The City Council found itself in the quandary of trying to figure out how to encourage appropriate housing development Tuesday despite a relative lack of developable land and a housing market slowdown.
During its Tuesday night study session, the council discussed a long list of suggested policies for a new "housing element," a state-required general plan policy document that will guide housing development over the next seven years. Consultant Simon Alejandrino said the proposals, though numerous, were only "tinkering around the edges" in the effort to meet the city's housing needs.
"The cities that are successful at generating a lot of units tend to have more land than Mountain View," said Alejandrino, vice president of Bay Area Economics, a city-hired consultant group.
BAE released a report in April that helped substantiate the notion that Mountain View needs more housing for its workers because the city is "jobs rich" compared to neighboring cities.
There now appears to be more focus on redeveloping the city's existing apartment buildings, 19 percent of which are in danger of falling over in an earthquake due to their "soft story" design.
The proposed housing element doesn't present very many "new ways of doing things," said council member Mike Kasperzak, who believes the city's numerous aging apartment buildings present an opportunity for new development.
There was at least one new way of doing things presented in the draft housing element: require less parking for housing near transit. According to the Greenbelt Alliance, Mountain View requires more parking on average than other Bay Area cities, and less parking would leave more room for homes and discourage people from using cars.
The Environmental Planning Commission objected to the proposal, however, citing impacts on surrounding neighborhoods. Council member Jac Siegel agreed with the commission, others did not.
"We do need to look at parking requirements," said council member John Inks. "Our parking requirements are a little higher than surrounding cities."
"I'm all for reducing free parking," said council member Tom Means. Too many people, he said, "fill up their garages and driveways and park on the street."
To meet its "fair share" of the county's unmet housing needs, the Association of Bay Area Governments has calculated that Mountain View needs to accommodate — perhaps through zoning — another 2,123 housing units by 2014, including 467 very low income units.
But that goal may be difficult to achieve in a slow housing market: Permits for only 99 units were approved last year, while 377 units were permitted in 2007.
In a letter to the city, the League of Women Voters said the city had a poor track record in meeting its ABAG requirements for building new low income housing. To help address that problem, it has been proposed that the city try to build 150 affordable housing units per year.
Several council members also supported removing a cap on the number of "efficiency studios" that can be built. Currently the city has 118 of the small apartments at San Antonio Place, and only 62 more can be built.
Kasperzak said the city needed to talk with developers about how the city could realistically build that many affordable housing units.
"I'm sure you don't enjoy it when neighbors complain about affordable housing," said Roy Hayter of Advocates for Affordable Housing. Nonetheless, he said, building more of it "is the right thing for this group to be doing."
Council member Laura Macias suggested a cap on annual housing production and a "beauty pageant" similar to Morgan Hill's in which the best projects are selected and built. She asked Alejandrino, "Have you ever seen a city say, 'We're only going to accept affordable housing?'"
"I think the state would see that as a major constraint on housing," Alejandrino said. "I doubt you would get a (state) certified housing element that way."
Macias took issue with the terms "affordable housing" and "subsidized housing" because the words have a negative connotation. City staff suggested "assisted housing" or "rent restricted" housing. Audience members were overheard commenting that changing the name wasn't good for government transparency.
Council member Ronit Bryant said she wanted the city to encourage mixed-use development, with retail shops below housing. In General Plan hearings, "People have been telling us again and again, we want more mixed-use development," Bryant said.
While some say the city's zoning doesn't encourage mixed-use, planning director Randy Tsuda said the real constraint was a lack of appropriately sized lots on El Camino Real and elsewhere.