For the third time in recent months, Mountain View City Council members held their noses and made a show of disapproval even as they approved razing a cluster of 59 older, lower-cost apartments.
Following a pattern of similar redevelopments, the project approved at the Tuesday, April 3, meeting would replace dozens of cheaper apartments with a smaller number of for-sale homes, expected to sell for about $1.5 million apiece.
The project located at 2310 Rock St. was described as the latest case of gentrification, pushing out middle-class families into a hostile housing market. And for many observers, it felt like a rerun of last week's meeting: the same rhetoric, the same promises and the same result.
The redevelopment fits a pattern that sums up most of Mountain View's imbalanced housing challenges. When completed, it will add 54 units to the city's abundant and growing supply of housing priced for those earning well above six figures. Meanwhile, the project was another setback for moderate-income housing, the most lopsided category in the city's housing inventory.
This context wasn't lost on many residents living at the 2310 Rock St. apartments. While many implored the city to save their homes, they also urged the council to do something to stop the larger trend from continuing.
"Have you considered what Mountain View will look like if you allow this juggernaut to continue? It will change the face of the community," said Kennia Cobos, a mother of two who has lived at 2310 Rock St. since 2013. "The people who make this city are leaving in droves and we're not going to be left with diversity anymore."
Cobos' neighbor, Leland Erickson, 57, said his family would be split up if the project were approved. His wife wouldn't be able to stay in her job, and she planned to move to North Carolina. He would need to move someplace that guaranteed he would still have medical coverage since he has a disability. Right now, his plan is to sleep on a friend's couch in Oregon.
Like other tenants, he described a Catch-22 situation. In order to secure a new home, they needed proof of income, but in order to work, they needed nearby housing.
"I won't deny that losing my family is a real worry, but you have to go down fighting no matter what," he said. "If this happens we'll be forced out of our jobs because we'll be forced to move too far to commute."
But even tenant advocates acknowledged it seemed all but certain to go through, especially since similar projects had been recently approved. In December, a project at 2005 Rock St. won approval to rebuild 20 apartments into 15 rowhouses. Just last week, the council agreed to let a developer demolish 34 apartments at 1950 Montecito Ave. to build a smaller number of for-sale homes.
In total, far more housing is being built than what is being lost in Mountain View. In the last five years, more than 2,500 residential units have been permitted for construction, according to city officials. But the recent loss of older, rent-controlled apartments has highlighted how certain types of housing are endangered. With each project, elected leaders have reacted with increasing alarm, agreeing that something needs to be done.
Councilwoman Ellen Kamei tested the idea of imposing some kind of moratorium to restrict certain types of housing redevelopments. But City Attorney Jannie Quinn warned her that it would require a six-vote majority on the council, plus they would have to make specific findings to justify the action. The idea was soon dropped.
In turn, Kamei and Councilman Lucas Ramirez suggested bringing the project back to the drawing board to find ways to add more housing on the site. It would require variances and exemptions, but at least it would balance out the housing loss, Ramirez said.
But that idea also landed with a thud amid warnings that denying or delaying the project wouldn't accomplish anything. Councilman Chris Clark admonished his colleagues to approve the project, saying it was the best way to guarantee some kind of relocation benefits for the tenants. If the project were denied, the property owner could evict the tenants without any compensation.
"I don't feel like protest votes are productive or helpful," Clark said. "The answer to this long-term is to revisit our policies and determine what we can do to prevent this from happening again, but right now the rules are set in stone."
It was unclear what kind of housing policies the City Council has the appetite to revise. Some members mentioned the need to create a no-net-loss ordinance to prevent redevelopments from producing less housing. This idea will be considered later this month as part of the city's goal-setting session.
Council members Alison Hicks and John McAlister said they were more concerned about the impact of displacement on families. They plugged an idea to revise the city's Tenant Relocation Assistance Ordinance to open up income eligibility.
"I'm very upset about what's going on," Hicks said. "I hope we can use this to have a real discussion on displacement and policies to create something with real teeth in it, and not just something that tinkers with the details."
Other council members trained their sights on the city's rent control law, which they blamed as the culprit behind multiple recent redevelopments. The sale of the 2310 Rock St. apartments was not related to rent control, McAlister acknowledged, yet he believed it contributed to a "perfect storm" causing many landlords to sell.
"When rent control comes along, it devalues a person's property, and if someone wants to buy it they can't get more than a 3 percent increase," McAlister said. "We need to review this, and there's an opportunity in the 2020 election."
Of all the ideas mentioned, this one was highlighted as a "fast track" priority by the council. At the end of the meeting, Councilwoman Margaret Abe-Koga asked for consideration of a future ballot initiative to revise the city's rent control policies as part of the council's April 23 goal-setting session. Abe-Koga did not specify what kind of revisions she wanted to include, but she suggested city officials should begin by examining housing data.
As they promised to look at those ideas, City Council members signaled they had little option but to approve the 2310 Rock St. project. In a round of deal-making from the dais, the council pressed the developer to increase the relocation benefits for special-needs households by $2,000. Displaced tenants were also promised they would have relocation payments facilitated in order to help them secure new housing. Of the 59 households, 37 have been deemed eligible for relocation payments.
All tenants are expected to leave by the end of September.
The project was approved in a 6-0 vote with Kamei abstaining.
"As policymakers we have to make policy that works for the residents, and I see a disconnect with this project that displaces people once again," Kamei explained.