Interview: Cupertino’s Indian American mayor Sheila Mohan says affordable housing is priority

Ritu Jha–

Cupertino, best known for housing tech giant Apple’s headquarters and for being one of the original Silicon Valley cities, will have a new Indian American connection — its new mayor Sheila Mohan. Its previous Indian American connect was Congressman Ro Khanna, the Democratic Party lawmaker who has been representing California’s 17th congressional district since 2017.

Sheila Mohan is not new to public service. The 35-year resident of Cupertino, who is originally from Karnataka in India and moved to California soon after she got married, is the granddaughter of Indian engineering legend and statesman M Visvesvaraya. In India, Visvesaraya’s birthday — September 15 — is observed annually as Engineers’ Day. She took the mayor’s oath on January 1 this year.

In an interview with indica, Mohan said her mission is to infuse new life into the local economy impacted by COVID, including the housing sector. She want to make education and quality of life of senior citizens her priorities. “I was lucky because I won with the highest number of votes and as soon as I got elected as a council member, I became the vice mayor and now the mayor.”

She moved from Bengaluru to Cupertino straight after marriage, and has been living in the city ever since, “It’s a city I really know and really love. I’m going to live here for the rest of my life.”

To serve such a city, she said, is a “great opportunity.” As a City Councilmember, she wants to ensure fiscal transparency, maintain neighborhood integrity, create a community where residents feel safe, and provide housing and transit opportunities for seniors, teachers, service workers, and families.

Mohan is a seasoned finance professional with deep experience in local government. During her time as the senior finance manager for Santa Clara County (which Cupertino is part of) and administrative services director for Union City, she developed and managed budgets, implemented complex public programs, and created a positive work environment for a diverse workforce. Until recently, Mohan was a volunteer driver for RYDE, a low-cost transportation service for seniors provided by the West Valley Community Services.

“Working in the City Council and being an elected member are two different responsibilities. As finance director I managed the budget, ensured receipts, and did the usual accounting work,” she told indica. “Now it is different; I have to tell people what to do. The council sets the policy, we tell them what to do. The city administration, led by a city manager, figures out how to implement it.”

Housing is one of her priorities as mayor. “We need to have housing for all income levels, not just for the wealthy who can afford $3-4 houses. I want the best schools in California but then, we don’t have affordable housing for teachers. Let’s have townhomes, condos, and apartments for our teachers. Not just teachers, but retail clerks, students, elderly people, and disabled people. We can’t just have upper-middle-class people living in homes and say, this is a great city,” she said.

She explained, “If you can build affordable housing, we’ll give you a bonus. Instead of allowing you to build only a two-story, we’ll allow you to build three stories, because you’ve been nice enough to say you will build affordable housing. That’s called the density bonus. You give us affordable housing we’ll give you a little more freedom to build.”

Her plan is to for the City Council to build 4500 housing units in the next eight years. She wants to jumpstart the local pandemic-hit economy, so she and her team are wooing small businesses. “Apple is the biggest employer here. We are doing everything we can to attract small businesses. Around the Apple campus, we’ve been talking to small restaurants and shops. We are asking developers to take up multi-use projects.”

She added, “For example, Apple is renovating one of its buildings and they wanted some flexibility in the planning. We said, why don’t you put some retail in? And then they came up with an idea. They said, their employees prefer to ride bikes, and they negotiated with a bike shop owner. Now there’s a bike shop on the Apple campus that will sell, rent, repair and maintain bikes. We are encouraging such retail projects.”

She also wants to use affordable housing to rejuvenate local schools. “Cupertino schools are well known. But, two years ago, we had to shut down two elementary schools because there was no enrolment. Young families are avoiding Cupertino because housing is too expensive. Our nationally recognized schools are being shut down because our housing policy discourages apartments, condos, and townhomes. If we build single-family homes only, no new family is going to come here. This is an affluent city with an affluent community. But we are also an aging population. Ten years from now, close to 80% of the population will be senior citizens.”

Mohan has projects for senior citizens lined up. “Our priority is transportation and medical services for senior citizens. We have a new transportation system called Hopper; it’s like an Uber for older people. We started it in Cupertino just two months ago and extended it to the city of Santa Clara. We’re talking to Sunnyvale. We want our daily shuttle system to go to places like the Levi Stadium and Valley Fair. We also have another program called Ryde which is run by the West Valley community services, specifically for the seniors.”

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