On Tuesday, October 11, the Palo Alto Weekly hosted a live public forum on Zoom with seven candidates running for the two seats on East Palo Alto’s City Council. The candidates were asked questions on public safety, displacement, quality of life, housing, infrastructure, and jobs with either a 45, 30 or 60-second timer to give an answer.

Although the debate included many interesting topics, the most controversial ones were on displacement, housing, and jobs for residents.

One of the most salient topics of the webinar was gentrification in East Palo Alto. The question posed to the candidates was “what more, if anything, do you think can or should be done to address the displacement of residents?”. Each candidate provided an adequate response but only two proposed some details to an actual plan. Both teacher and long-term resident of EPA Martha Barragan and public works and planning commissioner Mark Dinan concur that Below Market Rate (BMR) housing, affordable housing priced for low to moderate income families, would be a good solution.

Barragan said “If we create those mixed housing projects that target the working class families as well as the low-income families and offer them programs such as the Community Improvement Authority Force Workforce Housing Program, that could help alleviate some of these problems that we’re having.”

Dinan said something very similar “We must stop blocking and slowing the construction of market-rate housing and encourage the construction of new apartment buildings and the condos that have a percentage reserve for BMR units.”

The current mayor believes that the city is doing enough to support rent controls “So I think that we just need to work, keep working.”. However, there seemed to be a unanimous consensus that displacement due to high-tech, high-income newcomers is a major concern.

Another topic on the agenda was housing. The candidates were asked to address the pressing and complex issue of availability and affordability. One candidate, small business owner Gail Wilkerson, brought up the fact that EPA has a mere 2.5-mile radius, and clamored to put an end to the usual real estate trap, where in cities designate areas for the wealthy and areas for the not wealthy.

“You have to do it cohesively. We need an urban designer,” Gail proposed.

Jeffrey Austin made a clear link to the previous issue of displacement when he passionately addressed the audience and shared, “I really have a heart for folks that have really survived the true struggles, they still be able to remain here. So I would ask that we have 40% of a lower income bracket.”

The moderator moved the conversation around the topic of jobs and specifically asked the candidates for their stance on the ordinance First Source Hiring.

Most candidates avoided answering the question head-on, focusing instead on the importance of training and developing the skills of the working population. Mark Dimon did politely address the option of First Source Hiring, referencing it as “kind of a patronage system.”. On the other hand, Gail Wilkerson was more blunt and controversially challenged the program.

According to Wilkerson, “we don’t have, just face it, the people, a lot of people aren’t skilled unless you bring in a dollar store or something like that. They’re just not here. And to force employers to hire unskilled people, it’s atrocious.”

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