Mountain View city officials will begin preparing a citywide ban on large vehicles in an effort to eventually remove the nearly 200 inhabited motor homes and trailers parked on city streets. The action on Tuesday night was the latest sign that a majority of the City Council has lost patience with a hands-off approach to people living on the streets, which police officials say has led neighboring towns to offload their homeless populations onto Mountain View.
In a 5-2 vote, with council members Chris Clark and Alison Hicks opposed, the City Council directed staff to begin working on a citywide prohibition on parking vehicles more than 6 or 7 feet tall curbside on city streets. The ban will take effect no earlier than late 2020 in order to give city officials and aid groups time to expand a safe parking program that currently offers only eight nightly spots to cars and vans, but none to RVs.
While a variety of measures were included to cushion the blow, the move was denounced by homeless advocates as a sign that Mountain View is criminalizing poverty. Members of the Mountain View Vehicle Residents group described the parking ban as a punishment for the city's working poor who can't afford housing.
"A citywide ban on oversize vehicles would destroy the last safe affordable housing option available to many of my neighbors," said Blaine Dzwonczyk, a teacher who co-founded the Vehicle Residents advocacy group. "A handful of temporary safe parking spaces for a fraction of the current vehicle residents is not a comprehensive solution."
In recent years, the vehicle encampments scattered around the city have become the most visible sign of the hardships afflicting the city's poorest residents. The vehicle dwellers have been a divisive issue as city officials avoided creating new parking restrictions for nearly three years even as neighboring cities cracked down.
Resentment has grown among homeowners and housed residents, who claim the vehicle dwellers are responsible for increased crime and garbage. Large RVs and trailers have attracted particular scorn because they block drivers' views and have generated complaints of safety hazards from bicyclists.
These simmering frustrations came to a head in last year's election, when two City Council incumbents were ousted. The rest of the council appears to have seen the election as a mandate from voters to address the issue.
Senior council members who supported the restrictions made every attempt to explain they were not being cruel. Councilwoman Margaret Abe-Koga highlighted the $1 million annually spent on homeless programs, including a mobile shower trailer, port-a-potties and outreach workers. She and her colleagues said Mountain View has received minimal credit for its tolerant approach, and instead had unknowingly stepped into the role of caretaker for all of the North County's homeless population.
"Given the ginormous scale of this, it's frankly impossible for Mountain View to solve alone," Abe-Koga said. "It's not just Mountain View's problem to solve alone; it has to take a regional effort."
Mountain View Police Department community outreach officer Wahed Magee told city officials that he had several reports of police in Sunnyvale, Palo Alto, Milpitas and Los Altos telling vehicle dwellers to relocate to Mountain View. In one instance, Sunnyvale police officers even handed a vehicle dweller a packet of information detailing Mountain View's social-service programs, telling them they would be "welcome" there, Magee said.
Reached for comment Wednesday, Sunnyvale Police Capt. Jim Choi said his city's officers do hand out informational pamphlets on regional services to homeless individuals they come across. But he denied any deliberate effort to push people living on the street into Mountain View.
"That's not our policy or our practice," Choi said. "We provide resources and if people think they can have it better elsewhere, that's up to the individual."
At the meeting, council members pointed to a range of other stakeholders, saying they bore responsibility for the city's growing homeless population. Councilman John McAlister tersely grilled housing advocates from SV@Home, pressing them to explain why they and their donors weren't directly funding housing programs. Santa Clara County, neighboring cities, tech companies and local churches were also called out for not doing enough.
Mountain View city staffers reported they had spent more than 2,500 hours working on issues related to homeless residents over the last fiscal year. Yet Assistant to the City Manager Kimberley Thomas acknowledged the city had "barely moved the needle" on reducing local homelessness. In fact, there were about 416 individuals living on the streets as of a 2017 homeless count, and that number had been roughly doubling every two years prior, she reported.
In public comment, an organized group of dozens of unhoused residents tried to describe their living situations, urging the council not to punish people who can't afford regular housing. Francisco Cazares said he had worked at the local Whole Foods for nearly 20 years, but his living situation had slowly deteriorated due to rising rents. He could once afford a two-bedroom apartment on his wages, then he had to downsize to renting a room, and then to a motor home.
Several Foothill Community College students described living out of vehicles as their only housing option while pursuing an education.
"It's no secret that rent here is very expensive and finding a livable wage is difficult," said Matt Bodo, a student who said he had lived out of his car for two years. "I really don't think restrictions are a step in the right direction. We should be pushing for more programs for homelessness and poor people."
But the council's ultimate action combined a bit of both. The City Council unanimously agreed to declare a citywide shelter crisis, which would help facilitate efforts to establish new safe parking sites to locate inhabited vehicles. Up to this point, the city's safe parking efforts have been focused mainly on the faith community, but only two churches have agreed to participate, and they can only provide space for eight small vehicles.
By next month, city officials say the safe parking program should begin growing. A new Terra Bella site owned by the Palo Alto Housing nonprofit is expected to open with enough space for 11 more vehicles. In addition, city officials say they are in negotiations with the Valley Transportation Authority to use a transit lot to hold about 20 more vehicles.
Those 39 spaces would still be woefully short of the estimated 290 inhabited vehicles that are currently on Mountain View's streets, according to the city. But it was enough for City Council members to argue that it was time to begin laying down restrictions. Making a motion, Abe-Koga called for a citywide ban on street parking for oversized vehicles, such as RVs and trailers. In a December count, city officials reported there were 192 inhabited RVs on city streets, with large pockets near Independence, Crisanto and Gemini avenues.
"We can find safe parking lots but we're going to just have more RVs coming in," Abe-Koga said. "We need help from the cities around us. We need to contain our challenge and then try to resolve it."
For some council members, it was the exact opposite to the approach they believed the city should be taking. Mountain View should step up enforcement measures, but only when the city provided some viable alternative for people, said Councilman Clark. A blanket restriction on RVs right now would be taking "the easy way out," he said.
"If we simply ban oversized vehicles, then we're doing exactly what our neighbors have done," he said. "It's just doing what every other city has done in contributing to this regional problem."
The Tuesday night council meeting was the first major political test for three new council members who were pressed on the issue repeatedly during their campaign. Two of those freshmen members, Lucas Ramirez and Ellen Kamei, agreed to support the vehicle ban in exchange for minor amendments meant to soften the blow.
Ramirez warned the city could be creating a much worse problem if a ban on living in vehicles ends up pushing the homeless population to sleeping in city parks or road embankments. Despite that concern, he agreed to back the large vehicle ban on the condition that one parking lot at Shoreline Amphitheatre be used during the winter months to provide extra space for around 20 vehicles.
Kamei insisted the city should wait at least 18 months before enacting the ban in order to give ample time for families to relocate. She also asked that the city investigate an unregulated market of people renting out RVs and trailers for others to live in.
On the opposite side, newly elected Councilwoman Alison Hicks said she couldn't support a citywide ban on RV parking, saying she preferred targeting sensitive locations, such as dangerous traffic spots.
As part of the decision, the council asked staff to investigate ways to streamline permits for safe parking sites and updates to the city's rental assistance program.
The City Council also approved more than $800,000 in new expenses for homeless enforcement, housing programs and waste management. More information on the expenses can be found in the city's staff report.