Focused on affordable housing, the 32-year-old says he’ll speak the truth, be loud and give it 110%

Max Fennell on the current moment: ‘If anything, this continues to wake something up inside of myself.’ (Photo by Charles Russo)

Max Fennell has made a name for himself as a triathlete and entrepreneur living in Menlo Park. Now he’s planning to run for the City Council’s District 3 seat on a platform aimed at lowering the cost of living.

He’s the entrepreneur behind Fenn Coffee, a small-batch coffee roasting company, which sells beans in several local markets, including at Delucchi’s in Redwood City, Bianchini’s in Portola Valley, the Willows Market on Middlefield Road in Menlo Park and the Market at Edgewood in Palo Alto.

He’s also a professional triathlete who made headlines as a “defender” on LeBron James’ TV show competition, “Million Dollar Mile,” and was identified in 2017 by the New York Times as the only African American triathlete competing as a pro.

Fennell said he decided to run for office after experiencing a series of frustrations within the community. He’s come to know his district well, running and cycling through its streets as he trains for triathlons and Spartan obstacle races, he said.

District 3 stretches from Crane Street downtown to Coleman Avenue and from San Francisquito Creek and Willow Road to the Atherton border in the Felton Gables neighborhood. Of Menlo Park’s five districts, it has the highest proportion of residents over 16 who are employed, at 67%. Fifty-two percent of the district’s households rent their homes and it is the only district in Menlo Park where a majority — 51% — of the housing supply is multi-family housing rather than single-family.

Other candidates who plan to run for City Council this year are Jennifer Wolosin, founder of Parents for Safe Routes, who has announced she plans to run for the District 3 seat, and incumbent Ray Mueller, who has announced he plans to run for the District 5 seat.

Only Wolosin so far has filed the initial form that declares a candidate’s intent to run for office, according to City Clerk Judi Herren.

“Why are landlords not stepping up to the plate and lowering people’s rent?” (Photo via Max Fennell’s Instagram account)

Rent policies

Implementing citywide rent control would be his first policy priority, Fennell said.

He said he knows what struggling over the cost of living is like here.

“I’m not living in a $5 million house and guessing,” he said. “I feel this, I see it, and it’s bothering me.”

As a renter, he said, the cost of living is frustrating, for him and his peers. He’s 32 and his friends still talk about buying a van to live in or moving out of town because it’s so expensive here.

The high cost of living shapes who can live in the community, he said. At his apartment complex, he’s the only Black guy, and since the pandemic started, he’s seen three moving trucks parked in front of his neighbors’ apartments.

The pandemic is putting steep pressures on renters, and the reasons to stay may be diminishing for some.

Residents are looking at an autumn of “glorified house arrest” while paying costly rent, and many are able to work remotely, he said.

“You can go move to another state right now and pay half of this rent. I don’t understand why you wouldn’t. I don’t think we should be forced to do that.”

“Why are landlords not stepping up to the plate and lowering people’s rent?” he continued. He added that he’d favor rent set on average at $2,000 per month.

(Photo courtesy of Max Fennell)

Other policy ideas

Fennell said he would also favor reallocating police funding to social service community programs and instituting a monthly mandatory training for police officers. The training would involve contemporary case studies of people being unjustly killed by police, and if officers don’t pass, they’d have to undergo additional training.

As a Black resident of Menlo Park, he said, he’s been pulled over five times since moving into the city in 2017. Twice, he was on a bike.

About 1 in 1,000 black men can expect to be killed by police, Fennell said, a statistic reported in 2019 research from the National Academy of Sciences.

“That’s just extremely scary to think about,” he said.

He said he’d like to see the police engage more in the community. All residents should know five police officers by name.

Neighbors should talk to each other more too, he said.

Another priority for him would be to enliven downtown life. He’s in the market for a retail location for his coffee shop, but the realities of what’s profitable with high commercial rent is a significant challenge for restaurants and people in the food industry, he said.

High rents mean restaurants need a large number of visitors spending a fair amount of money with each visit to break even, let alone profit. The city should take on extra barriers or costs to offering outdoor dining right now, he said.

His larger priority when it comes to rent policy is to work toward immediate relief, figuring how to make the community affordable now rather than wait for new housing to be built.

“Someone needs to step up to the plate, and I’m willing to do it, and give it 110%” he said. “I’ll speak the truth and be loud about it. I’ll fight for what I believe in — whatever has to be done to get the cost of living down.”

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Kate Bradshaw

Kate Bradshaw

Bay Area reporter covering local government, inequality and the outdoors

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