Editor's note: This story joins our series "No place like home," examining the effects of rising housing costs in Mountain View. This story is a companion to As rents rise, struggling tenants face uncertain future. Together, they offer a look at two very different apartment complexes.
Across the street from the downtown train station Mountain View's first new apartment complex in more than 10 years is luxurious and very popular.
"We're 100-percent occupied, which is really crazy," said Jon Moss, vice president of Prometheus Real Estate Group, of the 209-unit complex which opened in January at 455 West Evelyn Ave. "That's usually not the case."
What's more surprising is what tenants here have been willing to pay for rent. Advertised rents for a two bedroom unit range from $5,263 to $6,711 a month. When the project was approved by the City Council in 2010, Prometheus estimated a monthly rent of $2,500 for the two-bedroom apartments.
A tour of the complex -- named "Madera," the Spanish word for wood after the fact that it replaced Minton's lumberyard -- reveals what would happen if you mixed a luxurious version of Ikea with a Google office building's wackiness. Tuttle said Prometheus wanted the leasing office to have the feel of an Apple store.
A number of the units are reserved by Google for Google employees. Resident Diego Silva said he works in sales for Google, visiting on a rotation from his Google office in Brazil.
"The apartment is very good," said the young Google employee, though he says he hasn't enjoyed the luxury amenities or the cooking or yoga classes -- he's been too busy with work.
Moss' favorite amenity is a rooftop patio atop the four-story side of the building, which tenants can use for private parties, overlooking the city while sitting around a fireplace or barbecuing under a trellis. On the first and second floor there's a community room with a kitchen and lounge area, a 15-seat theater, a video game room where the walls are covered by thousands of Lego bricks and an array of flat screens.
There's a dedicated yoga and meditation room, and an exercise room with an 18-foot tall painting of Muhammad Ali. Outside the glass doors of the lounge there's a resort-like pool with a double sided fireplace separating it from a jacuzzi that lights up at night. In and around the common areas funky art pieces are everywhere -- in the kitchen there's a large picture of Julia Childs while a cluster of Etch-A-Sketches hang in a hallway.
Madera resident Joan Travis said she had just moved from Austin, Tx. for her husband's new job down the street, renting at Madera until they could snag one of the few homes for sale in the area. Moss said the lack of homes for sale was driving many to Madera, and many residents are in their 30s and 40s -- making Travis a bit older than the average resident.
"It's definitely more than a mortgage, but you don't have to put 20 percent down," Travis said of the rent. She added that the cost of housing in the area was "crazy" and that Austin was at least 50 percent cheaper.
"We like the location and a big factor is it accepts animals," Travis said. A lot of other apartments she looked at were quick to say "no pets allowed," she said.
Many residents can be seen walking their dogs in and around the complex. There's even a "pet spa" where residents can wash dogs in a large stainless steel basin or groom them with special trimmers.
"We love being able to walk downtown," Travis said. In her apartment she likes the hardwood floors and cathedral skylights. "My husband has the shortest commute of his life. It's worked out for us."
Madera appears to be targeting those who might otherwise be seeking an urban lifestyle in San Francisco, perhaps ditching their car for Caltrain and a bicycle or a company shuttle (Google's shuttle stop is across the street). There are messages everywhere branding the building for the demographic expected to rent here. "Trust your gut" is the business saying written in large letters on the conference room ceiling, while a picture in the leasing office says, "I like to ride my bicycle" and "tune up your fixie" -- the single-speed bicycle synonymous with the young urban hipster stereotype.
In the garage there are two bike storage rooms with space for 100 bikes in each -- which appeared well used -- and each has a bike stand with bike tools secured to it with cables so residents really can tune their fixies -- though none were seen.
The garage also has spaces for two Zip cars and a dedicated electric car charging station, though each parking space is wired to charge an electric vehicle with 110 volts and charge the expense to the corresponding apartment. At the garage elevator residents are greeted by a flat screen advertising yoga and cooking classes.
"If you have a package in the leasing office, it will tell you on the screen," said Prometheus' Tuttle.
Moss says that a recent count found only 75 percent of the relatively small underground garage being used one evening, which might be a surprise to neighbors who fought the project over fears about parking overflow in the neighborhood.
Moss said people often ask why Prometheus can't just build apartments without the frills and charge lower rents, but he claims that the luxury amenities equal only "1 percent" of the project's cost. He said he suspected that even with all the amenities, each unit cost less to build than the affordable housing project the city subsidized down the street at Evelyn Avenue and Franklin Street.
Several current and former Libertarian-minded City Council members (John Inks, Tom Means and Greg Perry) have said that the answer to the city's housing problem is building enough homes to meet demand from the city's explosive job growth, eventually driving housing prices down. Moss said rents could go down if a developer were allowed to build taller apartment buildings, but as soon as the city approves higher density zoning, the value of the land also goes up, which could also drive up rents and cause a sort of "catch-22."
Moss says that building market-rate affordable housing in Mountain View would be impossible today. "I think those days have passed us," he said, adding that the city's need for affordable housing has always been a "very, very hard problem."
A condition of the city council's approval of the project is that Prometheus must rent seven of the apartments at a discount to one of the many low-income households who have been on a city waiting list for years. Known as "below market rate" units, city staff said in 2010 that rents would be $1,286 for a one-bedroom unit and $1,583 for a two-bedroom unit.
Moss said a similar level of luxury -- and rent -- is planned for three other complexes that Prometheus plans to build in Mountain View soon, including one of similar size around the corner at 100 Moffett Boulevard.