Amid the housing crisis, Mountain View’s urban transformation picks up speed
Take a look at the numbers. Just under 5,600 new housing units are currently being built or under review, according to city planning reports. Meanwhile, Mountain View is also laying the groundwork for much more — projecting nearly 10,000 new homes to be added to North Bayshore, and perhaps an equal number in the East Whisman area. Then tack on another 1,930 homes, thanks to NASA’s efforts at Moffett Field.
If all these aggressive plans for housing growth are fully built out, this will mean a seismic shift for the 80,000-population city, calling for Mountain View’s population to grow by about 50 percent.
“When you open the floodgates, you don’t know if you’re going to have a flood or a trickle,” said Mayor Ken Rosenberg. “But you say yes to projects because you need it.”
Housing — or the lack of it — has long been the leading issue in Mountain View’s politics, but this year has demonstrated time and again how the severe housing crisis has impacted other local priorities. The city’s bike routes, transit and parks are being planning around an expectation of major housing growth. City law enforcement and public services are being redirected to aid homeless encampments. Even some local schools are diverting funds to help build housing for teachers.
The future of the city’s tech hub north of Highway 101 drew people to city government meetings like nothing else this year. It was an issue watched carefully by affordable housing advocates, tech developers and union members as well as average folks hoping for a home.
At the start of the year, city officials approved Google’s dramatic plans for a futuristic office campus at Charleston East. It was to be the first of a series of eye-catching new dome-shaped campuses meant to reflect the company’s culture of innovation and design.
Less certain was the city’s plan to partner with Google to bring 9,850 homes to area. City political leaders including Margaret Abe-Koga, Lisa Matichak and John McAlister questioned whether the city was overreaching by aiming for so much housing without first adding the transit, parks and schools to accommodate that growth.
Google team members also raised some red flags. Late in the process, a company representative warned that company officials could scuttle the housing plans if the city asked for too many concessions without sweetening the deal. Specifically, the company requested the rights to 800,000 square feet of office development beyond the 3.6 million square feet already planned for area.
On this issue and at other points, public pressure made the difference. Google later relented and came back to the table supporting a full build-out of housing. In turn, a thin council majority tempered the city’s demands, seeking 20 percent of new development be set aside as affordable housing despite some calls to push that percentage much higher. Just a few weeks before the year’s end, the city officials were finally able to approve the long-sought precise plan for North Bayshore.
It was raucous year for the city’s fledgling rent-control program, which voters passed into law in last year’s election. Right out of the starting gate, the program was hit with a lawsuit, and it took nearly half of 2017 for the city’s rent stabilization to get legal clearance to launch.
But once it got going, the ramifications were huge. Rents for more than 16,000 eligible apartments in the city rolled back to 2015 rates. Soon after, tenant advocates also petitioned for a refund on the months of higher rent they were charged while the new law was held up in court.
The politics around the city’s new rent control law have been fiery. Proponents of the law have complained that the newly appointed Rental Housing Committee had allowed landlords to include too many expenses to justify higher rents. On the other side, landlords warned that the city’s burdensome regulations were pushing them to sell off their property and exit Mountain View. Both sides were dismayed to see that the rent program’s initial budget had ballooned to $2.5 million.
The year’s end also carried another big surprise. The city’s legal staff announced that Mountain View must extend rental protections to about 1,100 mobile homes in the city. That expansion of the program is set to take effect in the coming weeks.
A byproduct of the housing crisis, Mountain View’s conspicuous homeless problem has been getting worse. Several neighborhoods in the city have become de-facto trailer parks with a multitude of motorhomes and camping trailers parked along the curb.
The numbers prove this point. A 2017 report found that Mountain View’s homeless population had jumped by 51 percent over the last two years. That translates to 130 additional people living on the streets.
A large subset of this growing homeless population is young people. About 44 percent of community-college students in the South Bay have been homeless recently or know someone who is homeless, according to the Bill Wilson Center. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found that Santa Clara County had among the nation’s highest counts of chronically homeless youth.
Nonprofits have been scrambling to help the homeless. Just last weekend, Trinity United Methodist Church opened a 50-bed shelter in downtown Mountain View that will provide housing during the cold season.
For months, city officials had emphasized that they were trying to be sympathetic to people living on the street, but they also began taking stricter steps to enforce public safety and health rules. In September, the city began towing away vehicles along Crisanto Avenue for parking violations and sewage leaks. Along Latham Street, the city began prohibiting vehicles over 6 feet high from parking along the curb.
For people living on the street, enforcement of these rules has been confusing. In November, for example, workers from one city department informed people living on Crisanto they didn’t need to move their vehicles on street cleaning day. A few days later, those same people found tickets on their vehicles.