Nicole Chessari and Tim Yaeger, co-founders of Menlo Balance, are changing up their campaigning in order to fight what they see as misconceptions surrounding Measure V.
Measure V is a citizen-sponsored initiative on the November ballot that aims to restrict the Menlo Park City Council's ability to rezone single-family lots to higher density. If it passes, the city will have to put any rezoning of lots zoned "R1" to a vote on a regularly scheduled election. Proponents of the ballot measure say that this will give residents a voice in what happens to their neighborhoods, as opposed to letting the City Council make decisions. Opponents warn it will block future development, particularly of low-income housing.
The site of the former James Flood Magnet School has been the focal point of the debate between both sides. Ravenswood City School District, which owns the property, wants to build a 90-unit affordable housing complex that would give priority to Ravenswood teachers and staff. However, this lot is currently zoned for single-family housing. Proponents of Measure V have fought for fewer units on the property and a second access road to decrease traffic.
R1 zoning restricts land uses to single-family homes. While the Flood School site used to house a school, residents of Flood Park and Lorelai Manor approached the City Council in 1985 and requested the property be zoned R1 to protect the neighborhood against future uses of the site. The school closed down in 2011 and the site has been vacant since, but the founders of Menlo Balance say the issue is much bigger than a single lot.
"This is a measure about zoning, and people having a choice about and a vote about what's going to happen where they live," Chessari said. "... At the end of the day, it's very limited in that all it does is it allows people to vote if there is going to be change of single family, residential neighborhoods zoning."
To Chessari, the measure is about giving voting power back to the residents of Menlo Park instead of the City Council. She said that she believes that residents will vote in the best interest of the city in ways the council won't because residents don't have personal relationships with developers.
"I trust our neighbors," Chessari said. "I trust that people in Menlo Park are really smart and sophisticated, and knowledgeable of the fact that we do need more housing as well. And so I just, I trust that they're going to make the right decisions."
In the last month, the Menlo Balance campaign has revamped its website, flyers and released a new campaign video for the Yes on V campaign. The campaign's new message is clear: they believe that they are fighting for teachers, housing and residents, even though the measure itself could block or reduce housing proposed by Ravenswood.
The change runs in parallel to their opposition, Menlo Park Neighbors for Affordable Homes (MPNAH) who have made their campaign "Protect Teacher Housing." Both campaigns are advocating themselves as pro-teachers and pro-housing.
The change in campaign messaging, according to Chessari, comes after learning more from supporters and residents on what elements of the measure mattered most. Neither she nor Yaeger have campaign experience, so she aims to reflect the concerns of residents in their messaging. While Chessari and Yaeger said they stand by their earlier messaging and that it hasn't gone away, the new messaging addresses issues that they believe are commonly misunderstood.
Specifically, Chessari said that she does not believe MPNAH to be anti-housing, but rather that Menlo Balance has been painted unfairly as against affordable housing.
"I grew up in affordable housing," Chessari said. "I am the furthest thing you can find from anti-affordable housing. It was very beneficial to me in my life, and I see how it can be very beneficial to others."
She claims that the measure doesn't block any housing projects and that it promotes the responsible building of high-density housing in high-resource areas near transit.
Chessari also believes that Menlo Balance is pro-teachers in ways that MPNAH isn't. She alleges that the Flood School site would not be reserved for teachers, and that most teachers in the Ravenswood City School District make too much to qualify for the low-income housing. Menlo Balance is advocating for the project to require 50% of its units house district employees, rather than the district's current approach of prioritizing all units for district staff. The text of the measure does not address teaching housing requirements for the Ravenswood proposal.
However, according to Will Eger, Chief Business Officer of Ravenswood City School District, a survey of school staff found that 81% of Ravenswood Teachers Association members would be eligible for affordable housing, based on self-reported household income levels.
Still, Chessari and Yaeger believe that Measure V can force developers to build in responsible ways and require community participation and buy-in.
"Our measure doesn't actually prevent anything from going in at (Flood School)," Chessari said. "It allows a vote of the people, period."