San Carlos city council candidates share perspectives on housing developments
October 26, 2022
In response to community-led responses in East San Carlos and East Belmont, city leaders in the local area are making their voices heard before upcoming elections.
For San Carlos, the upcoming city council election will deal in part with the fact that every eight years, the state sets a housing production goal for each region through a process called the Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA). In the upcoming 8-year cycle, for San Carlos, the state has mandated that the city council’s next Housing Element plan for 2,735 new units of housing from 2023 to 2031.
With housing top of mind, the five candidates discuss their views below.
As a resident of San Carlos for over 20 years, John Durkin expressed his confidence in his ability to accurately represent San Carlos residents on the city council. He has experience in the changes and projects already implemented and believes he can add input based on the community’s needs and requests.
“I’m aware of the growth of San Carlos, I’ve seen it for 21 years,” Durkin said in the live-streamed interview at Clock Tower Music on Oct. 23. “I will never forget that I’m the voice of San Carlos.”
In discussing his goals and some of the important changes he wants to bring to the community of San Carlos, Durkin noted the importance of the housing development projects, however, he also stressed the role of other amenities.
“I’d love to hear locally from our representatives in Sacramento. The Josh Beckers, the Kevin Mullins, what do they think about San Carlos and the peninsula that they represent? We’re not a cookie-cutter state, each city is different and each city is unique,” Durkin said. “So, yes, San Carlos needs to build new houses for residents and people that work here, but we also need to have amenities – park amenities, tennis courts, swimming pools, and pickleball.”
In addition to the new projects Durkin described, he stressed the need for accountability among the city councilmembers. False promises for housing projects and funding impact the San Carlos community in numerous ways, which is why it’s important for the needs of the people to be met and their input taken into consideration.
“I do have a background in operations and I love a checklist. I would encourage that we bring together the stakeholders from the three groups and put together a checklist of what these stakeholders want to see in a project,” Durkin said. “The planning commission looks at all the housing projects before they are sent to the city council. Accountability is a big part of the city council and the city council appoints the members of the planning commission.”
As a member of the San Carlos community, Durkin’s primary focus is on the best interests of the people. In regard to the housing development plans, Durkin believes in finding a compromise to maintain unity.
“There are members of Yes in my Backyard and Not in my Backyard, so what’s the best way to bring those two groups together to compromise?” Durkin said.
One way in which Durkin intends to accurately represent the views of San Carlos residents is by bringing forward the question: “is there a petition from the residents on this topic?” at every city council meeting.
Another step Durkin wants to take is to encourage interaction between the San Carlos government and residents. He plans to take the community’s feedback into consideration when making decisions that would affect them.
“With regard to the Housing Element, I’d love city staff and the planning department to get out there and meet your stakeholders at the property and show people the plans for the project,” Durkin said.
Durkin has extensive plans which he hopes to implement if elected to the San Carlos City Council. One in particular that he stressed involved making the goings-on of the City Council more accessible to residents through a welcoming internet presence.
“A database online of projects [that] people can go to it and see what the different components are to that project — what amenities it’s going to have, and what impact it will have. Sometimes I think the city website is difficult to navigate,” Durkin said.
With these potential changes in mind, Durkin ultimately wants to protect existing San Carlos residents from the negative impacts further housing development may bring.
“When you build something high, you’re possibly taking away someone else’s sunshine. We all love sunshine. If there’s a tall building that takes your sunshine, it really takes something from the person,” Durkin said. “That should be the one thing that we ask developers in San Carlos, ‘are you really impacting someone else’s sunshine?’”
The road to candidacy was different for each of the five San Carlos City Council candidates. Candidate Alexander Kent believes his background in real estate gives him a unique perspective on the issue of affordable housing.
“My work as a commercial property consultant since 2005 offers the strongest professional experience with the urban planning, traffic, and infrastructure engineering issues that San Carlos is currently analyzing,” Kent said in his opening statement during the San Carlos City Council Candidate Forum on Oct. 6.
This background has shaped Kent’s view on affordable housing in San Carlos. He does not strongly identify as either pro- or anti-development, but rather holds a more nuanced perspective.
In an exclusive live interview with Scot Scoop at Clock Tower Music on Laurel Street, Kent elaborated on his perspective on affordable housing in San Carlos.
“I’m not necessarily pro-development. I think it’s really important to find the right balance,” Kent said. “I support affordable housing for police, fire, teachers, and city staff. Ideally on the land owned by the city or school. You want to keep them closest, especially in the event of an emergency.”
His support for expanding affordable housing focuses on transit-oriented development, which promotes compact, mixed-use urban development that is suitable for pedestrians and bicycles. Transit-oriented development also clusters jobs, housing, services, and amenities around public transport stations, so it is closely integrated with mass transit.
“In the past eight-year regional housing needs assessment cycle, San Carlos delivered 596 housing units that we can see around the CalTrain station. I support this type of transit-oriented housing development, especially affordable housing to keep our city staff in town, but I believe that the existing City Council has gone way overboard in their new housing and office approvals, which has made most San Carlos residents upset,” Kent said.
The new housing and office approvals to which Kent referred involve a substantial increase in affordable housing development. The nearly 600 new units delivered in the last eight years that Kent mentioned were only the beginning.
In the next eight years, the council plans to make a jump to five times the affordable housing development of the last cycle. According to Kent, this would be at the expense of the city’s parks, which would interfere with his more balanced agenda.
“I don’t think that we should give up our parks for some radical housing agenda,” Kent said. “And not to mention schools. If you bring in thousands of new residents to San Carlos, what is it going to look like at Carlmont? What is it gonna look like at Ralston, Central, and other schools? They’re going to be overwhelmed.”
Further contributing to Kent’s perspective on affordable housing is his goal to be an advocate for the best interests of San Carlos residents. He explained that with his background as a commercial property consultant, he is especially perceptive about the people’s wants and needs with regard to housing.
In addition to recognizing the views of San Carlos residents, Kent hopes to bring their perspectives to the city’s government as a council member. He explained that the City Council seat that he is campaigning for requires a very specific candidate to fill it and feels that he has the optimal qualities and qualifications.
“I think that the existing City Council desperately needs an independent, devil’s advocate role, a person that’s experienced in urban planning, commercial residential development, real estate, along with an actual analysis, contract analysis, and negotiation to represent the best interest of San Carlos residents,” Kent said.
Kent’s main concern is accurately representing the views of residents. He hopes to “serve as a fiduciary for the existing residents and businesses first and foremost.”
As the current mayor of San Carlos, Sara McDowell believes the steps she’s taken are in the best interest of the city and the people.
“As a city council, we are all dedicated to addressing the need for more housing at all income levels. I recognize that at this point in time, it will be extremely difficult for my children to afford to live in the Bay Area. It is getting harder and harder for young families, as well as seniors on a fixed income, to make ends meet in our region. And that is not acceptable,” McDowell said.
As part of the process of planning for new housing by updating the Housing Element, the city council did work with the community to get their input and perspectives on the issues affecting them. The city council has also partaken in past community workshops that were advertised and open to the public.
“Residents weighed in via all of these outreach measures to voice preferences for where new housing should be built and how dense that housing should be,” McDowell said. “It is hoped that once our Housing Element process wraps up, we will see new development projects launch in San Carlos, near our transit hubs, to increase our housing supply.”
In November 2020, a Community Newsletter was mailed to all the households in San Carlos with the main focus on housing. After the City Council received community feedback, they discussed options to increase the “density and height in key areas” along El Camino Real to meet the community’s housing needs.
“Housing is important because we want our teachers, firefighters, health care professionals, restaurant workers, and public sector employees to have the opportunity to live near their work in order to have a diverse and thriving town. When people are able to live near their work, it also cuts down on traffic on our freeways and commute times.” McDowell said. “San Carlos prides itself on being a welcoming and inclusive community and we as a community recognize the importance of having housing for people of all income levels.”
On June 8, 2022, the city unveiled its first 100% affordable housing project on 817 Walnut Street in downtown San Carlos. The city had made a $7.3 million investment to make the project happen and due to its success, the San Carlos City Council is currently working on a second affordable housing project on Cherry Street. This will include 2 and 3-bedroom units in order to accommodate families.
“As mayor, I was very proud to cut the ribbon on 817 Walnut, our 100% affordable housing project in the heart of our downtown,” McDowell said.
In addition to these projects, McDowell serves on a county-wide governing board for the Housing Endowment and Regional Trust (HEART). Founded in 2003, HEART is a public/private partnership among the cities in San Mateo County, businesses, nonprofits, education, and labor communities. Their job is to help fund affordable housing projects throughout the county.
“In my opinion, one of the biggest barriers to getting affordable housing built is access to funding,” McDowell said. With the average cost of building one unit of affordable housing averaging $700,000, what we really need to see is the state stepping up and making more funding for affordable housing easily available.”
In regard to the housing in the Greater East San Carlos neighborhood (GESC), the City Council has listened to feedback from the community and made changes appropriately. According to the mayor, at the City Council meeting on Sept. 26, 2022, a significant amount of community feedback was received regarding two properties, 1031 East San Carlos Avenue and 575 Old County Road. The Council then gave direction to staff to remove the properties from the Draft Housing Element Appendix A, Sites Inventory.
According to McDowell, “there are very real, negative consequences for communities that do not submit a compliant Housing Element to the State.”
“As a city councilmember and current mayor, I have been proud to work very closely with the Greater East San Carlos (GESC) neighborhood on many issues to make sure resident concerns are heard,” McDowell said.
McDowell, in the past, has organized a meeting with Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials to discuss the clean-up of contaminated properties and was also an advocate for creating the East Side Innovation District Vision Plan.
“I will continue to be a strong advocate for our entire community, including the Greater East San Carlos neighborhood,” McDowell said. “I believe the best policies are made after seeking out and listening to all community input, and I welcome continued discussions with our community members on many topics, including housing.”
For Vice Mayor Adam Rak, undertaking new projects, such as expanding affordable housing development, requires diligent work and thoughtful decision-making.
“I’m very careful to approach issues without a set determination of the outcome. All of the issues facing the council are more complex and nuanced than one would expect at first glance. It is vital to listen to and learn from all sides to make an informed decision,” Rak said.
Rak noted that building housing so people can live closer to public transit or where they work is also beneficial in an environmental sense. To serve the needs of the entire community, he states that it’s necessary to carefully manage how and where housing is built. He also noted the development of affordable housing requires weighing what residents want to what those in office feel is best for the city, adding that as San Carlos moves forward, its infrastructure needs to keep up.
“Housing is a critical issue for the state of California, and San Carlos is no exception,” Rak said. “We need to build more housing and more affordable housing. As our highways become more and more clogged, adding housing next to transit makes sense.”
However, Rak believes there are specific instances that warrant the development of affordable housing, and others that do not. Favoring transit-oriented development, he also acknowledges that development impacts local communities.
“Economic growth brings jobs and revenues to the city to allow us to better serve our community. However, we need to recognize the impact that growth can have in San Carlos, and work with our community to mitigate that impact,” Rak said.
In his effort to work with the San Carlos community, Rak welcomes open communication with residents. As Councilmember, he held several sessions around housing that were attended by numerous community members prior to developing the Housing Element.
“I am always happy to meet with residents to hear their concerns and hopes for development in San Carlos,” Rak said. “I often meet or speak with members of the public about a range of issues, including housing. I also share information on social media as does the city about issues, public meetings, and town halls.”
Rak states that addressing the housing crisis in San Carlos is a top priority for the current city council. This includes the need for housing for single-family homes, townhouses, duplexes, fourplexes, and high-density housing. Rak has spoken with individuals living in East San Carlos who are not opposed to housing but want housing that fits with the existing neighborhoods.
We have to work hand-in-hand with the community — which includes both people who currently live here and work here — to create a vibrant housing ecosystem that works for everyone.”
— Adam Rak
“I understand that and agree that the Council should work with members of the community to find opportunities for more housing while being respectful of the neighborhoods,” Rak said.
Rak also stresses the importance of working towards funding other developments that are valuable to the community as a whole.
“Now, we are working on evolving our downtown into a more vibrant community hub through a collaborative process with our residents and businesses,” Rak said. “As always, I am an enthusiastic supporter of investing in our parks and expanding access to open spaces.”
To handle the conflict over affordable housing with diligence and consideration, Rak emphasized the importance of including San Carlos residents in the process.
“We have to work hand-in-hand with the community — which includes both people who currently live here and work here — to create a vibrant housing ecosystem that works for everyone,” Rak said.
For candidate Pranita Venkatesh, family and community are important to consider in constructing views on affordable housing. These values align with her goals for San Carlos and the housing development projects.
“My priorities for San Carlos are public safety, childcare, economic stability, infrastructure, and affordable housing,” Venkatesh said.
In 2020, Venkatesh was appointed to the San Carlos Economic Development Advisory Commission (EDAC), a seven-member commission appointed by the city council. They aim to advise the city council on economic development programs and goals. Some of these goals include maintaining a successful business climate, ensuring a diverse job base, and securing an adequate range of housing for employees.
“In this role, I’ve been deeply involved in the implementation of the city’s pressing needs and priorities,” Venkatesh said.
Her background with the San Carlos EDAC has prompted her to view the conflict surrounding affordable housing through the lens of how such development would affect local businesses and the area’s economy.
“There is no question that we have a housing shortage. Particularly for lower-wage workers. This affects both the diversity of our community and the survival of our small businesses which have trouble finding employees who live locally,” Venkatesh said.
Venkatesh stressed the importance of maintaining a thoughtful balance between housing and different types of businesses. The current city council’s approval of expanding affordable housing development by five times the progress in the last eight-year cycle could infringe upon this goal.
“The corridor between El Camino Real and 101 is an area rife with opportunity and an important economic driver in San Carlos and the region,” Venkatesh said. “The diversity of businesses needs to be part of the landscape on the East side.”
Setting her personal views aside, Venkatesh also noted that she intends to consider the perspectives of San Carlos residents, who will be directly affected by further affordable housing developments.
“It’s important to engage the broader community on this topic, which San Carlos does well,” Venkatesh said.
From family and community to the health of the local economy, Venkatesh explained that she ultimately wants to cultivate a welcoming San Carlos and more affordable housing is a necessary step in this direction.
“I support bringing housing to the mix and feel it would create a true sense of place and create even more opportunities for folks to live and work locally,” Venkatesh said.