For some, it was a painful loss of affordable housing; for others, it was an example of the collateral damage caused by rent control. Yet pretty much everyone at the Tuesday, Dec. 11, City Council meeting was disappointed by the proposed development at 2005 Rock St. Here's the rundown:
-- The project will displace about 70 low-income tenants, including 30 children, likely forcing most to leave Mountain View.
-- It results in fewer homes in the city, replacing 20 apartments with 15 rowhouses.
-- Those rowhouses will be priced around $1.3 million, well out of reach for most people in need of housing.
It was a project that satisfied almost no one, yet the City Council couldn't find a way to say no to it. In a 4-3 vote, council members approved the project based primarily on the rights of the owner to replace the apartments and its general compliance with city rules. Mayor Lenny Siegel and council members Pat Showalter and Ken Rosenberg cast the opposing votes.
The Rock Street redevelopment was a relatively small project by the city's standards, yet it spiraled into the fiercest battle to date over gentrification and the lack of housing in Mountain View. Faith leaders, housing advocates and community organizers urged the council to reject the proposal, and they called for a moratorium on similar projects. The displacement of so many low-income workers was causing Mountain View to "lose its soul," said former state Assemblywoman Sally Lieber.
"It's a real horror show watching what's happening to our neighbors," she said. "Greed is overrunning our city and forcing out the people we need."
For months, residents living at the apartments have been attending City Council meetings, pleading for action to prevent the planned demolition. Tenants are currently paying about $1,940 a month in rent, and many pointed out they would be unable to find comparable housing anywhere nearby. The going rate for a similar apartment in Mountain View is about $3,200 a month.
"If we move it's going to be so stressful -- we'll have to find new schools, homes and jobs," said 13-year-old Ashley Morales, a Rock Street resident. "I have so many friends, and I want to keep making memories here."
The residents are being offered a relocation package that was generous by the city's criteria, including three months of comparable rent and other assistance. Some tenants would be eligible to receive more than $25,000 to help relocate, said Josh Vrotsos, director of acquisitions for Dividend Homes, the developer behind the project. He said his firm would try to find new housing for the tenants, hinting that housing magnate Tod Spieker had offered to help.
"We're going to do everything we can to help these people relocate," Vrotsos said. "We're excited to help provide for-sale housing for the city of Mountain View."
The developer made no mention of Mountain View's rent control program, but pretty much everyone in the room expressed confidence that it had prompted the redevelopment. Under the city's rent restrictions passed by voters in 2016, older apartments like the ones at Rock Street are limited to increase rents only by the cost of inflation, except in special circumstances.
That price cap has long fueled concerns that Mountain View landlords would seek to convert their rental units into ownership housing that could be sold at market rates.
The city has approved past conversion projects, but most of those involved demolishing unoccupied apartments. A small cadre of local landlords at the meeting warned city officials not to put the responsibility on them for solving the housing crisis.
Council members immediately fell into an impasse when discussing the project. Margaret Abe-Koga, Lisa Matichak and John McAlister said they couldn't justify rejecting the project, seeing as how it was mostly compliant with city rules. If they rejected the project, the residents would likely end up worse off because the developer could return with a project with even less housing aid for the displaced residents, they argued.
Abe-Koga expressed frustration that the city was being asked to do more when it already has some of the most generous tenant relocation packages in the Bay Area. Mountain View is building more affordable housing than any other nearby city, but it seems like it's never enough to satisfy the need, she said. She believed that displaced residents would be able to land on their feet, pointing out she had found some local rentals for around $2,400 a month.
"We're a leader in housing programs and assistance, but we keep getting beat up to do more," she said. "In Palo Alto, would this even be an issue?"
On the other side of the debate were Siegel, Rosenberg and Showalter, three council members sitting in their last full meeting before leaving office. Siegel implored his colleagues to reject the project, saying the city had nothing to gain. It would result in a net loss of five homes, and it would only provide enough money through fees to build perhaps one affordable unit, he said.
"This project is wrong," he said. "I don't see any benefit to our community from this project. All I see is the damage."
The tiebreaker was Councilman Chris Clark, who struggled to find some way to satisfy both sides. He supported the property owner's right to demolish the apartments, but he wanted to find some way to cushion the displacement of the tenants. He found little in the way of options.
City housing staff pointed out there is no space at any of the local affordable housing projects. In fact, a 116-unit affordable project on Evelyn Avenue that was recently completed has a waiting list of more than 1,000 people, according to officials.
Worse, the city couldn't postpone the project. The city attorney pointed out that state law mandated that the city make a decision or cede its authority on the project to the state. The city had already deferred the project once before.
"It shouldn't have to come down to a meeting like this where there's so much uncertainty," Clark said. "When you want to implement a moratorium, you don't just say 'I don't like that project and we're going to stop everything that's going on.'"
Yet city officials had plenty of warning that this dilemma was coming. The residents at Rock Street have been rallying at meetings for months. City officials declined to take up past proposals to set restrictions on redeveloping rent-controlled apartments.
Clark pledged he would call for some kind of future restrictions on developments that caused a net loss of housing, but he declined to apply that standard to this project. After testing several ideas, he proposed approving the project but asking the developer to allow the tenants to occupy the apartments through the end of 2019. Hopefully, the city will have more affordable housing built by then, he said.