arguments/questions I’ve heard that interrogate Measure HH:

  1. Measure HH is a tax. Is this something that will affect the taxes I pay on my home?

No. Measure HH is only levied on property owners of large commercial office buildings over 25,000 square feet. It has no impact on smaller office buildings, restaurants, other forms of commercial retail and certainly not people’s homes.

  1. If we impose this tax, will it stop development?

There is simply no evidence for this. It is inaccurate and misleading to say Measure HH will stop development in EPA and it should be noted that it is a classic argument that developers make in order to avoid being taxed and contributing to the public good. East Palo Alto’s commercial office rents will still be very competitive compared to neighboring cities. For many years, before this tax ever came along, developers have chosen to not invest in EPA for various other reasons. So to now suggest that this tax will single-handedly stop development is simply hyperbolic exaggeration. This is a relatively small cost developers would add to their proformas when making their calculations. If the cost truly doesn’t pencil out, I personally think they should show the City and the community their proformas and be transparent about the assumptions in their calculations. Are you losing feasibility or are you losing profit? These are genuine questions I would want to know the answer to. To me, people will always come before profit. In any case, this tax is flexible because City Council could potentially lower it, but they can never raise it without returning to the voters for approval.

  1. Do other California cities have policies like Measure HH?

Yes. In June of 2018, San Francisco voters approved a tax on large commercial properties to fund childcare and early education programs. This November, Mountain View will vote on a similar tax measure that will fund transportation improvement. I’ll also add that a similar policy is being considered at the regional level by CASA the Committee to House the Bay Area (convened by MTC). Go East Palo Alto for consistently being leaders in policy!

  1. I heard Measure HH was not well thought out…

Let me just say that every time I hear this tired argument, I remember the patronizing and condescending tone in which some people addressed us at city council meetings for months. The way they addressed residents, organizers, CLS lawyers, even city council and young people who came out in support of Measure HH, was flat-out disrespectful on multiple occasions. It’s always disappointing, but not surprising, to see whose knowledge and expertise is deemed worthy of expression and whose knowledge, wisdom and lived experience is devalued or seen as void.

Additionally, City Council discussed Measure HH for a longer period of time than Mountain View did and had multiple public council meetings where they received feedback from both City staff and the public. Should this measure pass, community members have every right (and I would say the obligation) to stay connected to this issue.

  1. The language in Measure HH is too loose! City council will have discretion over 50% of the funds! How can we be sure the money will be spent for housing and jobs?

This assumption keeps coming up over and over again. I appreciate the healthy skepticism but this is an easy one to debunk. Measure HH needs a 67% vote precisely because it is a special tax that legally binds any discretion over these funds to the programmatic purposes already described in the ordinance. A special tax needs the supermajority of the vote (as opposed to a simple majority of 51%) because it restricts council to only use the funds for the purposes described. In other words: affordable housing, and local career ladder programs are the only goals for which these funds will be deployed.

As it is written

  • At least 35% of the funds will go toward net new affordable housing
  • A max of 15% will go toward the administration of the funds
  • 50% will be at the discretion of council ONLY WITHIN these purposes and goals:
    • Create and maintain affordable and supportive housing programs
    • Create and maintain programs that facilitate access to job opportunities for East Palo Alto residents in the science, technology, engineering, math, building trades, and strengthen the City’s First Source Hiring Program

With that being said, it is the duty of residents to continuously hold our elected leaders accountable to do the right thing. Besides…what person of color yall know that is trusting of government anyway?? Just saying.

  1. Well where are we supposed to build new housing anyway? There’s no space for more housing!

First of all, everyone deserves a healthy home. Period. Second of all, yes there is space.

Despite the flaws of State law, the city is legally obligated to plan for its housing on a cyclical basis, detailing out how many housing units the city will need. The City reports its progress in the Annual Progress Report (APR) to the State where they summarize how many residential building permits they have issued that year. They City is required to report across 4 different income levels: very low (this includes extremely low), low, moderate, and above moderate (aka market rate units, or in this economy, luxury units). So in short, not only is there room for more housing, *surprise!* we’re legally obligated to plan for it. Not to mention, the City has a goal of building 500 units within the next 5 years or so.

  1. Measure HH only takes into consideration multi-family housing! Where’s the thoughtfulness for different kinds of housing?!

The language in Measure HH allows for the consideration of a broader range of housing programs. Yes, of course this includes the construction of new, 100% affordable housing and that’s typically multi-family housing. However, Measure HH language also describes the “maintenance of affordable and supportive housing programs.” If you take a look at the City’s affordable housing strategy (beginning on page 129) you will see what priorities will inform some of the implementation moving forward. Although I’m sad I didn’t make it to the last council meeting, I would love to see how we are integrating strategies for permanently affordable home-ownership programs like a community land trust which allows residents a shot at building assets, or the maintenance and expansion of other first-time home buyer programs for low-income people. San Mateo County already has a First Time Home Buyer Program in place, which I believe qualifying EPA residents are eligible for.

Take your pick on which one you want to advocate for and I’ll see you at City Council meetings to hold our elected officials accountable to doing it all.

  1. Measure HH will collect some revenue for career ladder programs. How will that be different from what we already have?

So this is one thing I am interested in holding the city accountable for too. Right now, the services that exist in the city include Jobtrain, and more recently the job center at University and Donohoe. One of the comments I remember hearing from community members in public meetings when the Sobrato job center was proposed, is that Jobtrain already covers a particular capacity. I agree. We should be adding value not duplicating work.

Folks should want to help make sure these programs materialize into the necessary purposes. If we’ve had the same program for how many years then we need to figure out how to support what is working, identify what isn’t working, what is missing and implement innovative strategies.

Why don’t we value social innovation as much as technological innovation? Let’s figure out solutions that build off and complement what already exists while finding alternatives that also boost and elevate the knowledge and ambitions of our community. Folks ought to take this as an invitation to help inform solutions.

  1. It’s too late for a strategy like Measure HH! Amazon is already here.

Umm and the alternative is just sitting back doing nothing? I don’t think so.

Will Measure HH fix everything? No, of course not. But it will establish a specific source of funding to help us offset some of the impacts commercial office space has/will have on the City. It will put us on a path to address some of the priorities this city and community have established.

  1. Measure HH is too focused on Amazon!

Measure HH is so much more than a reaction to Amazon. We’re setting ourselves up to be ahead of the curve for the development that will come in the future. Much of it is already slated to be office space, so the only thing we are doing is preparing our city to capture value from the oncoming development.

  1. Well lately I’ve seen how the Ravenswood District has handled money so poorly. Won’t City Council do the same with Measure HH funds?!

Fair concern and easy answer. City Council and Ravenswood Board are two distinct government bodies. The City does not have jurisdiction over Ravenswood City School District. School Districts are special districts and function as their own governing body.

The management of Measure HH funds has nothing to do with the staff or leadership of Ravenswood District. And again, it is our duty as community members to continuously hold our elected leaders accountable to doing the right thing. Like I said, there are plenty of reasons throughout history as to why we should maintain healthy skepticism of government. Also, please see question 5.

Reimagining East Palo Alto: Learning from the Past for a More Equitable Future

Every single day that I pass by University and Donohoe, I think about the endless possibilities of amazing development that could have happened there.

I imagine a plaza with neighborhood serving retail, like a nail shop, maybe a dry-cleaner, Chinese food, a Soul food joint, some local catering businesses. Imagine the exterior of the building painted with beautiful Tongan tribal design and murals that honor Nairobi College, the Mothers for Equal Education and the Black Panthers. In the center of this plaza there’s a fountain, benches, and a monument that pays tribute to the Ohlone Tribe and art installations that tell you bits of history about East Palo Alto’s long fight for self-determination and then for incorporation.

In the center of the plaza there are poles proudly waving the flags of El Salvador, Honduras, Fiji, Jamaica, Tonga, the Pan-African flag, Samoa, Mexico and all of the other countries from which our diverse population comes from. Picture high schoolers getting off from school and having the option to walk over and get some Boba tea and maybe the daily commuter passes by to pick up some take-out on their way home. That would enable commuters to treat our community less like a traffic corridor and more like a respectful transaction. At the same time, residents can make and spend money in local businesses while we comfortably use and take up the public space.

I would have loved to see a rooftop garden on one building and a brunch spot/cafe on the adjacent building….What do we have instead? A brick, fort-like office building and a big ass parking structure. What we want – and need for earth’s sake – are safe, walkable neighborhoods. Large office development by design has taken us in a backward direction to achieving that. I’m not saying all office development is inherently bad or always has bad design, but I am saying that the way it has happened in East Palo Alto does not contribute to the making of an equitable economy or a walkable city for our residents.

I know the increase of traffic at University x Donohoe potentially poses a threat to pedestrians but it could’ve been mitigated through design and I’m not even going to get into the transit problem just yet so bear with me.

Many of us who grew up here in the 90s and prior, got the pleasure of experiencing that intersection in a way that felt like the hood was ours. Like we belonged here. La Familia used to be there, Country Time used to be there, Hoodstarz store used to be there and there were about 10-12 apartments above those stores. There was Ravenswood Pharmacy, a fish and chips food spot, a taco spot, a hair salon, a church that provided resources for the homeless, and I’m sure many other things I simply don’t remember. Some of those businesses relocated to other parts of the city but the point is that they were no longer in a central location. What if we had improved the infrastructure and maybe even built more housing units on top? Because the facilities were old and surely needed to be adapted but some of the businesses truly thrived. Remember El Galope?

(Guillermina’s interview begins at around 1:52)

Source: https://vimeo.com/17054744

And while we’re here, let’s also look at how the office development of Whiskey Gulch rang the same bell back when that happened in the name of economic development:

Source:  https://vimeo.com/19231285

Let me be very clear: I am not against office space development nor against development or density in general. But I certainly cannot stomach the kind of development that wipes out the culture that used to be there. Whiskey Gulch, University x Donohoe were cultural hubs of the city in one way or another. Families visited El Galope after church on Sundays. And I’m just old enough to remember how much of a central location Whiskey Gulch was. Sure they had their fair share of problems (in no small part due to the anti-Black war on poverty and war on drugs), but at least they were slightly more walkable neighborhoods and most importantly cultural hubs for people who make up the social fabric of this city. But once again, what did we get? University Circle enclosed by concrete walls, and a brick office building on University x Donohoe that is elevated off the ground on the sides that face the street. I will say, the building has some nice windows. I’m sure there’s great lighting in that Sobrato-Amazon building!

But look, my point is that moving forward, we can and must do things differently. We must do economic development differently. There is a whole downtown coming and the way we build it out will be pivotal for the future of our city. To do right by our residents, the transformation that is needed for our city’s political platform includes:

  • Moving from race-blind to race-conscious
  • From trickle down to “trickle-up” community wealth generation
  • From trophy projects to neighborhoods equitably connected to the regional economy
  • From costly business attraction to growing from within
  • From any jobs to quality jobs for workers without BAs
  • From GDP growth to rising living standards for lower-wealth residents
  • From closed-door dealmaking to public accountability

And we must apply these principles to 3 broad economic domains:

  • Neighborhood scale retail and services/ “lifestyle businesses”
  • Business-to-business transactions and markets, government and anchor institution procurement, hiring and contracting
  • The innovation economy, high growth sectors including BUT NOT LIMITED TO high-tech and tech-enabled enterprises

Source: East Bay Community Foundation, Learning + Action Series: Policies for an Inclusive Economy, July 10, 2018

I know. That seems like a lot but if we look around at East Palo Alto’s demographics, we are still predominantly a community of color and our largest age demographic is young people. And we have a rich legacy of visionary community activism to build off of. We ought to take it upon ourselves to shape what our downtown will look like for years to come.

P.S. If you have the privilege to do so, VOTE this November 6th because reform is only a problem when we see it as the end goal, and not as a means to get to the real end goal which is: community building, transformation of our society and liberation of all oppressed people.

Image source: https://rinoartdistrict.org/do/facebook-live-gentrification