Mayor’s Corner: Antonio López, Mayor of East Palo Alto
January 31, 2024
Earlier this year, Antonio López became the youngest mayor serving the City of East Palo Alto. A first-generation American and college student, he joined the city council in December 2020 and has also honed his political acumen by serving as district representative for the office of State Senator Josh Becker.
Early experiences set him on the path toward civic service
Mayor López’s roots are humble, but his aspirations have always been high. He grew up in East Palo Alto, a city that is generally poorer than its sister cities in Silicon Valley, but with a thriving population committed to helping each other. With parents who emphasized and valued hard work and a strong education, López focused on his studies, earning multiple degrees: a Bachelor’s degree in African and African American Studies from Duke University, a Master’s of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and Poetry from Rutgers University – Newark, a Master of Philosophy in Modern Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Oxford as a Marshall Scholar and is currently finishing a Ph.D. in Modern Thought and Literature from Stanford University.
His experience in East Palo Alto instilled the concepts of community, duty and dedication to a melting pot of different cultures. However, he also saw the effects of gentrification and the subsequent exodus of African-Americans and other low-income communities, giving him a sense of responsibility toward preserving these cultures.
As López saw the devastating impact of COVID on his community and witnessed the injustice toward George Floyd and other Black Americans, he found himself at a crossroads, trying to determine whether to continue pursuing a life in academia or leverage his knowledge to make a difference. The timing and circumstances led him to pursue the latter and he discovered a love for public service.
He started his efforts by visiting households door-to-door, where he could engage purposefully and get to know his community even better. “I noticed that the issues I saw growing up related to economic anxiety caused by the crushing cost of living that was pricing individuals out of the area were still there. I realized I had a duty to help my neighbors, and as a younger person I appreciated that I was able to set the example that you’re never too young or too inexperienced to make a difference. Anyone who sets a vision for the community can make an impact,” he says.
During his early days on City Council, he found that many community members and city staff members were eager to invest in his growth and help him understand the inner workings of local city government. “The beauty of East Palo Alto is that we’re a small, but mighty, village, and because everybody knows everybody there’s a level of closeness, support and understanding you may not get in a big city,” he said.
A wide array of initiatives help address affordable housing needs
Over the years, Mayor López has seen impressive progress in the affordable housing crisis through diligent city efforts. That included passing several related measures, including Measure L, a business tax which generates approximately $1 million to bridge the affordable housing gap. He also notes the positive effect of Ravenswood Project Area, a mixed-used project with an affordable housing component that has made great strides since its inception in 1990, as well as the Sand Hill Property acquired in 2019, where the city is negotiating with them to realize the best outcomes for residents through as many affordable housing units as possible, combined with neighborhood support services.
Currently East Palo Alto is adopting an aggressive Housing Element to encourage the creation of much-needed housing, while providing stable construction jobs. The city is also reviewing its ADU Joint Assistance program which began a year ago to provide funding to support the construction of ADUs, and it is reviewing opportunities to create affordable units in church lots. In addition it is working with HEART to facilitate first-time home buyer’s assistance, and partnering with the state and organizations like Eden Housing on projects such as Light Tree and Nugent Square, with the goal of streamlining the entitlement process to expedite the time it takes to facilitate these vital projects.
The city is also focusing on the “missing middle,” to make sure these individuals aren’t inadvertently pushed out by lower- and higher-income community members, a common occurrence they’ve observed in other cities as the mix of housing changes.
“On the council, we’ve been having a lot of conversations around social housing and mixed-use projects and noting the success of the Ravenswood Project Area, which really blends all these components along with easy access to transportation,” Mayor López says. “We feel it exemplifies the wave of the future where we bring diverse communities with different socioeconomic backgrounds to live in close proximity, buoyed by easy access to amenities, transit and jobs. It not only helps improve their lives economically, but helps break down social barriers that have historically divided our region.”
Finding success through collaboration
Of course, these advances designed to address pervasive housing challenges can’t take place without partnering with other neighboring cities and counties. Today the City of East Palo Alto is working closely with the Bay Area Housing Finance Authority (BAHFA) to advance a potential $20 billion affordable housing bond measure for the November 2024 ballot that would benefit their city among others.
They also recognize this development must be launched in tandem with transportation advances so that residents don’t have to worry about the potential impact on congestion. Collectively they are working to identify ways to alleviate traffic through the creation of new bike lanes and sidewalks, along with connecting and expanding existing transit opportunities. By aligning with Transportation Demand Management (TDM), they are devising sensible solutions for residents and the greater community as it grows.
Piecing together the budget puzzle
Financing is certainly top of mind for many cities, including East Palo Alto. The city has $33 million in general funds, which poses challenges when considering the high costs of land and other development costs, combined with the high interest rate environment.
In addition, city leaders realize they need to balance the desire for more affordable housing with other pressing needs, including improvements in infrastructure and public safety. The city has identified over $150 million in urgently needed capital improvements, which is five times its budget.
“We need to work diligently to stretch our dollars, including by partnering with organizations, companies and advocates who can help us address some of these issues,” Mayor López says. He also recognizes the importance of procuring neighborhood support through education on why community members should join the fight for affordable housing.
“We can move the needle if we continue to be energized, organized and hungry for change,” he says. “That change will come from pursuing smart, community-focused development in our own backyard, educating our residents and partnering with organizations like Eden. Addressing the critical housing shortfall is a once-in-a-generation opportunity I’m confident we can tackle if everybody gets behind it and does its part.”