Three weeks after declaring a citywide shelter crisis, the Mountain View City Council voted to make it easier to remove some of the vehicles hundreds of its residents call home.
The council amended city code at its April 9 meeting to make it illegal to park an RV, trailer or other vehicle with a toilet or septic system that leaks sewage on city streets.
Council members adopted the change Tuesday night without controversy after a unanimous decision to move the proposal forward at its March 19 meeting. City officials say the new law was adopted to give its agencies another enforcement tool to address a public health issue.
On Wednesday the mayor defended the council against charges that it is using a dubious claim that RV dwellers are a major cause of so-called "waste discharge incidents" and pose a serious threat to public health as an easy way to launch a discussion about banning RVs from city streets.
"Homelessness is a complex issue that Mountain View and many jurisdictions have been grappling with for several years," Mayor Lisa Matichak told the Voice. "The council has already spent about $1 million to help those living in vehicles by providing outreach, connecting them with services, homelessness prevention, and rehousing support."
Matichak noted Mountain View's efforts to help relocate RVs from city streets to designated "safe parking" areas, but so far there are only two such locations with a total of eight spots for cars and none for RVs.
"The city also helped create a nonprofit to implement a safe parking program," Matichak said, praising the city's leadership role and "compassionate" approach.
At least one council observer believes it is using sewage as a smoke screen to shield its members from criticism that it is cracking down too harshly on some of its most vulnerable residents.
"It was a less objectionable opening to the oversized vehicle ban discussion," said North Whisman resident Alex Brown, who attended last month's meeting. "They knew they'd get pushback on that, so they introduced something that would get a 7-0 vote."
Brown lives in Santiago Villa mobile home park near two small clusters of RVs the city identified in its recently published survey of Mountain View's vehicle-dwelling population. Santiago Villa is also near the city's future -- and only -- safe parking site on Terra Bella Avenue. Citywide, a December count found almost 300 vehicles being used as homes, including 192 RVs.
"We do have a lot of vehicles parked near us, but I've never seen any leaking sewage," Brown said. "(But) it helped frame the issue of RVs as being related to public health."
According to city staff, in the last fiscal year there were 75 reports of waste discharge incidents recorded across three city departments -- police, fire and public works. The city was only able to identify the source of those leaks in 39 cases and more of those came from permanent residences than from vehicles.
The issue came to a head in October when an unsuspecting Shoreline West resident opened a 5-gallon drum that had been left near a home in the neighborhood. The container was brimming with human waste and the story she shared on social media generated hundreds of responses that were mostly from her neighbors, with many complaining specifically about RV dwellers.
It may have also been a factor in the November election in which two City Council members who had been reluctant to impose new restrictions on RV dwellers were ousted by newcomers seen as more sympathetic to homeowners' concerns.
City staffers say the law will allow the city to tow vehicles in violation of the new code at the owner's expense.