Political chaos has erupted in this Peninsula city over housing


Trouble brewing since the November election has erupted into open conflict on the San Mateo City Council: Its mayor faces a recall campaign, the District Attorney’s Office has investigated allegations of vote-trading and lying, and the council will discuss creating a code of conduct at its next meeting. 

While those involved say politics and personal histories play a role in the turmoil, the chaos that has consumed the elected leadership of the Peninsula city comes down, in large part, to one thing: housing.

It’s the same conflict playing out in many cities in the Bay Area, where the state’s mandate to build nearly half a million housing units by 2030 has met fierce resistance from residents opposed to growth in their communities. But in San Mateo, an affluent city of 102,000, the dispute is central to a power struggle among factions in the city that threatens to bring down pro-housing Mayor Amourence Lee.

Michael Weinhauer, a longtime San Matean and community activist who is spearheading Lee’s attempted ouster, said that the drive to recall her was the result of her being “disdainful” and unwilling to compromise — but how the city will meet its state-mandated goal of 7,000 new units over the next eight years “ties directly to this conversation.”

“Many of us are concerned about the level of development and how that’s going to affect San Mateo as a suburban city,” he said, adding that he believes state goals can be met while preserving existing height and density limits, despite letters from the state saying otherwise. “Amourence does not represent all San Mateans.”

Lifelong San Matean and pro-housing activist Jordan Grimes agreed that more than just recent politics was at play.

“Housing is the linchpin, but it’s really a power struggle between an older generation and new generation and competing visions for the future of San Mateo,” he told The Chronicle. “It really does come back to what the city looks like … who is allowed to live here.”

San Mateo Mayor Amourence Lee is the target of a recall campaign over her housing stance. 

San Mateo Mayor Amourence Lee is the target of a recall campaign over her housing stance. 

Jessica Christian/The Chronicle 2020

Council election and the balance of power

The drama around Lee started in December, when the balance of power on the City Council over housing decisions was at stake in the wake of the recent election.

Three of San Mateo’s five City Council seats were up for grabs in November, when newcomers Adam Loraine, Lisa Diaz Nash and Rob Newsom won. 

They joined incumbents Lee and Diane Papan, whose seats were not on the ballot — but Papan was departing after her election to the state Assembly. That meant the new council would need to appoint her replacement.

In San Mateo, City Council members also appoint the mayor from their own ranks. City Charter guidance says the new council should appoint a mayor at its first meeting, and seniority should be a factor — indicating Lee as the choice.

But that’s where the housing issue loomed large. Had the members voted Lee in as mayor before the fifth member was appointed, she would have had a tiebreaker vote to select the fifth member in a council split between those who favor growth — Lee and Loraine — and those who oppose it — Diaz Nash and Newsom. 

That meant the council would likely end up with a pro-housing majority.


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