“We’re seeing all over the state now cities that have failed in this process starting to experience the effects,” said Mathew Reed, policy director with pro-housing group SV@Home. “We’re worried we’re watching another train wreck, given the council’s past history of being unwilling to comply with basic standards.”


/Mercury News

Oct. 24,

When “balanced growth” advocates won a 4-1 majority on the Cupertino City Council in the 2018 election, they promised a new era of government accountability and one that would fight the greedy developers, they warned, that threatened to destroy the suburban character of the affluent Silicon Valley city.

But for council critics, the past four years have instead been marked by a defiant “nimbyism” they say has exacerbated the local housing crisis and contributed to widespread dysfunction in city government.

They point to constant city staff turnover, two recent elementary school closures as enrollment has declined and officials failed to meet affordable housing goals, and protracted fights with the state over new housing, including the massive mixed-use development planned for the former Vallco Mall, as examples of the challenges the council has created for Cupertino.

With three of the the five council seats up for grabs in this year’s election, a slate of new candidates has pitted itself against those backed by balanced growth supporters. The vote stands to shift the balance of power in city government as Cupertino plans for how to meet its upcoming eight-year state-mandated housing target of more than 4,500 new homes — or risk fines, lawsuits and the loss of local land use authority.

“We’re seeing all over the state now cities that have failed in this process starting to experience the effects,” said Mathew Reed, policy director with pro-housing group SV@Home. “We’re worried we’re watching another train wreck, given the council’s past history of being unwilling to comply with basic standards.”

Across the Bay Area in recent years, candidates openly resistant to the state’s aggressive push to build more homes have won office in cities including Palo Alto, Mountain View, Orinda, Pleasanton and San Francisco. While the Cupertino City Council isn’t unique in opposing efforts to significantly ramp up housing construction, Reed said, the city’s balanced growth movement is an “extreme example” of a relatively small group of people seizing “all the levels of city government.”

On her campaign website, incumbent candidate Vice Mayor Liang-Fang Chao, a founder of the balanced growth group, Better Cupertino, described her “resident friendly” platform as promoting “sustainable development to prevent traffic congestion, school overcrowding and environmental impact.” A campaign video highlighted a large planned senior housing complex with affordable units, which the council approved for Stevens Creek Boulevard, as an example of a project that makes sense for Cupertino.

Chao did not respond to questions for this story.

Along with Chao, Better Cupertino is backing two other candidates, Steven Scharf, a former Cupertino mayor who now chairs the city’s planning commission, and Govind Tatachari, who serves on a separate city housing commission. Neither responded to interview requests.

In total, eight candidates are vying for the three open at-large seats, all of which are currently held by Better Cupertino supporters. Chao holds one seat. Mayor Darcy Paul is at the end of his term, and Councilman Jon Willey chose not to seek reelection.

Attorney J.R. Fruen, Sheila Mohan, a retired Santa Clara County senior finance manager, and Cupertino Chamber of Commerce President Claudio Bono are all running to reverse Better Cupertino’s hold on city government.

Additionally, Yuko Shima, an English language teacher, is running on an environmental platform. Moon Kyu Choe, who has an accounting office and real estate brokerage service, has not put forward specific campaign proposals.

Fruen, policy director for the housing advocacy group Cupertino for All, said the city of 60,000 residents must plan for more apartments and condos that its workforce — including many employees at the Apple corporate headquarters north of Highway 280 — can actually afford. The median cost of a single-family home in the city is nearly $3 million.

He also worries that if Cupertino fails to meet the Jan. 31 deadline for Bay Area cities to finalize their “housing element” plan for future homebuilding, the state could clear the way for developers to push through large projects with little city input and potentially without regard to local zoning laws.

That’s similar to what happened with the contested Vallco development, which is set to include 2,400 units of housing and 1.9 million square feet of office space, but not the performing arts center the developer had initially agreed to build before Better Cupertino sued to stop the complex.

“Feb. 1, we’re open season for developers, and it’s their fault,” Fruen said.

Mohan, the retired finance manager, said one of the main reasons she’s running is to plan for more affordably priced housing for young families to help reverse school enrollment declines. She also wants to stem the “exodus” of city employees — including three city managers over the past four years — who have left largely as a result of “micromanaging” by some councilmembers.

“As public officials, we need to be looking at the big picture,” Mohan said. “We need to be setting policy. We don’t need to be getting involved in every minute detail of every report.”

Ethan Varian | Housing Reporter

Ethan Varian covers the rental market and housing affordability issues as part of the Bay Area News Group’s housing team. He was previously a housing and homelessness reporter at the Santa Rosa Press Democrat in Sonoma County. His stories about housing, business and culture have been published in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and the Guardian US, among others.


The Steve Jobs Theater, foreground, in the Apple Park campus in Cupertino, California, on Thursday, September 7, 2017. (LiPo Ching/Staff Archives)
Cupertino Vice Mayor Liang-Fang Chao. 
Former Cupertino Mayor Steven Scharf. 
Cupertino City Council candidate J.R. Freun.
Cupertino City Council candidate Sheila Mohan. 
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