It's a pivotal time for the city of Mountain View, and the stakes have become abundantly clear in this year's City Council election.
In recent years, Mountain View's leadership has struggled with the difficult balance between aggressively pushing new housing growth in the city while trying to avoid gentrification. A string of important decisions on future city plans have gone forward with a thin majority on the council, which could tip the other way depending on this election.
The candidates challenging them are former two-term council member John Inks, planning commissioners Ellen Kamei and Lucas Ramirez, and retired city planner Alison Hicks.
Occupation: Policy advisor to San Jose Councilman Sergio Jimenez
Education: B.A. Music, Santa Clara University
Years in the city: 30
Mountain View needs to go for broke on building housing, according to Lucas Ramirez. It's the most significant problem facing Mountain View, and the city has already done much of the initial steps of planning for new residential growth.
Ramirez cites housing development plans for North Bayshore, East Whisman, Terra Bella and El Camino Real, where the city is prepping for thousands of new homes, and if elected he wants those plans go through to fruition. It won't be easy or quick, but it's the right thing to strive for, he said.
"This is the best time to add market rate and affordable housing so that we have an opportunity for all people to live in the city," Ramirez said. "I want it to be a desirable place to live and a desirable place to visit. That's very important, but I don't think it will be easy to achieve."
He supported the Measure V rent control law during the 2016 election, and his position hasn't changed. It's a good policy for the meantime to ensure current Mountain View residents aren't displaced, he said. A lot of the envisioned housing won't come online for many years, so rent control provides protection for current tenants.
But it's not perfect, he said. The law did foster a polarized climate pitting landlords against tenants, and he would like to find ways to cool down the tempers over the issue.
"The Rental Housing Committee does need to be as fair as it possibly can be. Governance is a perennial challenge." he said. "How can we implement the law in a way that assures the success of the program while ensuring it's fair and balanced?"
His picks for the Rental Housing Committee would have technical expertise and a sincere interest in making the program work, even if it requires compromise.
He is less enthusiastic about the Measure P business license tax. He supports the measure, but he pinches his nose while doing so.
In crafting the ballot measure, the council seemed to have a predetermined sense of what kind of tax it wanted and how much it should raise, he said. While the business community was included in plenty of discussions, it didn't result in any substantial changes to the measure.
"Sure, you have ample opportunity to give input, but does it mean anything?" Ramirez said. "It felt like there's this juggernaut that's pushing along, there's momentum going in a certain direction, and sure, we can provide input, but it isn't meaningfully influencing where the city is going."
His support for the measure is based on its goals: improving transportation and affordable housing. Ultimately those projects will benefit the companies that pay the most if the tax passes, and the city needs to act in good faith and avoid the temptation to use this money for other purposes, he said.
On the city's homelessness problem, Ramirez wants to expand the safe parking program, particularly by using city property to host dozens of inhabited vehicles. A centralized site such as Shoreline Amphitheatre could help provide residents with access to services and housing programs, he said. It's an interim solution, and it needs to work in tandem with placing people into permanent supportive housing, he said.
"As a community, we need to appreciate the challenge of lifting people out of homelessness," he said. "We need to provide relief to the neighborhoods that are impacted, but also allow folks to transition out of homelessness. That's the significant challenge."
For the city's transportation issues, Ramirez echoes a familiar refrain on the need to improve bicycle and pedestrian routes to discourage solo driving. He supports plans for an automated guideway in concept, but said he wants more evidence that it will be a system that people will actually use.
Occupation: Retired urban planner
Education: M.A. city urban planning, University of California at Berkeley
Years in the city: 20 years
For Alison Hicks, it seems certain that Mountain View will be experiencing rapid urban growth in the coming years. But if more people and housing are expected to squeeze into the city, how will they get around? Where will these newcomers relax? Which old buildings should be scrapped, and which should be saved?
More than any other City Council hopeful, Hicks is positioning herself as the smart growth candidate, promising she will guide the city growth without jettisoning what people love about Mountain View.
"Mountain View will be growing tremendously, and the big question is: Will we grow well or poorly?" she said. "I'm the one person running for council who will be a strong voice for good growth."
Hicks describes her vision of "smart growth" as protecting public space, and preventing unappealing and uninviting buildings from taking over the city. She wants more "pocket parks," small open spaces that are perfect for a community garden or having a picnic. As a former planner for the city of Oakland, she said she has the expertise to scrutinize how development proposals will shape the area.
Hicks is particularly skeptical of office growth, which she blames for being the source of the city's housing woes. She supports rapid housing growth in areas like North Bayshore, but she said it won't solve the underlying problem.
"We have to be aware that we can't solve housing crisis just by building more housing," she said. "We have this crisis because we have too many jobs here."
Hicks said she supports the city's rent control program, and she says she would appoint Rental Housing Committee members who will implement the law as intended. In regard to the homeless issue, she wants to push Santa Clara County to do more to provide a safe parking site for people living out of their vehicles. Once that is in place, she would support parking restrictions on city streets. While the city needs to do its part, Mountain View shouldn't be obligated to house the northern county's homeless population, she said.
Hicks supports the Measure P business license tax, describing it as a superior way to force large employers like Google to compensate for their citywide impacts. A tax like this is a reasonable measure to pay for needed service for a growing community, she said.
Smaller businesses deserve more protection, and Hicks blamed development for forcing many beloved shops and restaurants to close down. The city could do more, she said, pointing to how the city pushed the Greystar development firm to relocate a handful of business that were displaced for a downtown housing development.
The city needs to improve its communication with residents, especially in regard to building projects, Hicks said. Public notices should cover a wider area, and the city should be investigating new methods for informing the public, such as targeting individual neighborhoods through Nextdoor.
"We're at a turning point in Mountain View," Hicks said. "We have to make sure that what we build that it's something we can proud of for decades."
Occupation: District director for state Assemblyman Marc Berman
Education: B.A. English and Japanese, University of California at Santa Barbara; Masters of Public Administration from University of Pennsylvania.
Years in the city: 26
In a nutshell, Ellen Kamei sees her campaign's impetus (and her base) as Mountain View's so-called "missing middle." These are employed, educated households that in any other circumstances would be firmly on track for a middle-class lifestyle. Yet they can't afford homeownership but make too much to qualify for most subsidized housing. Kamei believes a large segment of Mountain View's population fall into this missing middle group, and she counts herself among them.
"In the conversations I've been having with people, they're either young families who fall into this category, or they're parents who are concerned their children won't be able to move back to the area," she said.
This leads to her pitch: she knows the challenges of the housing crisis personally as well as the policy and political hurdles for fixing it. As a public servant who has worked at the local, state and federal level, Kamei believes she has the right mix of policy experience and know-how to encourage robust housing growth, particularly for more for-sale homes priced for middle-income households.
Amid the push for city growth, Kamei also points to her experience working on four precise plans over her six years on the city's Environmental Planning Commission. She speaks to the concerns of current residents, saying the city needs to preserve its historic character as well as its tree canopy. To better inform the public about proposed developments, the radius for public notices should be expanded to 1,000 feet, she said.
Kamei is less enthusiastic about the Mountain View's rent control program, describing it as an flawed answer to the housing shortage. During the 2016 election, she favored City Council-backed Measure W, the losing alternative to Measure V that lacked teeth but provided more flexibility. If elected, she said she would seek members of the Rental Housing Commission who represent a diversity of viewpoints and who demonstrate that they can collaborate.
Kamei casts a wide net when it comes to addressing the rising concerns about people living out of their vehicles. Everything is on the table and should be explored: case management services, better outreach, safe parking and rehousing programs, among other things. In addition, she suggests the city should look into the parking permit programs implemented in Berkeley and Santa Barbara to restrict where inhabited vehicles can park overnight.
"Obviously, there's no perfect solution, but these are the things I'm exploring," she said. "What I love about Mountain View is our compassion. Even for those who are voicing concerns, it's a question of how can we help those who are living in RVs."
Kamei supports the city's Measure P business license tax update, describing it as a significant step for creating a new transit system. On transportation issues, she touts the city's free shuttle service, largely funded by Google, but she said it would benefit from having more stops. She expressed some skepticism with the City Council's push for an automated guideway system, saying she still needs to be convinced it is the best idea.
"We don't want to build something we think people will want, but they won't use," she said.
Occupation: Retired civil engineer
Education: B.S. in geology and history, Mount Holyoke College; M.S. in geotechnical engineering, University of California at Santa Barbara.
Years in the city: 34
With her first term coming to a close, Councilwoman Pat Showalter sees much success from her first four years in office. She was elected on a mandate from voters to boost housing throughout Mountain View, and she now sees that effort as paying off as dozens of housing developments move forward.
For her, the challenge now is to weave this oncoming surge of new housing into the fabric of the city. New apartments can't be built in a vacuum; they will need ways for people to travel around and places for children to learn and play.
"No one is saying we should be doing planning wrong," she said. "We can't sacrifice housing for schools, parks and everything else."
Showalter's pitch to voters is to allow her to work on finishing the job. In all likelihood, it will take more than a decade to bring all the envisioned housing online, she admits, but the city needs to begin preparing for all the impacts. She points to her background in engineering for giving her valuable insight on large developments and public works projects.
In the meantime, Showalter counts herself as a reluctant supporter of the city's rent control program as short-term relief for tenants. She wasn't initially a fan. In 2016, rent control advocates perceived her as one of their chief opponents after she put forward an milder rent control measure to compete with Measure V on the ballot. Measure W failed, but Showalter says she has come around.
"I think that right now rent control is doing a lot of good in Mountain View," she said. "But landlords need to make a fair return, and there should be a way to be balanced."
She said that any new members of the Rental Housing Committee should have a proven track records of working well with others, as well as compromising on complicated issues. In particular, she is looking for people who sincerely want to make the program work.
Like most other candidates, Showalter supports the Measure P business license tax increase, describing it as a crucial way to fund needed services. The added cost will not be burdensome on small businesses, she said.
Showalter admits she would benefit from a better understanding of the small business community, especially its new challenges in Mountain View. She like an idea taken up by New York City to give grants to help maintain cherished shops and restaurants.
When it comes to the city's mounting homelessness, Showalter admits that the Mountain View hasn't been doing enough. The city will need to step in and provide some kind of space, such as a unused parking lot, for people living out of their vehicles to camp at, she said. While she hears plenty of complaints, Showalter believes most Mountain View residents truly want to help the homeless.
"Most people here are reasonably compassionate, but they just don't want to be taken advantage of," she said.
Showalter praised Google, calling the tech giant a "good corporate citizen." From her interactions, she believe the company is sensitive to local issues in Mountain View, and often willing to cut a check to help out. It was only recently that city leaders like her learned how best to approach the company with requests. When that request is reasonable, Google is usually willing to help out, such as the $1 million the company donated to the Hope's Corner shelter, she said.
"It really has been an honor to be the mayor and on the City Council. Getting to do this is wonderful," she said. "I'm persistent, I'm pragmatic and I'm progressive, and that's good for Mountain View."
Leonard M. "Lenny" Siegel
Occupation: Director of the Center for Public Environmental Oversight
Education: Attended Stanford University
Years in the city: 46
After four years on the council and currently serving as mayor, Lenny Siegel said he wants to finish what he started. Since stepping into city government, he helped spearhead plans for thousands of new homes, a downtown transit center and a new automated system for getting around town.
But all of these ambitious plans remain aspirational, and they could be shelved if the wrong candidates get elected, Siegel said. He wants another term to help finish the job, describing it as a proof of concept to inspire nearby cities to follow Mountain View's lead. Even more pressing in this election, he needs a four-person majority on the seven-member council to keep that vision intact.
"On issue after issue we're making progress," he said. "But these goals could go the other way if we don't elect people who share the same vision."
With a second term, Siegel said he wants to prove the city's aggressive push for housing can be a boon, not a sacrifice, to Mountain View residents. He points to housing as a major piece toward solving the jobs-housing imbalance and the daily traffic snarls.
He also emphasizes "quality of life" issues, ensuring that city growth won't jeopardize access to parks, schools and pleasant communities. Despite his reputation as a fervent housing advocate, Siegel came out against state Sen. Scott Wiener's proposal to remove local control on approving apartment projects near mass transit. The bill went against the vision of building new high-quality neighborhoods and it would have eventually backfired, Siegel said.
"We aren't just building housing; we're building neighborhoods," he said. "If we want to build more housing, we have to also plan well and design well, so that what we end up with is something people like."
As the only council member to endorse the city's rent control program when it was on the ballot, Siegel said his support hasn't wavered. Yet he does wish the measure had been more explicit in including mobile homes and protecting rent-controlled apartments from redevelopment. Any future candidates for the Rental Housing Committee should show a sincere desire to make the program work, he said.
Siegel wants to establish some kind of parking lot as a safe living space for the large number of people living out of their cars. He has also asked for a review of the parking regulations throughout the city. This homelessness issue has generated a lot of frustration among residents, but Siegel said most people living on the street are still connected to the community and working local jobs or going to schools.
"Other than the fact that people don't like to see these folks, I consider them an asset to the community," Siegel said. "I'm very disturbed that there are people who are sending me hate mail about this ... it's hostile, like I've gone out of their way to ruin their lives by letting these people stay."
Asked about Google, Siegel said the tech company has done everything right in Mountain View, "except not grow." Small shops and restaurants were hard-pressed to compete, he acknowledged. He suggested the city could help provide transit passes to low-income employees or perhaps help subsidize rents for commercial space.
Siegel is running a shoestring campaign, in part because he has pledged to take no money from anyone aligned with developers, city vendors, major employers or "Russian oligarchs."
"I fight the developers on rent control, but I'm their best friend when it comes to building housing," he said. "I don't want it look like this is because they're giving me money."
Occupation: Retired geospace engineer
Education: B.A. in aerospace engineering, Georgia Tech; M.S. in mechanical engineering, Stanford University
Years in the city: 43
Like his colleagues, John Inks views housing as Mountain View's foremost challenge. But for the most part, that's where the similarities end.
A retired aerospace engineer who served two terms on the City Council, Inks sees city policies and fees as stifling the housing supply. Precise plans, building codes and architectural review sometimes end up costing resources and time. Streamlining those steps would be the quickest way to spur new construction, he said.
"Growth is limited now because of housing costs and fees," Inks said. "I just don't see our housing growth to be at the point where it needs to be to meet demand."
Back in 2015, Inks was opposed to the city's aggressive push to foster housing growth in North Bayshore. Housing is now something he said he would support for the neighborhood, but he doesn't like the idea of the city forcing developers to build it.
He hopes to cut the red tape of various regulations, especially Mountain View's rent control program. He cites his opposition to rent control as a catalyst for his seeking a third term, and he has been a chief proponent for pulling back the voter-approved law through a new ballot initiative. Yet if elected, he said he would seek cooperative members for the Rental Housing Committee with backgrounds in city planning or law, regardless of their political positions.
Inks is adamantly opposed to Measure P, the city's proposed headcount-based business tax. He warns that the tax would push small companies in particular to expand elsewhere. In a similar vein, he said one of the best things the city could do to aid small businesses would be to rescind the $15 minimum wage law passed in 2015.
As to the city's ongoing homelessness problems, he believes city staff should be doing less and looking to other agencies to shoulder the costs. Ultimately, Mountain View isn't supposed to handle a "social services function," he said.
"My position is that the city shouldn't subsidize people in the streets," he said. "We shouldn't do anything to encourage this behavior."
He didn't name any specific transportation priorities, but he warned that city officials were overly reliant on expensive consultants.