The Bay Area largely missed the mark on housing growth last year, falling well short of goals set for the region and exacerbating an already bad jobs-housing imbalance, according to new data released by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC).
But buried in the grim news are signs that some cities, particularly Mountain View, are making strides in combating the housing crisis. The latest data shows Mountain View issued more permits for housing in 2017 than it has in the past three decades, amounting to nearly one in every five housing permits issued in all of Santa Clara County.
Data provided to the Voice by MTC shows that Mountain View has issued permits for fewer than 300 units, on average, every year going back to 1990. But add in data for 2017 -- when the city issued permits for 1,539 units -- and the city's housing growth resembles a hockey stick. Every jurisdiction within the county, including unincorporated areas, issued permits for a total of 8,263 housing units during the same year, meaning 18.6 percent of the homes were in Mountain View.
The housing data shows the city is punching above its weight. For context, San Jose -- a city with a population more than 10 times as big as Mountain View's and sprawling city boundaries encompassing more than 180 square miles -- issued permits for 3,097 housing units in the same year.
It was an exceptional year for Mountain View, said Wayne Chen, the city's assistant director of community development. About a half-dozen major residential projects received permits in 2017, including a 583-unit complex across the street from the San Antonio Shopping Center and another 394 apartments along Ferguson Drive in the South Whisman area. While it's tough to say if 2018 will be a similar banner year for the city, Chen said 1,360 new units across 20 projects had been entitled -- meaning they've been approved but still lack permits -- as of July 1.
Mountain View stands in stark contrast to some of the neighboring cities in the county, with more permits issued than Palo Alto (89 permits), Los Altos (49), Sunnyvale (487), Campbell (80) and Cupertino (27) -- combined.
Mountain View Mayor Lenny Siegel told the Voice that the growth stems from a shift in city priorities starting in 2014, when he and council members Pat Showalter and Ken Rosenberg were voted into office. He said the election signaled to developers that the city was open to building housing, both market-rate and affordable projects, and that city leaders embarked on a yearslong effort to plan around an upcoming housing boom.
"The trick is to not just build housing, but to build complete neighborhoods, complete with parks, transit, retail and jobs," he said.
The city has all the key ingredients for housing growth, said Pilar Lorenzana, deputy director for the housing advocacy nonprofit SV@Home. It has the political will, with a solid council majority supportive of housing growth that "doesn't exist in Palo Alto," which is why housing production has really started to pick up. But the city also has a strong contingent of residents who are supportive of the high-growth trajectory, along with private sector developers who see the value in building housing in the city.
"Mountain View is kind of a spark of hope for the valley," Lorenzana said.
Earlier this month, MTC announced that new data put together by the agency and the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) shows that, overall, the nine-county Bay Area struggled to build enough housing to accommodate job growth in the region last year. Newly-built housing totaled 14,900 units in 2017, but the region also added an estimated 52,700 new jobs during the same period, according to the California Employment Development Department.
Permit data, in contrast to MTC's "housing production" measure, shows a more accurate picture of near-term growth and a temperature check on the political and development landscape of individual cities.
Even with the extraordinary housing growth in Mountain View, it's unclear whether the city's jobs-housing imbalance -- largely seen as the culprit for the housing crisis and worsening traffic conditions -- is getting any better. Mountain View added an estimated 4,300 jobs in 2017, according to the latest data from the American Community Survey, while the MTC is reporting that Mountain View produced a total of 246 units in the same year.
Siegel said the city doesn't have a lot of control over job growth, and that the added employment in Mountain View has happened amid "relatively little" office development. Mountain View can steer job growth to some degree, he said, but new housing may not keep up.
Lorenzana said she believes the imbalance has been caused by short-sighted financial decisions across the Bay Area's 101 cities. Limits on property tax revenue caused by Proposition 13 inevitably push cities toward allowing commercial growth, a big money generator, while shying away from large, multi-family housing projects. It may increase general fund dollars in the short term, she said, but the collective impact is that people don't have a place to live.
"Unless the cities wake up to the fact that they need to be acting in concert with each other, the problem is just going to keep getting exacerbated," she said.