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Publication Date: Friday, July 20, 2001

Council, planning commission review housing element Council, planning commission review housing element (July 20, 2001)

Nongovernmental constraints, city, and regional issues discussed

By Justin Scheck

With lack of supply being Mountain View's most pressing housing issue, the Environmental Planning Commission last week reviewed a host of obstacles to developing new housing, most of them linked to the inflated and volatile Bay Area economy.

As part of the ongoing revision of the city's housing policy, over the past two weeks the City Council and the planning commission have discussed a laundry list of issues ranging from an evaluation of the previous housing element to the need for new construction, a land inventory, and preservation of existing housing.

The commission last week examined nongovernmental constraints on housing development that Mountain View faces in coming years, nearly all of them economic.

According to a report compiled by city staff, construction and land costs in Silicon Valley are among the highest in the country. Principal Planner Michael Percy said that although developers have little problem financing market-rate housing projects in the area, capital for below-market-rate developments is not available from private sources.

"Housing affordable to people making less than the median income has to be subsidized by someone, because the private market is not going to pay for it," said Percy.

While this is not news for a community whose "housing crisis" is nearly two years old, it is an issue that the planning commission and City Council are dealing with in updating the housing element of the general plan, which must serve as a framework for the city's housing policy over the next five to 10 years.

Planning Commissioner Pat Showalter said the staff report " is good information, but it basically just tells us that a lot of what we're going to do is kind of minor, because of the overriding cost of the incredible land costs. We're not going to fix that."

She said the high prices "intensify the whole issue" of building affordable housing, including residents' concerns about proposed affordable developments lowering their property values.

According to the staff report, once land and building costs are factored in he average cost to develop a one-bedroom apartment in Mountain View is $180,000 for a 650-square-foot apartment, and $250,000 for a condominium of the same size.

Showalter said that since the private sector accounts for the majority of affordable housing in the city, the city must get a better idea of how much of this housing is being lost each year. She said she would like to see some data kept on the amount of affordable housing in the city that is in private hands.

She said that, while city officials and housing advocates agree that the loss of privately held, moderately priced rental units is a serious problem, there is no easy way to evaluate the extent of the losses and assess what can be done to mitigate them.

Among the questions framing the debate are how to attack the impact of job growth on housing costs and whether Mountain View wants to change its suburban character to accommodate higher-density housing.

"That's going to be a very political hot potato," said Council member Matt Pear of the issue of increasing density. "A some point it's going to come to an end-all. There's a point where the quality of life is going to be diminished."

He said that while the housing element will lay out the blueprint for housing in Mountain View, the regional scope of Silicon Valley's housing shortage goes beyond the housing element's bounds.

"We're going to have a number of items to address in the city, but let's face it, they're not going to come close to meeting the demand," said Pear. "It's the city's zoning plan, but that doesn't really do much."

Council member Rosemary Stasek said she opposes high-rise housing but feels the housing element holds the potential to ease the crisis to some degree.

Stasek is particularly interested in increasing ownership opportunities in the city, where nearly 70 percent of residents rent. "I would like to see increasing ownership opportunities... But can the housing element incent (ownership)? I don't know," she said.

She said that it is still too early to draw conclusions about what the housing element should do, although she hopes the finished document will allow increased housing opportunities in the city.

"I don't buy the argument that Mountain View's done enough. We've done more that other communities, but we have not done enough," said Stasek

At Tuesday's meeting council members discussed issues surrounding mobile home parks. Council member Sally Lieber expressed interest in exploring a mobile home parks rent control ordinance, while other council members spoke about various strategies for preservation.

Council members also discussed how to get longtime residents into Mountain View's federally funded affordable housing units. Pear and Council member Ralph Faravelli asked that the waiting lists for the units be scrutinized.

No action was taken on any items because the meeting was a study session. The Planning Commission will continue to review the housing element in coming weeks.


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