Housing crusader Adrian Fine sounds off on lip service liberalism and how Palo Alto became “part of the problem”

“I am trying to ensure that Palo Alto is a successful and vibrant community for the next ten, 20 and 50 years. And I think that means we do a lot more on transportation and housing.”—Palo Alto Mayor Adrian Fine. (Above) Fine during his “State of the City” address at Mitchell Park Community Center in Palo Alto on March 4, 2020. (Photo by Magali Gauthier)

Build more housing.

For outgoing Palo Alto Mayor Adrian Fine, that simple phrase has been a sort of three-word battle cry — one that speaks to the focus of his four-year tenure on Palo Alto City Council.

“Whether you’re looking at issues of equity, economics or the environment, a lot of it ties back to housing,” Fine, 34, told us in a recent phone interview.

It’s a viewpoint that strikes a chord with many residents — particularly younger ones — of cities across the San Francisco Peninsula and the larger Bay Area. “Anyone under 40 in the Bay Area — they get the housing thing,” Fine added.

The youngest of Palo Alto’s seven-member city council, Fine was elected Mayor by his fellow council members at the beginning of this year. Still, his staunch advocacy for housing has often stood in stark contrast to the slow-growth, ‘residentialist’ leanings of his older colleagues. Critics — some of those colleagues included — say Fine paints the housing crisis in broad strokes, and that his positions are not necessarily reflective of the broader community’s.

That’s been frustrating for Fine, a self-described native born son of Palo Alto, who says his message is “pretty straightforward.” He points to one night last month in which his colleagues questioned the merits of a small proposed housing development, while elected officials from neighboring Redwood City were considering the approval of more housing units than, according to Fine, Palo Alto had built in the last decade.

Fine, the recipient of a Master’s Degree in City Planning from the University of Pennsylvania, says elected officials must acknowledge that cities “cannot stand still.” Palo Alto and its Peninsula neighbors must grow and evolve, which means accommodating new and diverse residents — which means building more housing.

“Residentialists are trying to freeze Palo Alto in amber,” he said. “That is a really unhealthy strategy.”

That sort of sentiment has established Fine as a central voice in the movement to address California’s dire housing crisis through a pro-growth lens. And although Fine’s work is specific to Palo Alto, his message is one that resonates throughout the region with a generation of younger residents who find housing to be one of the great obstacles in their lives.

Fine announced in August that he would not seek another term on Palo Alto’s City Council, citing both the recent birth of his first born child and concerns over the city’s trajectory. In pursuit of an exit interview, we spoke with Fine about his frustrations with local leadership, his continually hobbled quests to build more housing — and about how, in his absence, he hopes future councilmembers might change pace, and move Palo Alto only forward.

Councilman Adrian Fine listens to speakers during the public comment section of a city council meeting on December 3, 2018. (Photo by Veronica Weber)

Congratulations on the birth of your child — how’s fatherhood so far?

It’s good. It’s a little crazy. Just got back from pediatrician a little bit ago, you know — trying to figure out all this big new adventure stuff.

You’re raising a family here, but you also grew up in Palo Alto. Can you tell me about your initial motivation to get into local politics? How old were you, and was there one particular issue that lit the spark?

I don’t know if there was one particular issue. I was born and raised here, I grew up in south Palo Alto. I’m the youngest of six kids. My family was never really civically involved growing up, or anything.

One thing that did stand out to me was the discussion of the Mayfield housing development, which is the old Facebook site in College Terrace. It was about two blocks from where my parents lived in College Terrace. And for five or eight years, there was just this big, muddy hole in the ground, with a big chain link fence.

We were on the College Terrace Residents Association … and we saw some news blast go out, saying — “City Council is going to be reconsidering this, we all need to go and oppose for these reasons.” And my dad and I were like — “we want housing here. We want new neighbors. We would rather have that than a hole in the ground.”

So we went to the City Council hearing and we spoke in support of it. We said, “Hey, we live two blocks away, we walk our dogs here, there’s an ugly hole in the ground and we would much rather see a neighborhood here.”

And I think we had no clue what we were stepping into. Because I remember on the way out of the Council chambers, a bunch of neighbors accosted us. They were livid. I seem to remember being told that we’d betrayed the neighborhood, and we were like, “Holy shit, guys — what is this?”

How old were you at the time?

I must have been like… maybe 25.

… To put that in perspective, especially on issues of housing and transport, Palo Alto is not a leader. We are part of the problem. Being a young person who grew up here, and went to (Henry M.) Gunn (Highschool), I graduated with 400 kids from Gunn in 2004. I think there’s like two or three of us left in Palo Alto. I’m sure the kids after [my class]… there’s even less. That’s really sad to me.

This is a great place to raise a family, to go to school, to start a company, to get a job. Palo Alto — and you can find this data in the census — is increasingly an aging, silver retirement community. It’s either — you bought in the seventies, eighties or nineties, or you struck it rich on the startup lottery. I know our town can be a hell of a lot more than that. So when I ran for council, I just said, hey — we need to focus on sustainable housing and transportation options for people of all generations, incomes and backgrounds.

“We’re an older, wealthier, more exclusive place. And I think some of that’s okay, but I think we also need to make sure that the next generation has a good opportunity to put down roots here and to send their kids to school here.” — Palo Alto Mayor Adrian Fine. (Photo by Magali Gauthier)

When it comes to these high profile issues — there was the parking garage downtown, Foothills Park, S.B. 50.—why do you feel that you have voted differently than your peers on the council? And what has that experience been like for you?

I am trying to ensure that Palo Alto is a successful and vibrant community for the next ten, 20 and 50 years. And I think that means we do a lot more on transportation and housing. It does not mean we should be building parking garages. It does not mean that we should be discriminating [entry into] a public park. Those are not things I’m proud of today, but I’m looking at the long term for Palo Alto. To me, that means a lot more transit options, a lot more housing, and things like — better support of our schools, more inclusive neighborhoods, more families, more young kids.

You’re the youngest member of the city council — are some of these fundamental differences in opinion and policy preference at all to be attributed to generational divides?

Some of it’s generational. Some of my colleagues — their absolute fixation on parking — I think it’s a little generational. I’ve never really had a parking problem in Palo Alto.

I think some of (our disagreement over housing) is generational, like you hear some of my colleagues, they’re like — “Hey, I worked my butt off, I bought my home here, we had to stretch thin.” But things have really changed. When my parents bought their homes in Palo Alto, a house cost three or four times your average income. Now it’s like 40 or 50 times. There’s a magnitude of difference there.

I do think the housing thing has become an issue of equity and social justice. If we don’t build housing here in Palo Alto, we’re effectively excluding people from the great opportunities here, whether it’s jobs or education. And then we’re offloading our affordable housing demands to places like East Palo Alto. That’s not equitable. That’s not okay.

(From left) Council members Cory Wolbach , Adrian Fine and Karen Holman listen to speakers during the public comment section of a city council meeting on December 3, 2018. (Photo by Veronica Weber)

You just touched on this briefly, but I wanted to ask about Foothills Park. That’s become part of the larger national conversation about inclusivity and diversity. Does Palo Alto have work to do around making itself more accessible and more inclusive/diverse?

I mean, I would ask why you’re asking that question, because I think the answer is eminently clear. You hear all this stuff — Palo Alto saying all the time, we’re so progressive and liberal. Like, ‘of course we support affordable housing. But not here. And not if it affects traffic.’ I think Palo Altans need to look in the mirror at times, and really question — are they nationally and globally liberal? But… what does their behavior look like? Sometimes we’re a little out of sync, there.

I actually don’t think of this in terms of liberal and conservative, Republican versus Democrat. That’s all bullshit to me. What I really care about is — what does the city look like in five, ten, 20, 50 years? You watch me on council, I say that over and over. That’s what matters to me. If I think about what Palo Alto needs to be in five, ten, 20, 50 years —we do need to work on our inclusion, whether it’s bringing different people into our schools, allowing access to the great job opportunities here, making a better housing mix so that people of different incomes and backgrounds can afford to live here.

Cities can’t stand still, they need to continue changing and evolving. I frankly think the residentialists are trying to freeze Palo Alto in amber. That is a really unhealthy strategy. As a native born son here, I will fight that.

It sounds like a lot of this to you is very much rooted in housing. The city’s betterment is very attached to that conversation around housing.

I think that’s because it is. Whether you’re looking at issues of equity, economics or the environment, a lot of it ties back to housing. If we want to reach our climate change goals, and our sustainability goals, we need to build more inflow housing. If we want to reduce traffic? Parking issues? We need to build more housing. Inclusivity, diversity issues? Build more housing. If we want to support local businesses, we need to build more housing. It’s not like it’s an ideological thing to me, it’s just — if you look at all the research, that’s where it points to. A lot of people are saying — “Oh, Palo Alto is doing its part.” No, we’re not. There’s a reason we just got the highest assignment of new housing targets from RHNA.

Your effort to push housing met considerable resistance. I’m wondering why it is you think even these modest plans to build housing have fallen pretty flat.

I think the plans I’ve proposed have been pretty modest, and actually grounded in Palo Alto’s structure. And yeah, some of them have slammed against a wall. And it’s because many of my colleagues do not want new housing. They don’t want other people here. Frankly, that may be a simple electoral strategy. You won’t have future residents of apartment buildings voting for (residentialist) Council seats. You’ll have current residents, who are homeowners more than renters. The incentives for new housing are fundamentally misaligned, actually. I mean, three of my colleagues got their political start by killing 60 units of affordable housing for low-income seniors. I still consider that a stain on the soul of this city. That’s not okay by me.

What would you say the future has in store for a city that is not willing to build housing for its residents?

The state’s going to screw us. It’s simple. We have all the tools and power and ability we need to begin solving this problem in our hands, right now, today, in this community. I’m a proponent of using local control to solve these issues, but many of my colleagues, and many of the squeaky wheels that show up to every city council meeting don’t want to do that. So when they say, ‘I support housing and I support local control, the state shouldn’t interfere’ — it’s bullshit. They don’t support housing. We have every opportunity to solve this. If you drive up and down the Peninsula, you can look at San Carlos, Redwood City, Mountain View, Sunnyvale, San Jose — you name it, the formula is not that hard. You build residential apartment buildings near transit and along major corridors like El Camino, or near Caltrain. You build them four to five stories tall, and 15% to 20% of those units are affordable.

We had a meeting one night a few weeks ago — we were considering a small housing project, which, still, my colleagues shot down. And that same night, Redwood City was considering more units of housing than Palo Alto has approved in a decade. In one night.

We are so many magnitudes behind on this. Two weeks ago, we had a project that was 56 feet tall on El Camino. I think it was four or five stories. With 20% affordable units. And my colleagues didn’t like it, because it exceeded our height limit. And it’s like — “Guys, do you care more about the height limit, or about the affordable housing?”

“…Things have really changed. When my parents bought their homes in Palo Alto, a house cost three or four times your average income. Now it’s like 40 or 50 times. There’s a magnitude of difference there.”—Adrian Fine. (Photo by Magali Gauthier)

Is that also generational? A while ago we interviewed Randy Shaw, who wrote Generation Priced Out. But he kind of says — a lot of this comes down to the generational divide, in which he argues that Baby Boomer generation is not allowing younger generations to have the same opportunities for housing as they had. I’m wondering if you think that’s apt, or is it more nuanced than that?

I think it is more nuanced, but I can also tell you that anyone under 40 in the Bay Area, they get the housing thing. I don’t love the term ‘generational,’ but yes, young people are really pissed off about the cost of housing here. The solutions are clear — this is evidence based. Other cities have built more housing, and their rents have stabilized.

What do you hope to see the council accomplish in your absence?

We need to continue working on housing, and actually get something done and stop with the lip service. Frankly, I will tell you that I don’t think any of the media outlets — including Embarcadero — give my anti-housing colleagues enough shit, as they rightfully deserve.

We get housing proposals, and they tear them apart, and we never see developers again and we lose those units. We had a case a few weeks ago where developer came forward with a parking lot, and they wanted to put up housing units. My colleagues criticized it to high hell, and now they’re not going to build that housing. They’re going to build an office building and a parking lot. Like, good job.

Is there one thing you’d really want readers to walk away from this with?

Our community is always changing, and that’s ok. But we can’t stand still. That’s a recipe for change happening to us. I would rather see us take control of that, and figure out — what does Palo Alto look like in ten years, 20 years, 50 years? The inevitable conclusion there is — our city is going to evolve a little bit, yes it’s going to be more dense, yes it’s going to have more people.

Imagine the awesome things — what if there’s a light rail down El Camino? What if University is permanently closed [off to cars]? What if Cal Ave had Parisian style of restaurants on the bottom and three to four stories of apartments above? It takes a little bit of imagination for Palo Alto, and I think [lack of imagination] comes across as intolerance, in a way. That’s a similar thing with Foothill. Would we really be proud in 50 years if we have a residents-only park? A public park? I won’t be.

It’s just a little bit of that imagination. That spark of what Palo Alto is. Palo Alto is not the buildings and the parking and the traffic, it’s the people. And what are we doing to foster that fun, diverse, interesting, cool community?

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Sarah Klearman

East coast transplant working her way through all things Peninsula. On Twitter @SarahKlearman

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